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Trócaire’s 40th anniversary – CIDSE

Trócaire’s 40th anniversary

How people’s support has changed lives for 40 years, writes Trócaire Director and former CIDSE President Justin Kilcullen.

Forty years ago, the Irish people were stirred into action by devastating scenes of famine and flooding in Bangladesh.  They responded with incredible generosity, donating £250,000 to the Catholic Church to deliver life-saving aid.

This outpouring of kindness inspired the Church to establish an organisation to support the world’s poorest people.  In February 1973, Trócaire was born. 

The new agency was mandated not only to feed the hungry, but to question why the hungry had no food.  Trócaire’s mandate was soon put into action as it campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. The organisation funded human rights movements and trade unions, while lobbying the Irish Government to condemn the apartheid regime. 

Years later, Nelson Mandela thanked Trócaire: “South Africans have a long association with Trócaire, who have not only been staunch opponents of apartheid but have also initiated and supported projects in South Africa since 1977.”  

Trocaire 40 years anniversary











  Top left: Bono lends support to Trócaire’s ‘Keep Our Word’campaign (2005). Bottom left: Staff and supporters take part in Make Poverty History event (2005). Right: 1970s Trócaire anti-apartheid poster

The 1970s saw brutal conflict and human rights abuses in Latin America. Trócaire’s response to violations in Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador defined its commitment to human rights work. 

In El Salvador, the violent repression of farmers, students and church leaders by death squads acting under President Arturo Molina’s government drew Trócaire into one of the most dangerous emergency-relief programmes in its history. 

Sally O’Neill, Trócaire’s Regional Manager for Latin America, recalls being in San Salvador with Bishop Eamonn Casey. They were brought to a ravine where three bodies lay, still warm and wet with blood, their hands bound. One of the victims, a woman, was still alive. Bishop Casey scrambled into the dump to give her the last rites.  

On 24th March 1980, Archbishop Romero was assassinated. Bishop Casey attended his funeral and narrowly escaped death when armed men opened fire on mourners. 

Again, he gave the last rites to innocent victims of El Salvador’s oppressive government.

While conflict took hold of Central American states in the 1980s, public attention shifted to Ethiopia, where famine killed almost one million people in 1984. 

Irish people donated £11.8 million to relieve famine in Ethiopia and the surrounding countries. The impact of these donations is still felt today.

Observers said that a famine this vicious could never happen again. Somalia proved them wrong. 

In 1991, Somalia was plunged into hunger, disease and conflict. There was no government, no local organisations, no infrastructure and a total collapse of institutions. 

We launched a £1million appeal to aid people inside Somalia. This money allowed us to rebuild clinics, schools and water sources. 

Today our Somalia programme consists of over 50 health posts, three hospitals and eleven primary schools, staffed by local Somali people and reaching over 220,000 people. 

I began my term as Director of Trócaire in 1993. The following year, during the Rwandan genocide, at least 800,000 Tutsis and thousands of Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists. 

Staff in Rwanda reported horrific scenes. Emergency Officer, Mary Sweeney, was caught in crossfire as she returned from a hospital. She said: “I saw children as young as four or five with serious machete wounds. I spoke to women and children who had been badly injured, many missing limbs.”

Trócaire was inspired by the determination of Rwandan people to pick up the pieces of their broken country. Our supporters shared Rwanda’s resolve and raised £6million to help the country rebuild. 

Trócaire developed projects in agriculture, health, trauma-counselling, education, community development, women’s development and human rights. Our medical programme served 200,000 people in south west Rwanda.  

In the new millennium, we joined the Jubilee 2000 campaign which led to reductions in debt for some of the poorest countries. But a number of catastrophic natural disasters reminded the world of their vulnerability. 

On St Stephen’s Day 2004, the Asian tsunami killed over 250,000 people. Over the course of one month Trócaire received a phenomenal €27million in public donations. 

A new issue also influenced our work in the new millennium: climate change. Communities we support are struggling to grow food in increasingly drought-prone conditions. Rainy seasons have become shorter; dry seasons, longer. 

The effect of climate change came to a head in 2011 as drought swept East Africa and Somalia was again plunged into famine. 

Much of Trócaire’s work today involves developing ways for rural communities to cultivate their parched land, while demanding that rich industrial countries acknowledge their responsibility for the problem. 

Justin Kilcullen Mary Robinson East Africa










   Caption: Mary Robinson and Justin Kilcullen at Trócaire’s health clinic in Gedo, Somalia (2011)

Posters from Trócaire’s first Lenten Campaign in March 1973 boldly asked the question ‘Where is my share?’ on behalf of the world’s poor. This year, Trócaire’s Lenten campaign highlights how rural Indian communities have been successful in asking that question of their government and claiming their rights to water, schools and housing. 

Yes, they are still living in poverty, but they do not need Trócaire to ask this question on their behalf. They can stand up for themselves. 

It is this change that tells me that Trócaire’s work is making a deep difference. Overcoming poverty is about so much more than practical support; it’s about justice and people realising their rights.  

Trócaire’s history is owned by people in Ireland who for 40 years have devoted unyielding solidarity to suffering people. It is also owned by our brave partner organisations overseas, who work every day to better their own communities. 

Most importantly, it is owned by the people who benefit from our work and who cast their hope for a better future in their joined humanity with Irish people.

Read about more key moments in Trócaire’s 40-year history.