It was a homecoming of sorts for a woman known to many of those present as Vicky Kelly.
Having spent much of the later part of last year undergoing cancer treatment in the US, Vicky Phelan returned to her native Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, for a gathering in the parish hall with family, friends and neighbours.
The unveiling of a specially commissioned painting about Vicky’s life had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and organisers proceeded on this occasion with limited capacity in the spacious hall.
“It’s the nicest thing,” she told those present.
Her High Court action over her smear test, which was settled in April 2018, brought the CervicalCheck scandal to light and her campaigning has seen Vicky appear on television programmes such as The Late Late Show. However, despite the publicity, she said she still felt nervous when going front and centre in her home parish.
“But you know what? No, the people of the parish and Mooncoin have been very good to me over the years. When I had my car accident in France, I was only 19 and needed an operation. Mam and Dad wouldn’t have had the money and there was an awful lot of rehabilitation,” she said.
“People in Mooncoin rallied together and raised funds to get me going and bring me back from France. It was always important to return that.”
Vicky had been a regular visitor before the pandemic, coming to her old secondary school, Mooncoin Vocational, and receiving a doctorate from Waterford Institute of Technology, where she worked in the lifelong learning centre.
For some in Mooncoin, the unveiling of the painting was a chance to see someone they had been lighting candles for throughout her battles of recent years.
“Everybody’s conscious of the fact that she was a neighbour that wasn’t well,” said Mary O’Hara. “We’d be calling to the house to her mother.”
Ena Laffan, another neighbour who had been “keeping the candles going”, found the gathering “very emotional”.
The support she has received, Vicky said, represented what was “lovely about coming from some place small”.
“Every time I see my mother, it’s ‘so-and-so is asking for you, so-and-so is lighting a candle for you’. It’s lovely – how could you not take comfort from that?”
Bernard Keane, who grew up around the corner from the Kellys in Comeragh View in the village, said friends had mainly kept track of Vicky’s life “through the newspapers” and the occasional catch-up when she would visit her parents, John and Gaby.
“What you see is what you get with Vicky, it’s the way she is. Seeing the portrait, there was a lot that you’d never think or ever expect.”
The day was also in tribute to another member of the “gang of us in school in the old tech up the road”, said Vicky. Nicola Kinsella had four young children and died within a year of her cancer diagnosis, she said. “It was very hard for her family and for the parish.”
Artist Vincent Devine said he wanted to capture Vicky’s life through symbolism spread across the 3m x 1.5m frame. Unveiling it piece by piece for those gathered, he started with a wild black horse she encountered bearing down on her while on a walk in Limerick.
“I thought I going to die,” Vicky remarked. “Luckily a man came along in a Mini Cooper – I wish it was a bigger car but it wasn’t.”
Her body, in the second panel, sat on the beach in Doonbeg, illustrates different parts of her life, from damage caused to her rib cage via that car crash in France, to the damage to her erogenous zones as a result of cancer surgery.
“The leaflet didn’t say how the treatment will affect your sex life down the road, that if you attempt to have sex, you will bleed after it, because that kind of treatment narrows the canal. That was not spoken about.”
The painting was purchased by her lifelong friend David Brennan, who “partly grew up in the Kelly household” and is considered another brother by Vicky and her siblings.
“It’s a homecoming, getting to bring Vincent’s painting to Mooncoin and allowing the parish to understand the story behind Vicky, and a way for everyone to catch up,” Mr Brennan said.
The painting will move on to Waterford’s Solas Centre for cancer support as part of Cervical Cancer Month. There are plans to then bring it to Limerick before returning it to Mooncoin.
It’s an astonishing piece of work, said Joyce O’Carroll, who works with cancer patients on the visual side effects of their treatment. “There’s no woman in Ireland who’s not touched by her story. It’s just a real honour to see this portrait in the flesh.”
Information and power
Prof. William Gallagher, a professor of cancer biology at UCD, met Vicky at a cancer awareness event some years previously. Gallagher, who is from Waterford originally, said her story is fine evidence that “information is power” for a patient.
“Medicine has been traditionally paternalistic so sometimes when you’re withholding information with the idea of supposedly protecting a patient, it’s not always good.”
Vicky’s father, John Kelly, said the day had brought solace to her family and friends, who wanted to celebrate all she had done.
“She’s a tough cookie; she keeps coming back. The only aunt I’ve left, she’s 98: Josie Power. I brought her down last week [to see Vicky] and she said, ‘Your eyes are very bright’ – and she’s right. There’s something special about her.”