Obituary: Mary O’Neill, community activist

Community activist who improved the lives of many in Dumbarton. Picture: Contributed
Community activist who improved the lives of many in Dumbarton. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 15 March, 1928, in Dumbarton. Died: 5 March, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 86.

Mary (May) O’Neill, wife of the late Councillor Patrick O’Neill, provost of Dumbarton District, and community activist in Dumbarton and Glasgow’s West End, has died, aged 86.

Born in Dumbarton in 1928, she was one of three sisters who were educated at Notre Dame Convent School at Clerkhill. Although May was an exceptional pupil, she left at 14 to become a secretary and took a shorthand course at night school.

When she met her husband he was an apprentice mechanic in Dumbuck Garage, which was then owned by the family of racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart. The couple were married in 1953 and lived in the Newtown and Bellsmyre districts, where they became active together in community matters, helping to set up the new St Peter’s RC parish.

After her children, Brian and Marie, had grown up, May worked in the Inland Revenue office before moving to the council Social Work Department, where she worked as a secretary in the Elderly Care section.

She had a great memory for names and faces, an eye for detail and a good head for figures and was popular with colleagues because she could make them laugh by doing excellent impersonations.

Her husband, Pat, was a councillor for many years and eventually did three terms as provost of Dumbarton District and May supported him at a host of social and civic events, even after she retired from work at 65. She acted as his secretary and travelled with him on one occasion to a town twinning event in Alexandria, Egypt.

May’s daughter, Marie Birchard, says she was thrilled and proud to play this role and Pat was delighted to have her constantly at his side. Her charm and ease with people made her a very popular First Lady in the community and May was renowned for her fairness and for the good example and high standards she passed on to her family.

They had a full personal social life outside civic events and were close friends with local JP, Dan Lynch, and his wife, Liz; blacksmith Joe McAuley and his wife, Anna, and Father Eddie Kelly, of St Michael’s Church. They were all supporters of Dumbarton People’s Theatre, the Dumbarton Operatic Society and the parishes of St Patrick’s, St Michael’s and St Peter’s.

After many years of happy marriage, Pat died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998 and May was devastated.

Provost O’Neill had a civic funeral, which was attended by Cardinal Thomas J Winning and civic dignitaries from local and national government across Scotland. He had been honoured in that year’s New Year Honours list with an OBE and it was a poignant moment when May, Brian and Marie received this from the Queen at a private ceremony at the Palace of 
Holyroodhouse in July 1998.

Although she never fully recovered from the death of her husband and moved out of the family home to go and live with Marie seven years ago, May was not content with doing nothing and became involved in the community of St Peter’s Church in Partick.

She worked in a community café in the church hall run by Sister Mary and the Sisters of Notre Dame from Dowanhill Convent. The nuns recently hosted a small private dinner party to thank her for all her hard work at the café, where she was affectionately known as Smiler. This was because she was able to charm money out of parishioners’ with a warm smile and a firm push of the donation basket.

She was also an active member of the Dowanside Road residents’ group which organised social events such as barbecues, concerts and Burns Nights. May enjoyed living in the West End and loved to shop in Byres Road and visit the community library and local cafes. She maintained strong relationship with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who visited her in Glasgow regularly. She was enormously proud of them all. She often visited her son, Brian, and his wife Marion in Islay and stayed with them enjoying island life for a several weeks in the summer months. She recently spent a week of respite care in Gortanvoggie Care Home in Bowmore.

While she was living with Marie in Dowanside Road, Glasgow, May was for the last eight months supported by Cordia Care, who visited three times a day. Her mobility deteriorated, however, and after a fall May ultimately needed nursing care. For the last few weeks of her life she was looked after in Cumbrae House.

May’s survivors include her son, Brian, and his three children, Anne Marie, Kathleen and David; and her daughter, Marie and her four children, Ross, Amy, Rosie and Nina, and.

May O’Neill’s body will be received into St Patrick’s Church, Dumbarton, on Sunday, 15 March, at 6:30pm and her funeral will take place from there to Cardross Crematorium after Requiem Mass, which begins at 10am.