Darren Holden took to the stage at Mooncoin’s Coláiste Cois Siúire on Wednesday last, perched himself behind a keyboard and did what he’s done so brilliantly throughout his adult life: he entertained an audience. The audience in question was his alma mater’s latest compliment on a night when he was one of two special guests presenting end of year award certificates. Being back home generates a special level of nervousness, even for as seasoned a performer as Darren. He said as much.
Barely a half-mile from the childhood home he honed his talent in each and every night, Darren delightfully delivered his own takes on ‘Red Is The Rose’, ‘Rocketman’, ‘My Life’ and, of course, ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’. But my goodness, did he save the best for last. “I did something today that I don’t normally do,” he told the gathering, featuring his fellow guest of honour, Vicky Phelan. “I don’t normally come unprepared to an event like this but I was halfway down today (from Dublin) and I realised, just coming back to yourself again (gesturing to Vicky), I just got a spurt of inspiration, these words came to me and I didn’t really have any music, so I pulled the car in and started jotting down things on my phone. And what I have in front of me (on a sheet of paper) is a work in progress but I thought I might give it a go. It’s a little song that I want to dedicate to yourself, Vicky…and it’s called ‘Brave’. I hope you like it.”
And off Darren went. And it was wonderful. Sitting three seats away from me, Vicky Phelan, named by the BBC last year as one of the world’s top 100 women, was transfixed.
She has sat in many other crowded rooms where she’s been the centre of attention for many well-publicised reasons but this was altogether different. Here she was, back home, among her own, in her old school, and just a few feet away, the town’s most acclaimed musical export is signing all about her. And it was extraordinary.
“When you’re low as you can get, And you’re down to your last breath, Stare it down and believe your heart won’t break. It takes one voice to start a choir, It takes a spark to start a fire, It takes courage to inspire a song into a symphony, Every storm reveals the sun, First you walk and then you run, And if it’s only one life that you save, you are brave.”
Unlike the empty, meaningless standing ovations that blight TV shows nowadays (and stage productions that genuinely don’t merit such acclaim), the emotion in the room was palpable when Darren played his final note. And while we certainly stood to acknowledge his artistry, every man, woman and child in that room was standing for Vicky Phelan, the tears streaming down her face as we applauded. If I witness a more wholesome moment in my course of my work all year long, I’ll be hard pressed. What a privilege to be in such company. What a sensation to feel such love and admiration for a woman who could have taken another path given her illness but chose not to in order to help women across this country. The best of us. A true public servant.
Vicky: the spark  who lit the fire
“Oh my God,” Vicky told me when reacting to Darren’s composition. “I’m only coming around from it now, to be honest. It really is something to say that somebody wrote a song about you. I was trying to hold myself together in front of all the kids, and to think that he wrote that coming down in the car. God. It’s hard to find the words to describe it.”
So how is Vicky right now? “I’m great. Really good, thank God. I’m back up for treatment next Wednesday so it’s every three weeks and the time flies between each treatment. I was actually only looking at my diary the other day: I’m a year and a half on now since I was told I had six months so I’m doing very well.”
Having made a conscious decision to reduce her level of public commitments, Vicky admitted: “I had to and I have to constantly pull back; I physically can’t manage it and I do find the travel tough. And my kids are suffering too; even coming down here tonight, I won’t be back until tomorrow evening and my son, who is only eight, isn’t impressed at all. At that age they don’t like you being gone at all, but things like this tonight are important for the kids, to give back to the community. I had a great time here, I loved school and all my teachers; Pat Meade was my history teacher and he came down tonight and that was lovely. It’s always good being home.” Recent revelations by health staff, such as the highlighted deficiencies at UHW’s Mortuary, have struck Vicky Phelan as being particularly significant.
“People working in the service are coming out and complaining; it’s not just people like me or other patients. People in the service have had enough and are actually willing to put their heads above the parapet and actually come out and say it. I think they feel that enough is enough and that they need to get their voices heard in order for something to change.”
As described in Darren’s lyrics, Vicky Phelan’s bravery is the spark that’s lit a fire under many within the health service. Every citizen on this island should stand and applaud her.