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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Alamy Stock Photo Mourners arrive for a memorial celebration for Vicky Phelan at the Church of the Assumption, Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny.
# celebration
'She achieved a better Ireland': Music and memories at Kilkenny service for Vicky Phelan
The celebrated campaigner died earlier this month.

A CELEBRATION OF Vicky Phelan’s life in her native Kilkenny has heard that the 48-year-old was “a celebrated and national hero”, who campaigned for the “rights, well-being and health of all women” throughout Ireland.

Hundreds gathered at the Church of the Assumption in Mooncoin for a public service to pay tribute to the campaigner who died earlier this month following a lengthy illness.

Her sister Lyndsey Kelly told the service that Vicky’s strong morals became her weapons during her fight for justice. 

She was not afraid of anyone and was an “incredible” sister and aunt to her children, who “stood by her side through thick and thin”.

featureimage Niall Carson / PA Mourners viewing the livestream for Vicky Phelan at the Church of the Assumption, Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny Niall Carson / PA / PA

“She captivated everyone and was the nation’s treasure,” Lyndsey told the service, “She wanted change and made sure she made a difference.”

Her family and friends “are all heartbroken beyond words”, with Vicky’s death leaving “a void that will never be filled”. 

“I will miss our chats, our chalk-and-cheese moments,” she said, “It hurts deeply but I promise you this, to be the best aunt to your children.”

She closed her address with a quote from Vicky’s memoir Overcoming, saying that “there will be others who will continue this fight when I am gone . . .  we all come from the same place, the mother’s womb. This is everybody story.”

“Vicky, I love you and rest in peace,” she said. 

embedded269984624 Niall Carson / PA Vicky Phelan’s sister Lyndsey (left) addressed the service Niall Carson / PA / PA

A note read out by family friend and campaigner John Wall, on behalf of Vicky’s husband Jim and her children Amelia and Darragh, thanked everyone for “sharing this time with us” and to to all who helped in recent weeks.

It added that Vicky’s family will do their best to support her parents John and Gaby “in all in the months and weeks head”.

“Vicky wanted an upbeat occasion after her passing where people could gather in celebration of life. I can’t believe to tell what this all means to the three of us.

“We’re incredibly proud of Vicky, all that she achieved and the amazing person that she was. Through the toughest of times she shared incredible strength looking after us, looking out for us and ensuring we always did our best as a family over the last number of years.

“Vicky want to tell you all to enjoy today and we hope that it will be as memorable for you all as it will be for us. Thank you, from Jim, Amelia and Darragh.”

Vicky’s brother Jonnie Kelly said he was “in awe” of his sister’s intelligence and poise, and found everyone else “just hung on her every word”.

“Even though Vicky’s time was running out she still gave her time to other people,” he said, adding that if she had been given more time in life then “the sky was the limit”.

“People say Vicky was the best president we ever had. I believe Vicky could have been so much more than that.”

He said she was always eager to show “preparing to give herself a chance to show what she was capable of” – including “insisting to her local school principal to be put in school at three years old by climbing upon a chair to demonstrate her reading ability – but that it was “heart wrenching” that it came during her fight for justice. 

She was an “inspiration to a nation of people” who “got to love a girl as much as my family loved her”, Jonnie said.

mourners-outside-a-memorial-celebration-for-vicky-phelan-at-the-church-of-the-assumption-mooncoin-co-kilkenny-cervical-cancer-campaigner-vicky-phelan-died-on-monday-aged-48-eight-years-after-bein Alamy Stock Photo People attending the memorial service this afternoon Alamy Stock Photo

Her fellow Cervical Check campaigner Lorraine Walsh told the ceremony that the two shared “many battles” as they sought transparency, some of which “reduced to us to tears but Vicky always seemed able to dig deep and progress with the plan”. 

Walsh said Vicky was, like her, “another woman let down by the state” but who had the strength, determination and stubbornness” to fight her case

It was due to Phelan’s decision to take a High Court case over her misinterpreted smear tests, and her decision not to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the €2.5 million settlement, that we have a cervical cancer screening system now that is fit-for-purpose.

Walsh said that without her “courage to step forward” then “not only would we not know what happened, we would still be left with a very flawed Cervical Check programme”.

She added that her friend had “achieved a better Ireland” thanks to he work.

embedded269985373 Niall Carson / PA Cervical cancer campaigner Lorraine Walsh who spoke at the service Niall Carson / PA / PA

“Even from afar people fell in love with you, they felt they knew you and respected you,” she said, adding “a sincere and heartfelt thank you from Mná na hÉireeann.”

Gifts brought forward for the service included sand from her favourite place, a beach in Doonbeg, Co Clare, “where she found inner peace at the sound of the ocean”, her friend Mary Fizpatrick told those gatherd.

There was also her doctoral cap she received from the University of Limerick – brought forward by her son Darragh – and a gavel to represent her fight for truth and justice.

Other gifts included a medal from the Belfast City Marathon, a vinyl record, a family portrait and her memoir.

Her sporting interests were represented too, via a Kilkenny jersey, a Munster rugby jersey and her Darragh’s soccer jersey. Finally, there was a photo of the family’s cat.

Seven candles were lit by Vicky’s parents John and Gaby Kelly. They were coloured purple; their daughter’s favourite. 

A private funeral was held for Vicky in Co Clare last fortnight. “Stories were told and tears were shed, but we also shared a smile or two as we remembered the remarkable life of our wonderful Vicky,” the Phelan and Kelly families’ said of her private funeral earlier this week.

They said that were mindful of giving all those who loved Phelan an opportunity to pay their respects following her passing.

While Phelan moved to Limerick with her family in later years, she maintained a strong connection with her native place.

Last January, she made an emotional homecoming to Mooncoin to meet with friends and neighbours for the display of a remarkable portrait of the campaigner.

Today’s service was led by Fr Martin Tobin who paid tribute to the campaigner as a celebrated hero for women’s healthcare not just in Mooncoin but also across the country.

The church, which could hold 300 people, was filled while several dozen gathered outside to watch the service on a screen. Thousands more watched the service on a livestream.

Stewards dotted roads and laneways throughout the village while park-and-ride facilities helped to bus people to the village. 

Vicky’s family have said music will feature prominently for today’s celebration, with Bressie and The Stunning performing. 

People rose in the church and swayed together as the Waterford-based Mount Sion Choir performed Stand by Me, while The Stunning played Heads are Gonna Roll. The service closed with a rendition of The Rose of Mooncoin.

Legacy 

Vicky Phelan is survived by her husband Jim, their children Amelia and Daragh, her parents John and Gaby Kelly and her siblings Robbie, Lee, Jonnie and Lyndsey.

She was diagnosed with cervical cancer eight years ago but was given all clear after long and difficult treatment.

However, in 2018 she was informed that an audit carried out by CervicalCheck found that her 2011 smear test had been reported as a false negative.

Within weeks a CT scan revealed the cancer had returned and the diagnosis was terminal.

It was the 48-year-old who sparked a look at the State’s cervical cancer screening programme, CervicalCheck.

At the time, in 2018, it was suffering from a lack of expertise, poor governance, and even poorer communication with the women of Ireland.

Professor of Public Health Gabriel Scally later said that it was “doomed to fail”.

It was due to Phelan’s decision to take a High Court case over her misinterpreted smear tests, and her decision not to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the €2.5 million settlement, that we have a cervical cancer screening system now that is fit-for-purpose.

The effects of her actions have continued, with the latest report by Scally coming only in recent days and finding that while progress has been made, more still needs to be done to protect current and future patients.

Vicky Phelan also sparked a discussion on wider issues to do with people’s health: open disclosure, a policy to encourage health professionals to be transparent when things go wrong; the patient being centrally involved in their own healthcare; and the issue of assisted dying.

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