Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins has paid tribute to the murdered Bishop Oscar Romero on a state visit to El Salvador.

President Higgins described his visit to Romero’s grave as ‘very moving’.

He told the Irish Times that the Romero assassination in 1980 set off the great interest in Ireland in the small war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters outside San Salvador’s cathedral where Romero is buried, President Higgins said: “The struggle of the poor in El Salvador was represented by his murder and by the killing of 30 to 40 mourners at his funeral by government forces.”

The report says that Archbishop Romero was shot while saying Mass in a nearby church a day after he called on the army to stop killing civilians in a civil war between government forces and left-wing guerrillas. The war eventually cost the lives of an estimated 80,000.

President Higgins added: “The archbishop’s death drew such attention to the situation in El Salvador that the indiscriminate killings were suddenly in the gaze of the world”.

“Bishop Eamon Casey’s attendance at the funeral also brought the conflict to attention of people in Ireland.

“From that moment that footage went around the world, people then realised we were at a time when a relatively small country experienced an enormous number of deaths.”

Currently on a 12-day visit to Latin America, President Higgins also visited El Salvador’s Monument to Memory and Truth, a memorial to those killed in the conflict with the names of 30,000 people murdered or ‘disappeared’ etched on a long wall.

The Irish Times reports that President Higgins identified the name of his friend, the Salvadoran lawyer Marianella Garcia who first drew his attention to the killings in El Salvador in 1978.

Garcia was raped and murdered by soldiers a year after a fact-finding mission to the country led by President Higgins to investigate a massacre at the rural village of El Mozote.

He was met at the wall by Flora Cuneguna Pena, president of an organisation named after Garcia that represents families of the victims of human rights abuses. She lost three sons and a daughter in the civil war.

Speaking at the memorial, President Higgins said: “To be forgotten is to die twice but any attempt to stop remembering the people who died in the conflict is to die three times.

“The wall is a great act of love and remembrance. It means that the sacrifice that people who died in terrible times, the people who worked for human rights will not be forgotten.”