Haverhill’s first lady mayor has been remembered as a ‘great woman of principle’ who ‘fought 24/7’ for the residents of the town.
The tributes have been made after Mary O’Neill, who served as the town’s mayor in 1990-91 and was one of the founding members of Haverhill Town Council at its inception in 1989, died on Sunday, aged 78.
Mrs O’Neill, a widow with five children, 11 grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren and one great-grandchild, died of cancer surrounded by her family at her home in her native Dublin, to where she had returned in 1996.
Haverhill town councillor Maureen Byrne, who along with Mrs O’Neill, Mary Martin, Gerry Kiernan, Larry Kiernan and George Hatchell, was a Labour Party member on the first town council, paid tribute to Mrs O’Neill.
“Mary worked most of her life in the caring industry, she worked at Place Court Care Home,” said Mrs Byrne.
“She was a branch secretary and shop steward for UNISON for many years and she was obviously a member of the local Labour Party and very active.
“She was a woman of great socialist principles. She had a great ability to speak up for those who couldn’t speak up for themselves. She was a great negotiator.
“A lot of people found her a tough cookie but there was a very, very sensitive side to her but she didn’t suffer fools gladly and during her time in Haverhill she worked tirelessly, 24/7 for the residents of Haverhill.
“She really was a great, good woman and I think there’s a lot of people in this town that were grateful for what she did for them.
“To me, she was great friend and a great comrade.”
Mrs O’Neill was also elected in 1987 as a St Edmundsbury borough councillor representing the Clements .
Over the next 10 years she served on the Housing Committee, the Environmental Health and Control Committee, Planning Committee and the Recreation and Amenities Committee, such was the extent of her involvement in local democracy.
Speaking from Dublin, Mrs O’Neill’s grandson, Paul O’Neill, 39, who himself lived in Haverhill until moving to Ireland four years ago, said: “She was very involved in Haverhill life. She was very good at what she did.
“She helped numerous people in Haverhill. A lot of people knew her well.
“She was only telling me a couple of weeks ago that she was immensely proud of what she achieved, especially as a woman at that time, because it was predominantly a male industry, being involved in local politics.
“She was extremely proud. “She always fought for Haverhill.
“She always thought Haverhill was the poor cousin of Bury St Edmunds. She didn’t like Haverhill being tarnished because she felt Haverhill was full of very good people and didn’t think it had a very good reputation.”
Mrs O’Neill also attracted attention from the national press in May, 1991, after she poured a jug of orange juice over the head of Cllr Robert Clifton-Brown after he made an alleged racial jibe towards her.
He had joked that her mayoral medallion was made of Semtex and the chain was a fuse, which Mrs O’Neill felt disrespected not just the Irish, but also the office of the Mayor of Haverhill.
Mrs O’Neill had asked not to have a funeral service.