Wednesday 23 October 2019

How Vicky inspired us all with her campaign over cancer

CervicalCheck scandal, rugby rape trial and freak weather dominated the year's headlines, writes Nicola Anderson

Vicky Phelan. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Vicky Phelan. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Daniel O’Donnell and his sister Margo take part in a singsong after the funeral of Big Tom McBride. Picture: PA
Ana Kriegel
Clouds over Dublin Bay as Storm Emma rolls in. Picture: PA
Former Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson. Picture: PA
Jastine Valdez
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The year began with a startling blast from the past - with news that gardaí were reopening the Kerry Babies case, after 34 years of virtual silence.

It came as a shock to the nation, with a sharp reminder of the dark events that unfolded following the reporting on RTÉ on April 14, 1984, that a newborn baby had been found stabbed to death on the White Strand near Cahersiveen in Kerry.

The establishment was rocked by a tribunal of inquiry and the fallout over the hounding of young woman Joanne Hayes, which sparked ongoing debate in the subsequent decades over what it had said about Irish society, and with the insistence in some quarters that she was the mother of the murdered baby.

So the real development in the Kerry Babies case in 2018 came with the official apology to Ms Hayes on January 15.

Superintendent Flor Murphy, who is heading the cold case investigation, apologised for "the awful stress and pain she has been put through as a result of the original investigation into this matter, which fell well short of the required standards".

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan followed with ano­ther apology, stating Ms Hayes had been subjected to "a prolonged ordeal that was simply wrong on every level".

All fell silent again, until September last, when gardaí turned up at Valentia Island to carry out door-to-door inquiries, having sought DNA samples earlier in the year from people in south Kerry.

For much of the start of 2018, focus shifted unusually to the legal system of the North - as the so-called Belfast Rape Trial played out in open court over nine weeks.

Centring on former Ireland international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the trial led to unprecedented, widespread media coverage on both sides of the Border.

Mr Jackson and Mr Olding were found not guilty - but the storm did not abate, with protests and much public debate on the issue of consent following.

Ulster Rugby launched a review and subsequently revoked the contracts of both rugby players - who have since gone on to play in France.

The case provoked much discussion over the naming of the accused under British law - as well as the fact that because the hearing was held in open court, the name of the complainant became widely known, despite her official anonymity.

In November, a set of 200 recommendations made by retired Judge John Gillen following on from that trial was published.

It said the public should be banned from trials involving rape and other sexual offences, sought legislation to lessen the impact of social media and recommended the introduction of measures to combat rape myths and stereotypes that may influence the judgment of a jury.

April saw the end of an era, with news that country music icon Big Tom McBride had passed away at the age of 82. The Castleblayney man made waves in his day for singing in his natural Monaghan accent, rather than aping his American counterparts.

Big Tom's funeral in his native Oram was a memorable celebration, as the cream of country music turned out, with Daniel and Margo O'Donnell, Philomena Begley, Susan McCann and Michael English among many joining in a massive singsong in the graveyard.

In May, shock waves reverberated over the death of Ana Kriegel (14) at a derelict farmhouse in Lucan, Co Dublin. Two children are before the courts. It is believed they are the youngest people in the history of the State to be charged with the offence of murder. The children have not entered pleas as yet.

Just two weeks later, there was another devastating blow, with the abduction and murder of Filipina student Jastine Valdez (24), who was snatched amid the peaceful surrounds of Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, just metres from her home.

A woman was driving by with her 12-year-old son who saw Jastine being forcibly bundled into the boot of a car.

Mark Hennessy (40) was shot dead a day later by Garda officers and Ms Valdez's body was found in Rathmichael, Co Dublin.

In June, former Anglo banker David Drumm was jailed for six years for his part in a "premeditated and planned" multi-billion-euro bank fraud scheme in 2008.

The biggest health scandal of the year was the CervicalCheck revelations, which broke in April, rocking the nation to the core.

It was the decision of Vicky Phelan, from Limerick, to waive her anonymity and speak out about her settlement on the steps of the High Court that blew it wide open.

The terminally ill mother of two (44) was awarded €2.5m because of being given incorrect smear test results and her case led to a major audit of the National Cervical Screening programme.

It quickly emerged that as many as 15 more women may have had cancer diagnoses missed because screenings were incorrectly judged to be normal.

By the end of April, the HSE admitted more than 200 cervical smear results should have resulted in early intervention.

CervicalCheck clinical director Dr Gráinne Flannelly stepped down from her position.

Vicky Phelan remains a powerful advocate for women's health, and in November was named as one of the most inspiring and influential women in the world 2018, by the BBC.

The following month came the heartbreaking news that Emma Mhic Mhathúna, the striking face of the HSE's CervicalCheck advertising campaign, was one of the women affected by the errors.

Her cancer was missed in 2013 and it wasn't until her next routine smear was due three years later that CervicalCheck caught it.

Like Ms Phelan, Ms Mhic Mhathúna (37), a mother of five from Baile na nGall, Co Kerry, became an outspoken advocate for women's health, until she passed away tragically in October.

But even in death, she insisted on a powerful political message to the establishment, when her funeral cortège stopped at Leinster House and the Department of Health.

If there could be one issue that could be said to have dominated the year, it was the tragedy of the ever escalating housing crisis.

This year saw the highest number of children ever without a home, with a new family becoming homeless every eight hours, according to Focus Ireland. Average rents in Dublin spiralled to €1,620 a month, reaching another new record high. Meanwhile, the Government struggled to defend its response to the crisis in the face of mounting criticism. Simply put, not enough new houses, either in the public or private sector, are being built. Veteran advocate for the homeless Sr Stanislaus Kennedy said of the crisis: "I've no language any more to describe it. It's beyond description is all I can say."

Meanwhile, on the weather front, 2018 must go down as the most memorable year for decades.

From the 'Beast from the East' in February that brought a blanket of snow, to ferocious storms, to the heatwave which brought blistering temperatures and prolonged drought, there was more reason than ever to take part in the nation's favourite conversation.

Irish Independent

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