Ireland’s First Lady has praised the work of Irish Catholic Missionaries across the globe as she celebrated their work at a new awards ceremony.

Sabina Higgins, wife of President Michael D, said Ireland should be ‘truly proud' of 'the tireless work of Irish Catholic missionaries around the world in education, medicine and development work.'

Speaking to the Irish Independent newspaper at the inaugural awards ceremony for returned missionaries who have served overseas for more than 40 years, she acknowledged their ‘great and well-earned reputation.’

The President’s wife 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 also revealed that her brother, Fr Paddy Coyne, served as a Holy Ghost priest in Kenya and her sister Margaret joined the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul and set up eye and polio clinics in Ethiopia.

Mrs Higgins told the paper: “We’re the most charitable people in the world and that is in no small measure to the legacy we have from our missionaries.”

When the paper asked Mrs Higgins how she would respond to victims of institutional abuse who might resent this celebration, she said: “They are going through some suffering and their sufferings have to be recognized 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.”

Among those honored at the awards was 92-year-old Sister Margarita Burke who spent 53 years in Kenya. She said: “I loved every moment of it.”