Sunday 10 December 2017

An act of love: Marie's MS battle wasn't her first fight

Marie Fleming and her partner Tom Curran
Marie Fleming and her partner Tom Curran
Marie Fleming and Tom Curran last year. Mark Condren

We all thought we knew Marie Fleming, the MS sufferer bravely looking out from her wheelchair as she arrived in court, daily, to fight for her right to die. Despite being completely paralysed from MS, the world saw her as a fighter, a survivor, who desperately wanted the law on assisted suicide to be overturned so she could have a dignified death.

She lost her tragic case for the right to an assisted death in April 2013 and on December 20, 2013, she died. By speaking as eloquently and powerfully in court as she did, she put the 'right to die' issue firmly in the minds of the public and prompted the Government to address the issue in the Dail.

She was described by the High Court president as "one of the most remarkable witnesses to come before the courts". Marie made her case bravely, saying: "I've come to court today, whilst I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death."

But long before Marie Fleming came to public attention as that courageous, crusading woman, she had already had a most remarkable life and, by the time she was diagnosed with MS in her early 30s, she was already a survivor.

When Marie was just 14 years old her mother Annette left her father Danny Brolly* for the Donegal senator, Paddy McGowan. Marie, an excellent student, was forced to leave school and look after her four younger siblings.

She suffered through her mother leaving and returning five times in total and managed to keep her depressed father afloat by being a housekeeper and companion to him and a mother to her siblings.

Little did we know, that when she made her case in court as a grown woman, that it probably brought back terrible childhood memories. When Marie was still a teenager in the late 1960s, her father brought a court case that scandalised a conservative Catholic Ireland. He sued Senator McGowan for 'criminal conversation' with his wife, Marie's mother.

Still a child herself, she sought solace in the arms of her young boyfriend, Jumbo, and, knowing nothing of the facts of life, she became pregnant at the age of 16. She was sent to the local convent, which also held a Magdalene laundry, where she was told her baby would be put up for adoption.

Almost more tragic than her battle for the right to die, was her childhood battle to keep her baby, Corrinna. Her determination in the face of an all-powerful parish priest gives a glimpse into the stores of strength this woman had at her core, and the woman we saw fighting for her right to die in the Supreme Court all those years later.

Despite her early traumas in life, Marie returned to college in her 20s where she went on to gain an MBA. One of the last things she did before she died was to complete her memoir, An Act Of Love.

* The surname Fleming is a legacy from Marie's 1981 marriage to Alan Fleming

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