Vicky Phelan: ‘She’s just extraordinary. And somehow she was able to keep going’

Sasha King talks about making a portrait of the courageous campaigner

It is a measure of Vicky Phelan’s effectiveness as a communicator that the nation thinks it knows her personally. A new documentary from Sasha King confirms much of what we believed, while revealing further depths to her courage and resilience.

It is four years since Phelan delivered a powerful speech outside the Four Courts after declining to sign a non-disclosure agreement relating to her action against the Health Service Executive. Her story is now etched into the collective consciousness. She had been diagnosed with cervical cancer some years after a smear test detected “no abnormality”. Phelan was not prepared to roll over.

“At 43 I was told to go home and get my affairs in order,” she remembered. She later discovered that many other women had received false negatives after the health service had outsourced the testing to a US company. Since then, she has become a familiar face on television as, while dealing with the side effects of treatment, she continued to plug away at the truth.

King’s documentary, called simply Vicky, is careful to celebrate the many others who stood by Phelan — notably solicitor Cian O’Carroll — but the sense remains the scandal would not have been uncovered (or not then anyway) without her involvement.


“No! I don’t think it would,” King says emphatically. “It was her who broke the story. She’s the whistleblower. She’s the one that this happened to — this dreadful, dreadful thing. With her choices, and her decisions along this journey, she was able to tell us about it. As a result of that the other women found out. The story grew. The Government became aware of it. Nothing would have happened if Vicky hadn’t been able to tell us about her experience.”

I wonder how King, an experienced producer, came to the project. The story cries out for documentary treatment but it required courage to take on such a respected figure.

“I had seen her on the news — the day that she came out of the High Court,” she says. “That was in April 2018. I was just floored watching her tell us, as a nation, what had happened to her. I was completely fascinated with the story. I approached her very quickly after that and we met in Dublin. We got on great. We’re very alike in certain ways. And she’s a wonderful collaborator. She’s so proactive.”

King turns out to have been the right person for the job. Her film is lucid, unsensational and gripping. There is no sense of intrusion but we get a fair idea of how Phelan’s family have engaged with her illness and her campaign. I surely don’t need to ask if she required any nudging in interviews. It feels as if she has been working through a vocation over the last few years.

“One hundred per cent,” King says. “But also she’s incredibly generous in so many ways. She’s very generous with her thoughts, and her time — with her family, with letting me be around her children. Her parents are also wonderful people. I just loved spending time with them. She allowed that to happen.”

The CervicalCheck cancer story should become a landmark scandal. The subsequent scoping inquiry, carried out by Dr Gabriel Scally, delivered 50 recommendations concerning many aspects of administration and record keeping. In October 2019 Leo Varadkar, then taoiseach, offered a State apology to 1,000 women affected. Phelan was in the Dáil to hear the statement and to represent fellow campaigners such as Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who had since died. As King argues, Phelan can fairly see herself as the woman who set this campaign in motion. The film does, however, also nod to wider issues. It feels like no coincidence that so many health scandals involve women.

She’s just a very remarkable person...I think that’s why we’re all interested in her and interested in what she says. She’s just extraordinary

“I think it’s pretty common knowledge that we don’t have a great history in this country of looking after women’s health,” King agrees. “It doesn’t seem to be a major priority. I do think that what Vicky has done is part of a sea change. Absolutely. I hope the film helps in some manner by documenting what happened. So it’s on record. This is a snapshot of history — of what went down that people can refer to.”

King talks about encounters with members of the 221+ patient support group, set up to help women and families affected by the CervicalCheck.

“We had a group of people from the 221 group come to the premiere at the Virgin Media Dublin Film Festival,” she says. “There were quite a few women there who were incredibly humble and kind about the film. They’re really thankful that the film has been made. And that means so much. It really does. Because these women are dotted all around our country.”

Vicky is a campaigning film. It talks about the way women have been patronised and overlooked in Irish society. In his report Dr Scally described as “disturbing” an anecdote relayed by a relative of a deceased woman. During a disclosure meeting, the family was told that “nuns don’t get cervical cancer”, Dr Scally recorded.

Phelan, who retained her sense of humour, talks amusingly — but still seriously — about how our health suffers because we refuse to discuss our vaginas, penises and other parts euphemistically deemed private. But, as much as anything else, Vicky is a portrait of a human being.

“She’s just a very remarkable person,” King says. “I think that’s why we’re all interested in her and interested in what she says. She’s just extraordinary. And somehow she was able to keep going.”

Vicky is released on October 7th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist