Emma Mhic Mhathúna obituary: Young mother at the centre of the cervical cancer scandal

‘I shouldn’t be dying, that’s what makes this a tragedy’

Emma Mhic Mhathúna
Born: January 2nd, 1981
Died: October 7th, 2018

Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who came to national prominence over the past five months after speaking publicly about her terminal cancer diagnosis following incorrect smear test results, has died aged 37.

On Sunday, May 10th, 2018 Mhic Mhathúna walked into her local Raidió na Gaeltachta studio in west Kerry and explained live on air how she was one of the women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy. A few days later Mhic Mhathúna described in this paper how she felt like she was living through a “horrible dream”.

This isn't God's plan. I'm dying because of human error

“I shouldn’t be dying, that’s what makes this a tragedy,” she said at the time. “I feel like I’ve essentially been murdered. I should be here another 50 years. The end of life is part of God’s plan but this isn’t God’s plan. I’m dying because of human error.”


Born Emma Duffy in Dublin’s Rotunda hospital on January 2nd, 1981 to Peter and Annette Duffy, Mhic Mhathúna was an only child. Her mother had a deep love of the Irish language and sent her to Gaelscoil Chaoimhín on the grounds of the Department of Education where she worked. Each morning Mhic Mhathúna and her mother would attend Mass and light a candle at the pro-cathedral which sits opposite the department buildings and primary school.

The family moved to Leixlip in Co Kildare when Mhic Mhathúna was a teenager following the breakup of her parents’ marriage. She studied a number of courses and worked in a bank after completing her Leaving Cert. When she was 21 she gave birth to her daughter, Natasha, and had a short lived relationship with her daughter’s father, Wayne Hughes. Two years later her mother, Annette, died tragically.

Mhic Mhathúna was deeply committed to her faith and returned to education to study theology and Irish at Maynooth University while also caring for her children. She had four more children – all boys. She had also married Colin Mac Mathúna.

She was extremely intelligent and intuitive and had a way of being kind to people

“She always had a deep faith that stayed with her throughout her life,” says Elaine Moran, Mhic Mhathúna’s aunt. “She drew strength from that faith and always saw the good in people.” With only five years between them in age, Moran and Mhic Mhathúna were more like sisters than aunt and niece. “She was full of fun and mischief as a child and never changed as she grew older. She always had that spark in her eye. She was extremely intelligent and intuitive and had a way of being kind to people.”

Mhic Mhathúna was living in Edenderry, Co Offaly when diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016. After undergoing treatment for the cancer Emma moved her family to the town of Ballydavid in west Kerry, where her marriage subsequently broke down.*

Her teenage daughter was already attending Coláiste Íde boarding school in Dingle and Mhic Mhathúna was eager that her four sons could also get to know the homeland of her grandfather, Míchéal Ó Dufaigh, who worked as a garda in the area in the 1950s.

Mhic Mhathúna had been living in Kerry less than a year when she discovered her cancer had returned. A few days, after speaking about her illness on RTÉ Radio, Mhic Mhathúna received a visit at her home from two people she greatly admired – President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins.

In the weeks that followed, she began campaigning for better healthcare services for women. Speaking to The Irish Times in May, Mhic Mhathúna said her children's wellbeing was the driving factor which kept her going through all the interviews and public appearances. "They're my focus," she said when asked about her five children.

Mhic Mhathúna worked hard to shelter her children and close family from the limelight during the months leading up to her death. “It often looked like she was all alone but she deliberately wanted to keep her family private,” says Moran.

She could have coped with the illness; the difficulty was that she was dying because of a mistake

“It was very brave of her. I don’t think she ever felt comfortable with the publicity and when she spoke on Raidió na Gaeltachta she did not realise the enormity of what was about to unfold. She felt hugely let down by the system. She could have coped with the illness; the difficulty was that she was dying because of a mistake.”

On Tuesday, October 9th a funeral mass was held for Mhic Mhathúna in her local parish church in Ballydavid. A second funeral mass, held in Dublin’s pro-cathedral the following day, was attended by more than 800 people. Following the mass, Mhic Mhathúna’s funeral cortege passed by Leinster House and the Department of Health before travelling through Phoenix Park and past Áras an Uachtaráin en route to her final resting place at Laraghbryn Cemetery in Co Kildare.

Those kids will be loved, of that there is no doubt

John Horan, Emma’s uncle, said her request that the hearse pass by Government Buildings was not an act of blame but a reminder of the changes that needed to be made. “Emma’s view was that politicians were decent people who worked hard. Her issue was more with the system than the individuals. She wanted to make sure no other family would go through what she went through.

“Emma lived an extraordinary life and she was an extraordinary woman. We are united in our grief but also in our desire to look after her kids. Those kids will be loved, of that there is no doubt.”

Emma Mhic Mhathúna is survived by her children Natasha (16), Séamus (12), Mario (10), Oisín (6) and Donncha (3), her father, Peter Duffy, and his partner, her aunt Elaine, her uncle John and her uncle Sean as well as many more close family members.

*This article was amended on October 14th, 2018.