Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s ‘ferocious love’ for her children remembered at funeral

‘She’ll be remembered as a mother, a campaigner, a fighter and a woman in a ballgown taking on the people who needed to be challenged and refusing to back down’

As Emma Mhic Mhathúna's plain wooden coffin was carried into St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin for her funeral Mass on Wednesday, Barry Kerr's uileann pipes played Bruach na Carraige Báine, the sweet notes of the west Kerry air filling the interior of the great church.

And the melody’s unsung words could hardly have been more appropriate.

"Her skin is fairer than the swan on the wave," says the first verse. "...From the top of her head to the soles of her shoes/ She is the stately woman that broke my heart/ And she left my mind sorrowful . . ."

There wasn’t a soul inside the church who did not, throughout the funeral, see Emma in their mind’s eye – a strikingly beautiful woman in her red dress, with a razor-sharp mind.


The congregation erupted into spontaneous applause as the coffin, carried by, among others, her former partner Colin Mac Mathúna, was followed by her children – teenager Natasha and her younger siblings James (Séamus), Mario, Oisín and Donnacha, her father Peter, and other family members and friends.

Among the first to pay their condolences before the Mass got under way was President Michael D Higgins, who embraced the grieving children.

Special affection

Sabina Higgins, for whom 37-year-old Emma held special affection after she and the President travelled to meet her near Dingle last May, hugged them too.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who ordered that the flags on Leinster House and Government Buildings be flown at half mast, was represented by Comdt Caroline Burke.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin was present but the chief celebrant at the Mass was Fr Paddy Moran, a family friend and director of vocations with the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (the Spiritans) in Rathmines, Dublin.

Approximately 800 people filled almost every seat and lined the rear of the pro-cathedral by the main doors. Emma's solicitor, Cian O'Carroll, was there, sitting with fellow cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan.

Among the politicians were Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

The pro-cathedral was a special place for Emma. Her mother, Annette Duffy, who died in 2004 aged just 44, worked at the Department of Education opposite. Emma, who went to school nearby, dropped into the church to light a candle most days.

Her faith was deep and life-long. She was a member of the Legion of Mary, studied theology at Maynooth and made pilgrimages to Knock and Lourdes.

Fr Moran said Emma spoke of her plight – the medical and administrative errors that were her death sentence – without anger or bitterness. She had a “ferocious love for her children”, he said.

She had spoken to him calmly about her illness when he visited her recently in St Vincent’s hospital.

‘Extraordinarily brave’

“I told Emma that I thought she was extraordinarily brave,” said Fr Moran. “I admit that what I said next I didn’t phrase so well. I said if I was very ill I would like to just go to a quiet place and end my days there.

“She perked up and looked at me and said, ‘You mean you would just give up?’ She looked at me like I had introduced some foul concept into the conversation, because giving up were not words in her vocabulary.

“On the back foot, I said that wasn’t what I meant. What I meant was I hoped that my faith would enable me to live my illness and my death. Emma looked at me and she gave me the look, the Emma look, that says: ‘I hear what you are saying but I am not sure you are right, in fact I’m fairly sure you’re wrong but we won’t fall out over it.’”

Her illness was not part of God’s plan, Emma had told him, but was the result of human error.

“She said the organisations who made errors had apologised and that those letters of apology meant a huge amount to her. She didn’t want those letters for herself but for her children.”

Emma’s children and close relatives played a large part in her funeral.

Séamus read from Ecclesiastes – a tongue-twister title for him but the words (There is a season for everything) were spoken perfectly. Goddaughter Grace Moran read in Irish from St Paul's Letter to Timothy.


Prayers were read by Emma's uncle John Moran; two friends, Karen and Michelle; cousin Lindsey; son Mario and two aunts, Rina and Jackie. The prayers were for the church and for Emma herself, for her children and wider family, for Ireland, for those suffering, for peace, and for Ireland, especially "the women of Ireland" and the inspiration Emma gave.

At Laraghbryn Cemetery near Maynooth, Co Kildare, Emma's mother had been laid to rest. Whenever she passed the place in her car afterwards Emma would toot her horn, Fr Declan Lohan said, just after her remains were lowered into the ground beside those of her mother.

On the way there, the funeral cortege passed Leinster House and Government Buildings, crowds outside applauding as the cars slowed to a crawl. Many women wore red in solidarity.

It was the same at the new offices on Baggot Street of the Department of Health, whose staff Emma said she wished to encourage to do better, rather than criticise. At Áras an Uachtaráin, staff stood on the back garden plinth to watch the cortege, with Ms Higgins among them.

Five yellow roses

At the graveside, Colin Mac Mathúna hugged the weeping children. Five yellow roses sat on top of their mother’s coffin as it was lowered.

Fr Lohan led a decade of the rosary and sang a verse of A Mhuire Mháthair.

Natasha read the congregation a tribute from broadcaster Ryan Tubridy. "Once in a while in the life of a chat show host you have the privilege of meeting someone so striking, so impressive and so memorable that their thoughts, words and actions stay with you long after the first conversation. Emma was one of those people."

She would not be forgotten.

“She’ll be remembered as a mother, a campaigner, a fighter and a woman in a ballgown taking on the people who needed to be challenged and refusing to back down.

“Survivors don’t take nonsense lying down; they pick themselves up and speak truth to power.”

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times