Cork woman retires after 38 years as an international aid worker 

International aid worker Anne O’Mahony, from Bandon, has retired after a 38 year career, serving the world’s most needy. CHRIS DUNNE spoke to her about her work with Concern
Cork woman retires after 38 years as an international aid worker 

Anne O'Mahony of Concern with local children in Chituke village, Mangochi, Malawi. Picture: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide

ANNE O’Mahony’s family in Bandon may have been shocked by her decision to work overseas in her early twenties in some of the most poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of the world, but they were also very proud.

“They were proud eventually! I broke the mould,” says Anne, who was Concern’s International programme director.

Anne retired on Christmas Eve, 2020, after an unforgettable 38-year career as an international aid worker with the organisation.

What made the Bandon Presentation convent educated girl dare to be different, to walk her own path, exploring new, dangerous territory and being true to herself?

“I was always fascinated about the world beyond Bandon,” says Anne.

“The Cork Mission had an association with the missionaries in Peru and the missionaries came back from there and spoke to us in school about working overseas. It awakened an interest in me.

Anne O'Mahony, the former Director of International Programmes for Concern Worldwide. Picture: Kevin Carroll
Anne O'Mahony, the former Director of International Programmes for Concern Worldwide. Picture: Kevin Carroll

“I also had an uncle in the UK who did work with Amnesty and I wrote letters to some of the people who suffered social injustice in places like Nicaragua and Moscow.”

Anne felt justified to look at a career in nursing to further her chances of working abroad.

“I told them that at the first interview,” says Anne, smiling. 

“That didn’t impress too much, so I pulled back at the second interview, changing my tone. I saw nursing as a passport to travel.”

When Anne got leave of absence from her employers at the Bons Secours Hospital, Cork, she was good to go.

Walking her own path into the unknown was a big step to take.

“It was,” says Anne. 

“But I had a hankering to go that I had to satisfy.

“After working on the Thai-Cambodia border for a year, I knew the famine was growing in Ethiopia in 1983 and I headed there on the next plane as a volunteer for two years.”

What did she face there?

“The abiding memory of my first visit was, when you walk in, there’s hundreds and thousands of people there. I came from Bandon which is a town of 3,000 and which is fairly lively. This was a town much bigger than Bandon, but the silence was tangible. The people were too weak to make a noise. The silence was eerie, even the children didn’t cry. Thailand was a developed country. It was a totally different landscape,” says Anne.

This was totally different terrain, alive with misery, suffering and hunger. Danger lurked around every corner.

“It was a harrowing situation,” says Anne.

Anne O'Mahony at Harbo, Ethiopia, February, 1985. The camp had been rebuilt with new tents following serious flooding the previous December. Picture: Concern Worldwide
Anne O'Mahony at Harbo, Ethiopia, February, 1985. The camp had been rebuilt with new tents following serious flooding the previous December. Picture: Concern Worldwide

“Two of my colleagues were kidnapped in their camp that had been attacked the day before. The Irish nurses, Anne McLaughlin and Triona Kelly, were released six weeks later,” says Anne.

“As a result of the abductions, we diverted to another camp five hours away. We had no contact with home, there was no internet, no mobile phones.”

The aid workers got on with the overwhelming job in hand.

“We pitched our tents and our job was to tend the sick, to feed them, to get them on their feet and make them well enough to go home. 

"Many of the people were dressed in rags having sold their good clothes to get food. We hoped they’d get well enough to return the following week to get a dry ration of food.”

There was no rationalising the level of human tragedy.

“The Ethiopian tragedy brought me face to face with a level of human tragedy you think doesn’t exist in the world,” says Anne.

“And yet there it was in front of me.”

The people dying from hunger didn’t often resemble real human people.

“These were real people looking like stick people in front of me. They were like walking skeletons.”

Anne admitted people to the camp every day to feed them and get them well enough to be discharged. Then others waiting outside were thn admitted for sustenance.

Anne O'Mahony at a feeding centre in Baidoa, Somalia, August 1992. Picture: Concern Worldwide
Anne O'Mahony at a feeding centre in Baidoa, Somalia, August 1992. Picture: Concern Worldwide

“The camp was for people starving to death,” says Anne.

“Walking among the thousands outside the camp, we saw who were most in need. 

"Over 100,000 people passed through the camp who recovered. The magnitude was unbelievable.”

Anne, as a young adult, never knew there’d be days like these, when some people died and some people lived.

“Some days were better than others. A measles or a typhoid outbreak could be disastrous and kill a lot of people. It was a highly charged atmosphere.”

Death was never far away.

“I was holding the hand of a little girl when gunfire broke out. She was shot in the stomach and she died. 

"A mother seeking aid with two children and one child strapped to her back arrived at the camp. She thought sweat was dripping down her back. It was her child’s blood who had been shot.”

Did Anne ever feel helpless in the sea of human suffering, seeing wave after wave of misery?

“You try and do what you can to ease the suffering,” she says.

“My team focused on that. We had no choice. We got the food out, got food cooking and we got moving.”

What sustained her?

“Seeing people get stronger and being able to return to their own homes,” says Anne.

“That’s what keeps you going and gives you a bit of hope. I grew up during the Biafran famine in 1968 when Concern was founded.

“Now I was seeing the images of the same horror with people dying because they hadn’t enough food to eat.”

It reminded Anne of home long ago.

“It was like the legacy of our own famine,” says Anne.

“In this world of plenty, yet millions go hungry. It seems so wrong that people haven’t enough to eat. It is fundamentally wrong. We are so lucky in this country; we have so much.”

Anne, committed to the cause, wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“I kept requesting another year’s leave of absence from the Bons,” she says.

“Then for another year and another after that until I did the honourable thing and resigned.”

Anne O'Mahony talking to parents in nutrition centre in Rohingya.
Anne O'Mahony talking to parents in nutrition centre in Rohingya.

She was committed instead to working in war-torn deprived areas of the world, witnessing hunger, violence and atrocities, doing her best to relieve human misery and suffering.

“I do think it’s the best job in the world,” she says. “It’s stimulating and motivating. It’s out there.”

In the 1990s, Anne worked during the famine in Sudan, in Somalia and in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. She became country director for South Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. She saved lives and she improved the quality of other people’s lives.

What was it like living in the jungle in a mud hut so far from home? Anne felt right at home.

“It felt as if this is what I signed up for!”

Did she miss signing up for marriage or for motherhood?

“You weigh up the pros and cons,” says Anne.

“I made the conscious decision not to settle down. For me it was the right one to make.

“I’ve always travelled alone. Nobody else influences my decision-making or my choices. I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission or seek anyone’s counsel.

The level of flexibility I had was always important throughout my life. When the 2004 tsunami hit at the province of Aceh, I jumped on the next plane out. I never had to worry about who was at home or who was minding the dog!"

Will she get a dog now she’s retired?

“I might! For the first time in my life I have no plan. There’s lots to do.” When Anne returned to Dublin as Concern’s director of international programmes, she was responsible for 23 countries.

“I have friends all over the world,” says Anne.

She’s always had a hankering for home.

“I still have brothers and nephews and nieces in Bandon,” says Anne.

“I live in Glasnevin. When I worked abroad my mother sent me the Cork Examiner wrapped around vacuum-packed rashers for years!” 

Anne lives in a different world now after helping make the world a better place.

“If you could take the guns out of the world, it would be a very different place. I would turn all the guns to jelly.” 

Has she any regrets?

“I felt privileged working in the areas I did,” says Anne.

“I was never destined for the hospital ward. I found my job very exciting and challenging.” 

Anne is proud of her achievements and of Concern’s achievements.

“I’m particularly proud of how the organisation changed the international humanitarian community’s approach to malnutrition, moving from centre-based treatment camps to CMAM, (community management of acute mal-nutrition).

"Concern has made a massive global contribution as well as making access to education more available.” 

The Bandon woman choosing her own path has made a massive contribution to society. No wonder her parents were so proud of her; the girl who broke the mould. 

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