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Image: Gráinne Ní Aodha

A woman with the strength of the sea: The Kerry Gaeltacht says goodbye to Emma Mhic Mhathúna

A funeral Mass was held yesterday for Emma Mhic Mhathúna in Séipéal na Carraige, the church where she was a Eucharistic minister.
Oct 10th 2018, 12:10 AM 29,658 15

THE WEST KERRY Gaeltacht is an area so delicately beautiful that driving through it in a D-reg car seems like an invasion.

Travelling along the spine of its mountains, you see fields like a patchwork quilt of green and gold hues; scattered rows of pastel houses, and catch the odd glimpse of a shimmering strip of coastline.

At the very tip of this peninsula in Baile na nGall is Séipéal na Carraige: a small 150-year-old church nestled amongst a cluster of buildings that’s non-existent on Google Maps.

But yesterday morning, school children and locals joined friends and family members of Emma Mhic Mhathúna in the church as the ferocious and freezing Atlantic gusts battered its walls and windows.

They gathered to say goodbye to a woman who mirrored the powerful, unique landscape she called home, and who had inspired the nation in the few months we knew her.

“Life has been compared to a journey across the sea. And sometimes, a storm hits without warning,” the local priest Eoghan Ó Cadhla began, while the wind slammed a door at the back of the church shut.

Emma was both on that journey, and the sea itself, he said: she was powerful and wild, with a fearless, “unbreakable spirit”. She was a wonderful mother, a fighter, funny, and he didn’t know where she got the energy to do it all.

Ever since her heartbreaking first interview on RTÉ, Emma has been an advocate for the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal: these were women who were tested under the government’s free smear test programme and had been incorrectly cleared of precancerous abnormalities. After they later contracted cancer and their tests were reviewed, it was discovered that over 200 women’s smear tests had been misinterpreted. Women weren’t told this until years later.

CervicalCheck programme Emma Mhic Mhathúna during a demonstration outside Leinster House, Dublin. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

In Emma’s case, it seemed like she had been dealt a serious injustice: two of her smear tests were found to have been read incorrectly, one in 2010 and another in 2013. She and her daughter Natasha had also taken part in a campaign for the HSE on the HPV vaccine, where she explained that she had changed her mind about the vaccine because she wanted to protect her daughter from getting cervical cancer.

She called for answers from all those connected to the scandal; her High Court case against the HSE and Quest Diagnostics, the US labs that examined her smear tests, was settled for €7.5 million – only after Emma refused lesser amounts.

She was a fighter, neighbours and friends said, and that all that fighting was for her children. “She was a real lioness mother.”

During the ceremony, offerings were brought up to remember the calibre of the woman who had been lost. Her uncle John Moran later explained outside the church that they wanted this to be a celebration of Emma; to thank her and to remember her.

One of the symbols, carried to the altar by her children, was a GAA Gaeltacht jersey: she loved the sport, and it lifted her spirits watching her sons play. She had fallen in love with West Kerry, was deeply involved in the local community, and was devoutly religious: she had studied theology and Irish at Maynooth, and was a Eucharistic minister for the church where her funeral Mass was held.

The most powerful of the symbols was a fuschia plant. It was both a symbol of the land she loved, and a representation of the striking red dress she wore to the High Court, chosen by her children, after receiving the €7.5 million settlement. The Irish for fuschia is “Deora Dé”: the tears of God.

When the Mass ended, a guard of honour of students from Scoil Mhaol Cheadair formed outside the door of the church. The weather hadn’t abated, and the sky remained grey: people pulled their coat collars up around their necks.

The procession down the aisle was led by Emma’s father Peter. Her coffin was wheeled down to the doors of the church by her sons Seamus, Mario, and Oisin, and her daughter Natasha, the eldest of the children. Sitting on the coffin in a small grey suit was the youngest boy, Donnacha who stared at the crowd around him. Emma had said in her first interview, through tears, that she feared her baby wouldn’t remember her.

As the coffin was placed in the hearse, the wind whipped around the crowd that had spilled out from the church doors even more fiercely than before, making hearing the person next to you close to impossible. Emma’s daughter Natasha borrowed a red coat from one mourner before hugging her school friends who gathered around in a big circle to comfort her.

After two of Emma’s sons asked which one of them got to sit in the front on the drive to Dublin for the funeral Mass tomorrow, they loaded into cars and followed their mother’s hearse down the narrow road.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna had left her home in west Kerry for the last time.

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Gráinne Ní Aodha

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