icky Phelan being presented with the Limerick Person of the Month award by Aine Fitzgerald, Limerick Leader, with Mary O'Riordan, Southern and Pat Reddan, Clayton Hotel Picture: Michael Cowhey
IT’S 11.29 on Monday morning. Photographer Michael Cowhey pulls up at the set-down area of Limerick’s Clayton Hotel. This reporter is in the passenger seat with mobile phone in hand. It rings. “Hi Aine. I’m in the bar - can I order you a cup of tea or coffee?”
In life, Vicky Phelan goes the extra mile.
“I’ve never won an award in my life so this is special,” says the adopted Limerick woman from one of the armchairs of the Grill Bar and Restaurant of the Clayton Hotel.
At her back, beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, the River Shannon flows.
A native of Mooncoin, County Kilkenny, Vicky is living longer in Limerick than she has at home.
And Limerick is honouring her today for what she has done for the women of Ireland.
Despite her own situation - being diagnosed with terminal cancer in January - Vicky has vigorously campaigned for greater health care of women.
Vicky Kelly came to study languages in the University of Limerick in 1992. She later began a PhD, but after giving it two-and-a-half years she became fed up of watching all her friends going off living their lives “while I was a poor student”.
In 2005, Vicky Kelly became Vicky Phelan after marrying Jim, a Kilkenny man from down her way.
“Jim’s sister was going out with my brother for nine years, that’s how we had known each other for a good few years.
“I ended up driving him home one night around Paddy’s weekend. He was insulting my car - my little green Peugeot 106. He was calling it a little green snot. It’s funny the way things start with people. He didn’t take me serious which was probably a good thing because and I was like ‘who the hell is this guy?”.
Jim pursued Vicky and she slowly began to warm to his charms.
“I had no interest initially,” she recalls. “I was going into third year and I was a really serious student and I thought ‘I have no time for this relationship’. He kept saying, ‘when can I see you’ and I said ‘whenever I am home’. I would have only been home once every two or three months because I was studying. He lasted the distance.”
The couple purchased a big old farm house in Mullinavat, County Kilkenny when they were getting married but it was in the country and Vicky isn’t a country girl at heart.
“Within six months of moving back (to Mullinavat) I hated it. Hated it. It was too quiet and then I started working in WIT. We stayed in Mullinavat for seven years.”
The couple had bought their house in Annacotty in the boom and had rented it out when they moved to Mullinavat.
Jim, a builder, worked with his father who had his own company. But when the economy collapsed, the work dried up and Jim lost his job.
“In 2011 we were struggling to pay bills,” Vicky recalls. “I was just after having Darragh (her son). Jim stayed at home and I went back to work. It was a struggle with one wage - a big house and a big mortgage. There was nothing at all out there so I said, ‘Jim, you are better off going back to college.’ So that is what he did.
“He said he would do something in computing. I said, ‘you may as well go to UL because we have the house nearby, it’s a smaller mortgage’, we would cut our losses and sell the big house. So that’s what we did.”
The first two years, she recalls, “were really hard”.
“I used to be bawling going out to work because Darragh was so small. He was only a year-and-a- half when we moved up here. He is now seven.”
Vicky has a permanent job in WIT where she works three days a week. She manages the literacy development centre.
“I’m not working at present. I’ll probably take the year off. I love where I work. We are in a smaller house here in Limerick but we are so happy now where we are - just goes to show the big house isn’t everything.”
In April, Vicky was awarded €2.5m in a High Court settlement with a US lab after she got an incorrect smear test result.
She was incorrectly told that she was cancer free in 2011 and was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. The missed smear test was discovered in 2014, after her cancer diagnosis, but she was not told about it until 2017. In January she was told it was terminal. Today, however, she is feeling fine. She’s “flying it” in fact. Dressed in a newly-purchased lime green suede jacket, she is the picture of health. Her hair is silky smooth. Her skin is glowing, a fact she attributes to the regular Vitamin C infusions she gets in Portlaoise. With cancer, half the battle, she says, “in your head”.
While she did get very down after her first diagnosis, this time around she has kept a positive outlook. “When you think of it, this is a worse diagnosis than the first time around. When you are given that prognosis you either sink or swim. The first time around it was such a shock to be told I had cancer, it took me months just to get my head around that I had cancer. I never smoked. I was always fit. Ran a marathon. Now, I had a lot of stress and I do think that is what it is down to - between Jim losing his job, the house, financial pressure, Amelia had a bad accident at home - trauma impacts the body and that’s why I am conscious this time around that I’m not going down that road again. I have to try and be positive. And with the kids being older you have to put on a braver face as well.”
Amelia, 12, and Darragh, 7, she says “know everything”.
“They never knew it was terminal until the story came out and the following Monday they went the school. I knew that was going to happen. Amelia is in sixth class and all her friends were saying ‘your mam is famous and is on the news’. Darragh is different and I knew somebody had said something.”
A child had told Darragh his mum was going to die.
“I said, ‘well, do you think I’m going to die?’ He said, ‘well you are kind of sick mam, you are always in your chair - you never get up’. I told him I started my new medicine. I explained it to him that it was like Star Wars - all these little fighter pilots zapping all the tumours.”
Then last week, when she got the good news that her tumours had reduced significantly due to her new treatment, young Darragh “was ecstatic”.
“He was at home and I was in Waterford getting ready for The Stunning gig and I rang him to tell him. He was delighted, ecstatic.”
To wind down Vicky enjoys walks by the beach, reading, and going to Stunning gigs.
“We are out in Doonbeg for the summer - we are after buying a house out there. That’s one of the things this settlement has made happen. I never thought I would get a holiday home. We would go out for a week every year and I would say to Jim, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to have even a mobile home or a house here’. We have it now. And I am in my element.”