THE tireless work of Irish Catholic missionaries around the world in education, medicine and development work is something of which Ireland can be "truly proud", Sabina Higgins has said.
President Michael D Higgins's wife hailed the "great and well-earned reputation" of Irish missionaries as she addressed the inaugural awards ceremony for returned missionaries who have served overseas for more than 40 years.
Mrs Higgins told the gathering of 220 missionaries that they were "known in particular for the respect that they displayed towards the people they lived among and their culture".
She told how her brother, Fr Paddy Coyne, served as a Holy Ghost priest in Kenya; while her sister, Margaret, joined the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul and set up eye and polio clinics in Ethiopia.
"We're the most charitable people in the world and that is in no small measure to the legacy we have from our missionaries," Mrs Higgins told the Irish Independent.
One of the oldest missionary workers at the ceremony was 92-year-old Sr Margarita Burke who spent 53 years in Kenya. "I loved every moment of it," she told the Irish Independent.
Asked how she would respond to victims of institutional abuse who might resent this celebration, Mrs Higgins told the Irish Independent: "They are going through some suffering and their sufferings have to be recognised and dealt with. But it is about tolerance. I don't think there should be any self-censorship because these lives here are so wonderful, they should be celebrated."
Independent City Councillor Mannix Flynn said he was not opposed to the ceremony, which "acknowledges people who gave a huge commitment".