Vicky Phelan: ‘A nation got to love a girl as much as our family loved her’

Village of Mooncoin shares pride and grief at public memorial for CervicalCheck campaigner

All morning, in the small, close-knit Co Kilkenny village of Mooncoin, everyone was asking each other the same question. “Are you coming up to Vicky Kelly’s?”

Vicky Phelan might have grown up to become – as her sister Lyndsey proudly recalled – “a fearless warrior” and “the nation’s treasure”, a woman on a mission, always looking for answers and afraid of no one. But on Sunday afternoon, at a memorial celebration held in the place where she grew up among those who knew her best, she was simply Vicky Kelly: an adored mam and wife, beloved big sister, fun-loving aunt and godmother, lifelong best friend, competitive rounders player, devoted Bros fan. The girl with an “insane laugh” and sharp intelligence, who became a woman unwilling to take no for an answer and, tragically, not enough time.

“Time is something Vicky got every single drop out of,” her younger brother Jonnie said in an emotional tribute. She died at Milford Hospice in Limerick two weeks ago at the age of 48, having been diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014.

Jonnie was one of three siblings who participated in the service, along with Lyndsey and brother Lee, friends from different stages of her life, fellow CervicalCheck campaigners Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walshe, Mooncoin parish priest Father Martin Tobin and several nieces and nephews who brought gifts to the altar or spoke about their memories of their auntie Vicky. There were also evocative musical performances by Bressie, The Stunning and Mount Sion choir, watched from the front pews by her husband Jim, children Amelia and Darragh and her parents John and Gaby. Her brother Robbie joined via the live-stream from his home in New Zealand. Charlie Bird and his wife Claire were among those who gathered for this final farewell to a woman remembered by her friend David Brennan as “the most inspirational person we have ever known. We will remember everything Vicky has done for the women of Ireland.”

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For the celebration, which she had planned herself, Vicky didn’t want “sadness and despair, she wanted colour, she wanted music, she wanted fond memories,” David said. And she got all of that. But inevitably the tears flowed freely too.

Steve Wall from The Stunning was forced to sing with his eyes closed. “I don’t normally sing with my eyes closed but on this occasion I will, because if I see anyone’s tears it will set me off.”

“Vicky was as good as it gets,” Jonnie said. He recalled with perceptible pride her determination to succeed and “her desire to become something more. She made every minute matter. It was said she was the best President we never had, but I believe Vicky could have been so much more than that.”

The one thing he and his family could take solace in was that “a nation of people got to witness the awe that I witnessed as a lad. A nation got to love a girl as much as our family loved her.”

At the end of the service, the congregation rose to their feet for one last standing ovation to Vicky and her children Darragh, and Amelia. “She fought so hard because she fought for you,” Jonnie told his niece and nephew. Outside the church, as the wind howled and the light began to fade, the applause rang out through an otherwise silent village, shrouded in equal parts pride and grief.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times