Remembering the legacy of Sligo star of film and community activist Aileen Henry

‘A lady with a heart of gold’

Star of the film “Jimmy’s Hall” and prominent trade unionist Aileen Henry who recently passed away was a passionate community activist.

A popular, loved and universally respected figure, Aileen, nee O’Hara, of Ardtrasna, Ballinful, campaigned with conviction and courage for causes, for people, and the community. News of her passing prompted an outpouring of messages of sympathy and tributes from across the North West, where ‘the lady with a heart of gold’ is remembered for her many voluntary activities and the joy and laughter she shared with so many.

A woman of deep personal faith, Aileen was born close to the idyllic North Leitrim village of Dromahair. Imbued with a caring spirit and concern for others, she embarked on a career in the nursing profession, spending part of her life as a leading staff nurse at St. Columba’s Hospital in Sligo. Later, the welfare of co-workers at Abbots’ became a priority for her when staff there elected her as their trade union representative to negotiate with the company on their behalf, a task she undertook with her usual disarming skill and dedication.

The Samaritans ranked high on the extensive agenda of causes to which Aileen freely gave of her time. She was a powerful voice of the region using local radio and other means to press home demands for better services for the sick and the elderly and the retention and expansion of health and care facilities, issues which were very close to her heart.

She was among the first to take a stand against the closure of rural garda stations, holding that the cutback would gravely undermine the safety and security of residents, the farming community and businesses alike. She fearlessly spoke out against the rundown of the rural post office network and, no less the lack of government support towards the maintenance of jobs and the economy of the North West.

As one of the leaders of a Sligo-based farm group, Aileen campaigned against what was widely perceived to be the unfair imposition of water charges on rural-based households. In this, she was to see opposition to the charges evolve into a national campaign when tens of thousands took to the streets of the Capital in a protest that led to the government finally deciding to drop all domestic water levies on family homes across the country. Motivated by concern for the conditions and incomes of farm families and the protection of rural interests, Aileen’s input to discussions surrounding the sectors was always well informed and sincere.

Showing extraordinary confidence and talent Aileen later stepped into the world of movies after she was invited to play a lead role in the film, Jimmy’s Hall, a production directed by acclaimed British filmmaker Ken Loach. The film, which was launched at the international Festival de Cannes, one of the most important film festivals in the world, and distributed for audiences worldwide, tells the story of Leitrim-born political activist Jimmy Gralton who was deported from Ireland, his own country, when authorities of the Catholic Church and the government took umbrage over his decision, on returning from exile in the United States in the 1930s, to reopen a hall for the entertainment and education of the local community in his native village of Effrinagh where poverty and oppression were rampant.

Cast as Gralton’s mother Alice, Aileen won high praise for her memorable performance in the “rousing…and evocative look at a dark period” in Ireland’s history.

Our thoughts and condolences go out to her beloved husband Alex, sons John, Fergal, and Ronan, daughters Loretta and Edel, daughter-in-law Annemarie; Rose and Edel, son-in-law Eamon, grandchildren Logan, Alex, Dani, Elena and Elsie, brother Mike, sister Loretta, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, neighbours and friends.

Aileen will always have a special place in the hearts of all those whose lives she touched along life’s journey. May her loving and caring soul have peaceful rest.

– Editor