All about my mother: Corrinna Moore on the life of Marie Fleming

Marie Fleming, best known for her ‘right to die’ court appearances, died two months ago. But that case was just one part of Marie’s eventful and complicated life


Dublin courtroom, 1970
When Marie Fleming arrived in a packed courtroom at the Four Courts on December 4th, 2012, few people knew she had been there before.

Marie had been only 14 when her mother, Annette, left the family home to be with another man. In 1970, Marie’s 50-year-old father, Danny Brolly, a gentle soul crazed with grief for his estranged 34-year-old wife, the mother of his five children, sued Paddy McGowan, a senator, for whisking her away from her family.

McGowan was a big fish in Lifford, Co Donegal, where the Brolly family lived. The 43-year-old Fianna Fáil politician, farmer and hotelier, with a wife, eight children and a Mercedes, had a well-developed sense of his own importance. Encouraged by local Fine Gael people, Brolly sued him under a law that hadn’t been invoked in Ireland for 100 years, alleging “criminal conversation” with his wife.

After her mother’s departure, Marie was forced out of school, while still a teenager, to mother her sister and three brothers.

When the case came to trial she sat with her siblings in court as barristers locked horns over her mother, the legal equivalent of a witless cow, “a captive woman”, “unlawfully enticed and procured”. McGowan sat up front with his lover while his barrister painted him as “a good father to his children” who “loves his wife dearly”. The barrister declared that Annette had become pregnant at 16 – with Marie – and had “never, ever wanted to be married” to Brolly. Brolly was then handed the birth cert of a baby girl who had been born to Annette and McGowan a few weeks before.

During questioning, Marie came to realise that her beloved “Granny” Maxwell was actually her great-grandmother and that her real granny was a woman called Gracie. Marie later learned that Gracie had become pregnant at 16 and given birth to Annette in Dublin. Annette, Marie’s mother, was returned to Donegal to be reared while Gracie went on to marry a barrister and create a new family in Limerick. Later in the court, a young man introduced himself to Danny as Gracie’s son, David Fitzgerald. He was a law student sent to observe a rarely-invoked law, only to discover it centred on a half-sister he never knew he had.

That afternoon, the sides settled on a price for Annette: £3,800, including costs.

Meanwhile, Marie chafed under the roll-ons worn to disguise her growing belly. At 16, she too was pregnant.

Marie gave birth to Corrinna in September 1970 and faced an immediate battle to keep her. A few months later, she married Corrinna’s father, Jumbo McNally, and moved into a little flat. On day five, Marie’s mother, Annette, turned up with her own five-month-old daughter, having been “dumped” by the senator. She needed somewhere to stay.

Dublin courtroom, 2012
It was a rare spectacle. Three judges of the High Court coming down from their lofty dais to the press gallery – actually a long, hard bench along one wall – to sit at eye level with a plaintiff.

By December 4th, 2012, Marie Fleming had become well known as a campaigner for the “right to die”, to end the suffering from multiple sclerosis, which had been diagnosed in 1988. She wished to die in Ireland at a time of her choosing, without the risk of prosecution for anyone who helped her.

The architects of the venerable old courtroom off the Four Courts’ Round Hall had clearly never envisaged a plaintiff like Marie Fleming, virtually paralysed and begging the court to be spared a “horrible” death, most likely caused by choking.

“I’ve come to court today, while I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death . . . in the arms of Tom and my children,” she said in laboured tones through a radio mic.

She mentioned a woman with MS who had died of hunger and thirst. “That’s not what I want. I want to go peacefully in my own home, with the people I love around me. I have talked to all of my children . . . There were a lot of tears shed and questions asked. But they see me and how my life has deteriorated . . . And they are very, very supportive.”

Her daughter and son, Corrinna and Simon, her devoted partner of 18 years, Tom Curran, and his son Dave sat stoically, never wincing as she detailed the many indignities of her daily existence. For them, this was nothing new.

The High Court rejected Marie’s plea, as did the Supreme Court when she took her case there in April in what the court described as a “very tragic case”.

What thoughts cross the mind of a daughter, as her mother pleads for her death?

This daughter was wondering why passing lawyers were marvelling at the judges coming down to her mother’s level. “Simon and I were reared to hold our own with a prince or a pauper, and we do,” she says. “I was thinking, Surely the judges are put there by us, to be served by us? Of course they should come down and converse with my mummy like a normal human being, at her level. Why wouldn’t they?”

Yet Corrinna Moore is no chippy revolutionary. She was 17 when she met her future husband, Richard, in Derry. He was already at Oxford, and she broke through several kinds of ceilings – “I wouldn’t have known a soul who had gone to university” – to win a biochemistry place there, before holding senior positions at Unilever, the BBC and Warner Music.

It sounds like a life of smooth, middle-class privilege, but her story is inextricable from the relentless struggle of her mother’s life. In recent years, Marie Fleming had reached a devastating conclusion: “My life could be summed up by one word: betrayal. I had been betrayed first by my mother, then by my two husbands,” Marie writes in a new autobiography. The book is published posthumously this weekend following Marie’s death on December 20th last.

Marie died at her home near Arklow, Co Wicklow, “peacefully at home, in her own bed, and that was what she was fighting for”, her partner, Tom, said at the time.

Marie’s second marriage
Corrinna was always there or thereabouts – for the “fun and games” with her teenage father, Jumbo, and for the hurt and tears when he went “off the rails”. After the collapse of that marriage, Marie got married a second time, in 1981, to Alan Fleming, whose surname became hers.

He was the man who encouraged Marie back to school and to fulfil her potential while becoming a father figure to Corrinna from the age of seven. As Marie’s MS took hold in the early 1990s, Corrinna was in her first year at Oxford, searching through the Bodleian Library for books about the disease. At the same time, her mother’s marriage to Alan Fleming was slowly, horribly collapsing. Corrinna’s final years at university were eclipsed by Alan’s announcement that he wanted a break from the marriage, and the revelation of an affair with a 24-year-old.

“That was the biggest kick in the teeth, and something I went through with Mum as two adult women. I haven’t set eyes on him since.” However, the marriage between Marie and Alan produced Simon, to whom Corrinna is very close.

And what of Corrinna’s own father, Jumbo, and grandmother Annette, who had fallen in love with the senator? Marie’s book sheds a harsh light on them, but Corrinna tries to soften it. “My daddy wasn’t even 16 [when I was born]; they didn’t have a chance. He’s that flitty, Peter Pan character, very intelligent, happy with a crossword and a book, strumming his guitar. He put her through the wringer, but my mum, I think, held nothing but fondness for him. I’ve got a beautiful picture of them dancing at my wedding; it’s beside my bed.”

And Annette? “Well, breaks are never clean,” she says softly. “They’re always long-drawn-out and painful, and there are always lies and always attempts to come back and make up, and they fall off the wagon again. One thing I would say, we were never estranged from my nana. I was looking back at photos, and there isn’t a birthday or Christmas or graduation or anything else that she wasn’t there for. What’s painful about the story is that it’s hard to put it across in any way that is good about her. But Mummy and I loved her regardless of what she’d done, because love doesn’t go away.”

The daughter born to Annette and McGowan remains in Donegal and is part of the family. “There’s been no contact with the McGowan family as far as I’m aware, after that time Nana left.”

Nor will Corrinna judge her grandfather Danny Brolly for forcing Marie out of school. “It was a different time. And it’s so interesting with what’s going on in the North now about Nazareth House, which is just across the Border, because the family grew together and did so well together. Apart from Shaun [who took his own life], they’re all great successes. But in those times, it would have been so easy for them to have fallen apart. Only for my granda pinpointing Mummy and saying ‘Sorry, you’ve got to take this on,’ God knows what would have happened to them.”

Protecting the family
By taking her right-to-die case to the courts, says Corrinna, Marie was once again protecting her family. “The way Simon and I saw it, she was a woman who took life head on, who had always put her parenting first, and I think with this she was doing the ultimate parenting job, preparing us in the best possible way she knew, wanting to protect us to the end.”

But the process of accepting Marie’s decision to control her death was agonising. “It was very, very painful the first time she raised it with Simon and me. I’d seen signs, and we’d had some pretty awful Sunday-afternoon conversations in London as her health was deteriorating. My husband and I were making plans to move to Ireland because of that. It was shocking to hear the words from her mouth, but it wasn’t a surprise. She was the person who was living with the life sentence.”

Corrinna was with Marie last year as she watched Coronation Street when Hayley Cropper, suffering a terminal illness, tells her husband she intends to take her life before she loses control. “It’s the big one tonight,” Marie told her, but she was quite detached as she watched it unfold, says Corrinna. “She’d been living with the thought for so long; way, way before she’d mentioned it to me and Simon.”

But, as in Cropper’s case, once the intention had been articulated, the next dread was when. “I could never imagine it. When we told our two eldest boys, they would ask, ‘How are we going to know? Who’s going to be there?’ And I would say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t want Granny to be on her own when she’s going to die, would you?’ And they’d say, ‘No.’ And I would say, ‘We’re all going to say our goodbyes, and then Daddy will take you home and then Mummy and Granda [Tom] and Uncle Simon will stay and we’ll hold Granny until it happens.’ ”

This is what Marie envisaged. “I still couldn’t imagine it, though. I prayed, oh I prayed. I prayed that she would be taken peacefully in her sleep. But she gave Simon and me her guarantee that she would go nowhere without letting us know.”
Corrinna’s children
It’s hard to ignore the fact that five of Marie’s seven grandchildren are Corrinna’s – coincidentally, the same number as Marie’s own family. Corrinna nods tearfully and recalls when Granny Maxwell used to chide the errant Annette to “get up that road to those five weans”.

During one severe episode in recent years, Marie was drifting in and out of consciousness when she opened her eyes and said to Corrinna: “Are you still here, pet? Get up the road to those five weans.”

“And I said, ‘Mammy, there’s only four.’ But I took that as a sign. I’m sure psychologists would have a field day with me. I’m not saying I had five children for my mother, but I always wanted to bring lightness and life and a reason to keep going into her life, and I always knew if I was pregnant she would never leave me . . . At the back of my mind, there was always that. And after I had Cara, I remember saying to her, ‘Well, this one’s yours, Granny.’ Really the fifth was down to her.”

‘It wasn’t about
wanting to die’
But Marie Fleming never wanted to die. “She wasn’t trying to kill herself because she was in a mentally difficult place, or because she was in despair,” says Corrinna. “It wasn’t about her wanting to die. That’s why ‘suicide’ and ‘assisted suicide’ are such misnomers . . . She was a totally separate case, because no one knows what it’s like to live with a terminal illness. We got near enough, saw what her day-to-day life was like, and I don’t know how she did it.

“This is about someone wanting as painfree and controlled an exit as possible. She just wanted a bit of control. That’s why she never set a date. Every time the MS got worse, she just adapted. We never had the conversation about at what point she would decide. I remember thinking it would be when she had to use a wheelchair.” But Tom got her over that, she recalls, with fun and practicality. “The day she met Tom, she met her match,” she says with a smile.

In her last three years, despite several near-death episodes, Marie Fleming accomplished much. She made it to Simon’s wedding, was deeply involved with all seven of her grandchildren, got her case to the Supreme Court and finished her book.

In the end, Tom was the only one there when Marie died, on December 20th. For a couple of weeks, she had been deteriorating rapidly and was losing her swallow, although she never refused food. The day she died, she had had some water and yogurt.

A daughter’s final selfless act
“Why wasn’t I there? Because I’d sit with Mummy, and we’d have a cry and a chat, and then she’d say, ‘Get up the road to those five weans,’ and that’s what I did,” she says, her voice wavering. They were gearing up for Marie’s 60th birthday, on December 29th, planning an artwork featuring her as the storyteller with the grandchildren and a PDF of the book cover, with the precious endorsement from the author Anne Enright that had come through that evening.

“We really thought she would last through Christmas. But this time, she didn’t rally. I think she just gave herself permission to go in the end and thought, Everything is done. I’m so relieved she got a peaceful end without any intervention, without putting anybody in a difficult predicament. And it was peaceful. It was all I had prayed for, that she would be taken peacefully in her sleep. And I’m so glad that somebody was up there answering that prayer, because they didn’t answer many of her other prayers.”

And now? “I’m functioning,” she says. “But there’s such a blanket. I used to say to her, ‘We’ve grieved for so long that the day you go will be the beginning of the end of our grief.’ But I didn’t think for one minute that it could get deeper. The kids really help. They say she’s running through barley fields with Granda Danny and Ben [the dog] and sipping hot chocolate by the fire.”

For Corrinna to be sitting here just seven weeks after her mother’s death, a reserved, dignified woman answering personal questions generated by her mother’s memoir, looks like a daughter’s final selfless act for her mother, for the much-loved woman who wanted the world to know who she was and who ends her book with the line: “All people see now is a woman in a wheelchair who can’t speak very well, who can’t move at all. But I lived. I loved. I am somebody.”

An Act of Love , by Marie Fleming with Sue Leonard, is published by Hachette Books Ireland

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