Mesmerising | 

Roy Curtis: ‘Vicky Phelan introduces us to authentic, undiluted greatness of the human soul’

Film captures the spirit and power of an iconic woman

Vicky Phelan has shown herself to be a phenomenal woman

Sunday World

Even as hope was atomised, as she was compelled to pick among the ruins of a life-plan reduced to rubble, Vicky Phelan never thought to wrap herself in the flag of surrender.

Vicky’s matter-of-fact endurance, her fierce desire to live, the love of family that decants from the core of a young mother’s being, all these things offer unshakeable proof that a story isn’t required to have a happy ending to inspire.

Observing from afar – we have never met, never spoken – the bottomless well of fortitude and resolve from which this extraordinary daughter of Limerick draws has been at once a stirring and heartrending experience.

A wise line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird might have been penned with Phelan in mind.

In the celebrated novel, set in America’s fractured 1930s Deep South, published in 1960, but with universal themes that fly across canyons of time and geography, Atticus speaks to Jem about the death, after a long fight, of Mrs Dubose.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyways and see it through no matter what.”

Making a spectator sport of a dying human’s battle would, in most circumstances, feel intrusive, exploitative, voyeuristic.

Few who watch Sasha King’s empathetic documentary, Vicky, which opened in Irish cinemas this weekend, will come away feeling it is anything less than a powerful force for good.

Vicky Phelan has seen the new documentary and is happy with how it has turned out. Photo: Mark Condren

At times, of course, it is uncomfortable, even unbearable viewing.

There is heartbreak, anger, frustration, an overwhelming sense of unfairness.

Some of the scenes are just utterly crushing.

Four days before Christmas, Vicky asks her son, Darragh, what he would like as a present. There is talk of Monopoly, a PlayStation PS4 Pro, Match Attax cards.

Then this 10-year-old boy, struggling to process the fissures that have opened in his world, says he would love “for my mom to get very, very better” to “never have cancer again.”

It is a moment that turns the viewer inside out.

Vicky Phelan is a mesmerising woman, unfathomably brave, defiant in the face of the grotesque hand dealt to her.

Until every last drop of her energy is spent, Vicky always made it clear that she would not be patronised or silenced or intimidated in her tireless campaign for justice.

In so doing she announced herself as a giant of Irish life.

The nation has come to know, admire, even treasure a mother-of-two whose life was upended in horrifying circumstances.

In 2011, Vicky had a routine smear test. It showed no abnormalities, but, when, three years, later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, an internal CervicalCheck review found that the original result was wrong.

She was not informed of this error until 2017. It would emerge that more than 221 women with cervical cancer had been given the all-clear based on CervicalCheck smear tests.

Vicky took it upon herself to fight for these wronged citizens.

Even as illness ransacked her body, she campaigned and agitated and gave all of herself.

Not to save herself, but to ensure the appalling vista to which 221 women were compelled to walk would not happen again.

Think of how we struggle to function after a late night out, or when a stomach bug slightly derails our body.

Now, imagine Vicky, confronted with a terminal diagnosis, seeking to give all of herself as a mother and a champion for those who, like her, were wronged by the system.

What she has achieved, the strength she somehow summoned, is miraculous and heroic.

Vicky Phelan invites us into her world and introduces us to authentic, undiluted greatness, to the vastness of the human soul.

Her body is ebbing under the sustained assault of the pitiless sickness that has colonised her being.

But her steadfast character will endure long after her body falls silent and her eyes close one last time.

There is an electrifying moment in Vicky where she faces the camera, a beseeching plea taking ownership of her frame.

She says this: “I have a message for Mná na hÉireann. I hope I have fought enough for your future but now it’s time for you to take the baton and stand up for yourselves, question everything.

“This fight was for you.”

She speaks and every syllable carries the devastating power of a thermonuclear missile.

And you wonder how such an incomprehensible, awe-inspiring inventory of spirit, pugnacity and decency can possibly be warehoused in one ailing body.


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