Vicky Phelan didn’t want sadness or despair at the memorial service held in her honour in Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, on Sunday, but the tears flowed anyway. She didn’t want politicians either – “I don’t want your aide de camp at my funeral,” she memorably said. And for once they stayed away.
Everyone understood this was not a day for glad-handing or empty accolades.
As parish priest Fr Martin Tobin made clear, the memorial was to be about more than “the public persona of Vicky Phelan”. Under slate grey skies and early flurries of hail, the Kilkenny village where she grew up came to a stop for 90 minutes to remember the real person behind the “nation’s treasure”.
She might have gone on to become – as her sister Lyndsey recalled in a sometimes quavering voice – “a fearless warrior”, a woman on a mission who was afraid of no one. But to those crammed into the pews or huddled around the big screen outside or in the GAA hall, she was first and foremost an adored mam, wife and daughter; beloved big sister; fun-loving aunt and godmother; lifelong best friend; competitive rounders player; devoted Bros fan. A woman with an “insane laugh”, sharp intelligence and boundless drive. Someone for whom there was never, tragically, enough time.
“Time is something Vicky got every single drop out of,” her brother Jonnie said in one of the day’s many emotional tributes to the campaigner.
Phelan died at Milford hospice in Limerick two weeks ago at the age of 48. After she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, a lookback at a 2011 smear test revealed that it had been incorrectly interpreted as clear. She was not initially told about the results of this audit. When she made a legal settlement with the Health Service Executive and the lab responsible in 2018, she refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and her subsequent campaigning led to the establishment of the Scally report into the CervicalCheck controversy.
Three of her four siblings participated in Sunday’s service, including another brother, Lee, while Robbie joined via the live-stream from his home in New Zealand. Her husband Jim, children Amelia and Darragh and parents John and Gaby sat close together in the front pews. Phelan’s friend John Wall read out a letter from Jim and the children: “Vicky wanted to tell you all to enjoy today and we hope it will be a memorable one for you all as it will be for us.”
She planned the whole thing and didn’t want “sadness and despair, she wanted colour, she wanted music, she wanted fond memories,” her friend David Brennan said. And she got all of that.
Several friends from different stages of her life spoke movingly about the woman they remembered, as did fellow CervicalCheck campaigners Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walshe. Teap, who was accompanied by his own two boys, noted that it was the second time he had to stand on an altar and remember an amazing woman; the first five years ago was for his wife Irene.
Phelan’s nieces and nephews brought gifts to the altar including a record to symbolise her love of music, a Belfast marathon medal and sand from Doonbeg beach. Darragh carried up her doctorate cap from University of Limerick and a gavel, symbolising her fight for justice. There were evocative musical performances by Niall ‘Bressie’ Breslin, who said she had asked him to sing Postcards “when the time came” and by the Stunning, the band she loved most after – her brother noted wryly – she outgrew Bros. Mount Sion choir also turned out to pay a rousing tribute to her. Charlie Bird, close friends with the campaigner towards the end of her life, sat quietly near the front with his wife, Claire, his head occasionally bowed in grief. “Fair play to him for coming down,” someone murmured.
Steve Wall from the Stunning had to screw his eyes shut to sing. “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.”
Jonnie Kelly, Phelan’s brother, put it simply: “Vicky was as good as it gets.” He recalled with pride “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.”
He and his family could take solace in knowing 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,” Kelly told them. As the light began to fade outside, tears were wiped from red-raw faces, and the applause echoed through a village shrouded in equal parts pride and grief.