Ireland: Death and Rising of Emma Mhic Mhathúna

 Ireland: Death and Rising  of Emma Mhic Mhathúna


The Government need to go. They’re not actually – and I’m not being insulting, it’s genuine – they’re not actually capable of minding us, and that is their job. To make sure that we’re okay.” Emma Mhic Mhathúna, May 2018


Dying is easy when it is someone else doing it, at least here on this small island particularly gifted now with the years of peace; even, as is often the case, a peace without much justice, encouraging one to question what has been described as a silent war, this – “war without bullets” – as Cathy McCormack, a Glasgow community activist from the Easterhouse Estate aptly coined many years ago.


Into this (for some, though more likely for the many) enormous silence then, in the hard months of the middle year, came a young woman who emerged from this enormous, immeasurable and deafening silence to threaten the status-quo with the same death sentence they had inflicted on her, in order, as she said in one of the many interviews she gave before leaving us, that when her children were asked where their mother was, their friends would say “wow, she was your mother …”


This then, for the mother of these children, Emma Mhic Mhathúna – is a story that begins at the end, and instead of the usual ending, hopefully a beginning…if we are to take seriously the decision of a 37 year old woman – condemned to death by a system that has still not learnt to value human beings over the price or the profit of things – to declare war…


A war without bullets that it is surely now left to the rest of us – in our different ways also casualties of this so-called peace,  (as well as its dissidents and malcontents) – to wage; for change, for transformation, for justice and for a world fit for all beings, human and non-human…


Likewise, a bit like the internationalist dream of a classless, egalitarian society based on justice and solidarity, sadness knows no country and the country of children, which most of us forget, probably has the greatest access to its deep waters that flow far from human eyes oftentimes and meander in a direction and to a place that should serve as a criticism for all that is banal, crude, careless and profit-driven in our business-as-usual world… as we have, once again, been forced to witness here…


Early in October the proud image of 5 children, Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s 15-year-old daughter Natasha, and her four brothers, Seamus aged eleven, Mario, ten, Oisin, six, and two-year-old Donnacha accompanying their 37 year old mother to her burial place gave voice to this sadness. But sadness and grief, as we know all too well, is insufficient…


At the services (in Dublin and in Kerry) organised by Emma Mhic Mhathúna herself,  and having asked that her coffin be driven past (and stop at) Government Buildings as well as the Department of Health in Dublin, Ms. Mhic Mhathúna who had lived in the Kerry haven of Baile na nGall for the last 18 months before her criminal and untimely death, had the old Irish lament (also an aisling) played:


As I was abroad late one evening

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

It happened that I noticed by my side a beautiful apparition

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

Her curly, ringleted, cascading surplus of tresses fell over her trembling limbs,

As she launched the arrows that pierced me in the side.

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-


Arise my loyal family and take up your weapons

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

And level to the ground every English clown.

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

If only three survive, let there be shouts of triumph in all your towns;

From Carrick-on-Suir west to the banks of Dingle

Raise your blades and give the English their own treachery;

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-


A world with enemies. A world with unbearable sadness. Now that the month has come to its sad end… Love and pain, not only do they rhyme [in Spanish,“amor y dolor”] but they join up and march together, as subcomandante Marcos said so long ago…


…Only we are not now in the mountains of the Mexican southeast but rather in a small and often beautifully miserable land on the edge of the Atlantic, with as lengthy a history of tragedy, corruption and ignorance, as well as their opposite, to now “optimistically” be called to account by the death of this one woman (among many others) who made it her decision to issue a call to arms “on her deathbed”, poetically and practically speaking, so her children would remember her and have her remembered as she wished…


“I am dying because they tried to cut corners…” Emma Mhic Mhathúna


Emma Mhic Mhathúna was born in Dublin in 1981, living on the northside of the city until her parents’ marriage broke up when she was eight years old and she moved to Leixlip, Co Kildare with her mother; ending her life this month, 37 years later, way down in the Southwest of the country in the Irish-speaking (Gaeltacht) area of Baile na nGall on the Dingle peninsula:


“…And I moved all the way down here to Ballydavid because it’s such a fantastic place, and my children are boys and it’s really like Enid Blyton down here; they go climbing on the rocks and they go camping in the fields and they’re so safe, and they build sandcastles, and that’s all being taken away from them. And yesterday I had to sit down with the teachers and I was like ‘What are we going to do?’ Do you understand what I mean? (RTE Interview)


From May to October 2018


Again, its back to money…” Emma Mhic Mhathúna


Emma Mhic Mhathúna had three cervical smear tests in 2010, 2011 and 2013. They were all outsourced and read in a U.S. facility. They were all read incorrectly, all reporting what would turn out to be false negatives; if they had been read correctly she believes that she would not have gone on to develop cervical cancer – and the cancers that, spreading throughout her body, cut short her young life.


The 2013 smear said that I was healthy when I wasn’t. And because of that then I actually developed cancer. And now I’m dying. And if the smear test was right, and I was told this by my gynaecologist, who is over three hospitals, so he knows his stuff, this guy is amazing, he told me himself, that if my smear test was right in 2013 “I wouldn’t be where I am today.” And this is what makes it so heartbreaking. I’m dying when I don’t need to die. And my children are going to be without me, and I’m going to be without them. I tried to do everything right, by, you know, breastfeeding, and being a full-time mum, and sacrificing, you know, my own life for them. I didn’t see it as a sacrifice and now I’m going to miss out. And I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me.” (RTE interview)


In 2016, her illness was eventually diagnosed and she had treatment between October and December that year. In April and May 2018 she was then told that the cancer had returned and spread and her prognosis was now terminal.


“She had the heart-breaking task of telling her five children, four boys aged two, six, 10 and 11, as well as her 15-year-old daughter.


“They’re so upset…My older sons just can’t stop crying. My six-year-old asked me ‘are you going to come back mam?’” (The Independent)


The labs involved and still contracted (since 2012) by the Irish government, are Quest Diagnostics in the U.S. and MedLab Pathology in Dublin. Media reports in May when another terminally ill woman, Vicky Phelan, “blew the whistle” after she sued the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Texas-based lab which had misread her smear test results stated that the contract to carry out cervical smears testing was “awarded to two US laboratories on behalf of the State based on the cheapest available price…


“According to documents seen by the Irish Independent, the contract to carry out screening on behalf of the National Cancer Screening Service was based on the lowest price without detailing any other criteria…


“The two laboratories who were awarded the contracts in 2012 were Quest Diagnostics and MedLab Pathology.


“MedLab is a sister company of CPL Limited, who settled a lawsuit with Limerick mother Vicky Phelan last month, which exposed the Cervical Check scandal.” (Irish Examiner)


Outsourcing “public healthcare to private laboratories” in the case of CPL (Clinical Pathologies Laboratories owned by the Australian multinational Sonic Healthcare) resulted in CEO Colin Goldschmidt being paid a total pay package of 13 million dollars in 2017 Rebel TV recently revealed.


The Cervical Check Scandal


Women’s health is both a significant personal and social need – and, unfortunately for some, also a profitable business. RTE figures for the last ten years show three million smears tests were delivered to 1.8 million women, with over 280,000 women per year getting the test.


So far, due to a variety of ignoble reasons, not least public healthcare being farmed out to private laboratories, 221 women (as of October 15) have now been identified whose smear tests had been read incorrectly with tragic consequences.


Prior to Emma Mhic Mathúna, Vicky Phelan, the Limerick mother of two, was diagnosed three years after her smear test results of 2011 were incorrectly reported as clear. An additional three years were to pass before she was even told her tests had been reviewed. She sued. She refused to sign a non-disclosure settlement. She then went public and settled her High Court action against the US laboratory Clinical Pathology Laboratories for €2.5m for their incorrect smear test results in 2011. Her case against the HSE was struck out in Court following the settlement.


As the litany unfolded it came to light that so many other women with cervical cancer had also not been told that their earlier tests were inaccurate and following the tests finally being reexamined the test results were kept from them for years.


After Vicky Phelan, it became impossible for the numerous actors involved to keep this secret. We know that at least 221 women have now been diagnosed with cervical cancer, whose original smear test had falsely given them the all-clear.


 By early October  2018, 20 of these women were now dead.


And always the heartbreaking awareness that if their cancer had been detected when it should have been these women would have received treatment and many, if not all, would still be alive.


Concerns had also been expressed as early as 2008.


The Irish Times reported that Dr. David Gibbons, a former member of the screening programme, had expressed concerns about the outsourcing of smear tests to the U.S. but that his concerns had been dismissed. Dr. Gibbons, also expressed his worries with Tony O’Brien, then chief executive of the National Cancer Screening Service (before becoming director general of the HSE) “…but they were not listened to. Dr Gibbons resigned as a result.”


Insult added to injury


“Governments around the world have long acknowledged the right to health—for example, through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 or the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO). In the EU, individuals are entitled to access healthcare and to  the highest attainable standard of health as one of their fundamental human rights…” a recent EU Report has reminded us.


Yet despite both rhetoric and aspiration, firstly, it appears the tests were outsourced for the government to save money (to say nothing of the mania for the “private sector”). Many of the outsourced tests in the U.S. were also outsourced themselves. Then misread. And the whole catastrophe was covered up for as long as it could.


And in the midst of this lunacy the human dimension becomes painfully simple. Devastation.


Devastated. I’m crying thinking about it. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because as a mother it’s my job to protect them and to keep the bad news away from them. And we’d such a good day on the confirmation like, my results were ready on Tuesday but I didn’t want to get them because it was their confirmation. And then I had to collect them from school early and tell them that I’m dying and it’s just a horrible thing to witness to be honest, there’s so much pain in the house.” (RTE Interview)


Emma Mhic Mhathúna


I’m dying and I didn’t even need to die, and I’m only 37. Last night I was in bed and I was having this really bad dream. I dreamt that I was dying last night and I wasn’t ready because I hadn’t said goodbye to my children and in my dream I was trying to ring 999 but I couldn’t pick up the phone. So in my dream I had gone in to Natasha, she sleeps across the landing, and I was trying to wake her up so that I could say goodbye to her because I hadn’t said goodbye. And then I woke up and I was like ‘Thank God I haven’t died yet because I want to say goodbye to them.’ And this isn’t fair. And no amount of money can replace this. I know which of my children like butter, and which of them need time out when they’re getting tired, and all the fun stuff we do together. We have such good fun the six of us.”  (RTE Interview)


The months from May to October for Emma must have sped by… if we could only say the same for the careers of those with a responsibility for the welfare of our citizens…


Taoiseach, you are responsible for everyone in this country to make sure they are safe at nighttime. And I wasn’t safe at nighttime. Woman have died. Women will die. And they are not just any normal women, these are the daughters of Ireland. They have children. You need to go.” Emma Mhic Mhathúna


By the end of June Emma Mhic Mhathúna and her five children had settled their legal action in the High Court against the HSE and U.S. laboratory Quest Diagnostics Incorporated for €7.5 million.


The HSE admitted liability in relation to failing “to disclose the findings of cervical cancer”.


Quest Diagnostics admitted misreading her two cervical smear slides in 2010 and 2013.


The court heard she wanted all the money paid into court for the benefit of her children.


This has to be just one of what is coming to be seen as an endless litany of “disappointments” since this small island, with a history of never tolerating oppression nor injustice, has seen fit to nurture, instead of its citizens, in the decades (now a full century) following our successful guerilla war and the blood shed for ‘independence’.


Like so many other revolutionary struggles from the 20th century, it would appear that while there is little or no goodness in losing the battle, winning has often been an equal if different affliction. Thus, the history of this small island’s afflictions since independence, starting with civil war, travelling through mismanagement and an apparent vigorous dislike for equality only equaled by the rhetoric that Ireland has taken its place among civilised nations, etc. etc.


…a list of afflictions too long to actually list…


…and while another civil war in the Middle East little mentioned has brought the role of Kurdish women from aspiration to an armed insurgency, it might be only fitting if the long awaited resurgence to tackle our own history of abuse, of an arrogant and conservative disdain for a radical equality as well as the attempted roll back of centuries of struggle towards genuine participatory democracy after the years of naked oppression here, might well come from this same half recognised group within our own society..?


Táimse im’ Chodladh


It was this thought, in amid so many contemporary discontents and disappointments here that I was moved to hear of the lament played at Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s funeral.


The tune is well known as a slow air with verses dating back to the 18th century and in the ‘Aisling’ (a dream or vision) tradition; “Ireland, as was often the case in the centuries of English domination is depicted as a beautiful woman seeking freedom from foreign oppression.”


Tráthnóinín déanach i gcéin cois leasa dom.
Táimse i m’ chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé.
Sea dhearcas lem’ thaobh an spéirbhean mhaisiúil.
Táimse i m’ chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé.
Ba bhachallach péarlach dréimreach barrachas
A carnfholt craobhach ag titim léi ar bhaillechrith
‘S í ag caitheamh na saighead trím thaobh do chealg mé.
Táimse i m’ chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé.

Is mó buachaillín óg a thógadh go ceannasach,
Táimse i m’ chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé.
Do cuireadh le foirmeart anonn thar farraige.
Táimse i m’ chodhladh ‘us ná dúisigh mé.
Go bheicfeadh an lá a mbeidh ár ar Shasanaigh
Ughaim ar a ndroim is iad ag treabhadh is ag branar dúinn,
Gan mise a bheith ann mura dteannam an maide leo.
Táimse i m’ chodhladh is ná dúisigh mé.

Is éirigí, a chlann, agus gabhaig bhur n-airm chugaibh,
Táimse im’ chodhladh is ná dúistear mé.
Is leagaigí sa tsrúil gach scrúille Sasanaigh,
Táimse im’ chodhladh is ná dúistear mé.
Mura mairfeadh ach triúir bíodh ciú ins gach bail’ agaibh
Ó Charraig na Siúire go ciumhais an Daingin thiar
Ardaigí bhur lain, tugaig fogha faoina Sasanaigh,
Táimse im’ chodhladh is ná dúistear mé.


If only three survive, let there be shouts of triumph in all your towns / From Carrick-on-Suir west to the banks of Dingle / Raise your blades and give the English their own treachery / – I am asleep and don’t waken me…


The choice of its air hovering amidst both the small insults and the large injuries that would make you would wonder how long we are going to have to wait – and if forever – for a world fit for human beings – for our peaceful coexistence among each other on this small fragile planet, as well as among all the other beings who seek to survive within its vulnerable embrace?


Emma Mhic Mathúna died on Sunday morning October 7th, 2018


Vicky Phelan pointed out that Emma Mhic Mhathúna, had, “received a financial settlement but no accountability from the labs which negligently misread two of her tests. We will keep fighting that corner for Emma and for other women,” she said.


Has there been any accountability by the state?


Emma Mhic Mhathúna criticised the lack of action by the Government:


And what just makes this whole situation so sick is that the Government aren’t doing anything about it. And when it first broke out I was like ‘OK, well, the head of the HSE is surely going to do something’, and he didn’t. And then I looked to Simon Harris, I was thinking ‘Well surely the Minister for Health is going to step in and do something’, that’s why we give these people powers, and he didn’t do anything. So then I was like ‘Surely the Taoiseach is going to do something!’ And he just seems to be sticking up for them. And they’re all hiding there in the Dáil and they don’t see what I see.


And there’s women that are dead and they’re not just any women, they’re people’s daughters and they’re mammies and all the children are in so much pain. And my stance on it is I think the only person that can do something on it now is the President, and I never actually thought I’d say something like that in a country, in 2018, in Ireland. Because the Government need to go, they’re not actually – and I’m not being insulting, it’s genuine – they’re not actually capable of minding us, and that is their job. To make sure that we’re OK.” RTE Interview


Country of scandals


Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s  anger at the Irish state, at the Health Service Executive (HSE), the bureaucracy and the Government, those who are responsible for everyone in this country to make sure they are safe at nighttime, gives voice to an equally enormous amount of discontent at the amount of outrages that have surfaced and continue to surface, tolerated if not actually perpetrated by those with power, on ‘their’ citizens since the establishment of this state.


We have witnessed anger at politicians who have no bank accounts, “mother & baby homes” like the  Tuam Babies scandal where, between 1925 and 1961, in a “Home” run by the Bon Secours Sisters, (a religious order of Roman Catholic nuns), unwed pregnant women were sent to give birth and where 796 nameless children were dumped in an unmarked grave (or rather a sewer/septic tank) quietly when no one was obviously looking (and witnesses since then profoundly silent) in payment for the shame of being born out of wedlock…  Likewise in 2012, it surfaced that up to 1,000 children had been sent from the Home for illegal adoptions in the United States, without their mothers’ consent…. and on and on… clerical sex abuse, hepatitis contaminated blood (in 1994), the Magdalene laundries for “fallen women”, Ann Lovett, the marriage bar, symphysiotomy, the Anti-D crisis (almost €1bn in awards and legal costs paid out to date), politicians accepting “gifts” from rich friends, the lack of a universal healthcare system,  the unbelievable death of Savita Halappanavar, to say nothing of the arrogance and irresponsibility of the banks and the numerous scandals drip-feeding from the Gardaí, and who-knows-what-other powerful entities in this brave new state?


I will not die – leaving this country in unsafe hands – Fine Gael, youse need to go…” Emma Mhic Mathúna


And so, in this sad ending… is our beginning… hopefully…


I needed to be vocal and aggressive, I needed to fight to get the message across that this isn’t okay.” Emma Mhic Mhathúna


Not just the perennial abuse of women – whether in the already mentioned “mother and baby homes”, or in Magdalene laundries or whether via discrimination in all its manifestations (not least the influence of the Church with its less than compassionate ideology here for over a hundred years of our so-called independence) – but all the lingering injustice and inequality of this disappointing state, with its persistent discourse that either hides, normalises or excuses (for as long as they can) the outrages of power, of violence no matter how subtle, of wealth over a society where equality and respect are still not the measure for the development of the individual as well as the “common good”.


On the 24 April, 1916 the founding fathers (sic) of the new Irish state posted their revolutionary Proclamation in the center of Dublin city in a call to end centuries of violence, exploitation and oppression resulting from our status as a colony of the British Empire and to issue in a new order – as well as one promising to cherish all of the children of the nation equally. It appears that over 100 years later we are still waiting:


We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.


The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.


Dr. Gabriel Scally Report


Despite the fact that HSE director general Tony O’Brien and CervicalCheck clinical director Dr Grainne Flannelly eventually resigned and despite the Government’s Scally Report that came out in September 2018, acknowledging that Irish women had been treated badly and agreeing that some doctors had a “God complex” and the current system of coming clean about errors to patients was an “utter joke” and despite the report’s 50 recommendations offered as potential solutions to the failings highlighted in the CervicalCheck scandal –


Scally leak: couldn’t care less. Why! Knew it would amount to no accountability. My focus is on the Junior Cert results … I haven’t seen my children in eight days…. still in hospital.” (Emma Mhic Mathúna’s Facebook page)


– the last word needs to go to this brave lady who was forced to declare war on an uncaring state, its bureaucracy (which often appears to exist more for the people who work in it than the people it was set up to serve) and the whole idea that profit should take precedence over people in our brave new world:


There will come a day in Ireland where people just get fed up and stone Leinster House. There’s a few million of us…..”


Emma Mhic Mhathúna (to Jenny Friel, May 19th 2018)


I am an example of what happens when people don’t do their job right. When they forget about patient focus and cut corners. But I think they’ve [the Government and the HSE] got the message. I’ve done all I can now and I think they’ll remember me.


“Now it’s time for me to sit with the kids and watch Netflix. And just chill out. But it shows you the power of voice. Here I am in Ballydavid, which is so far away from Dublin, but by letting your guard down and sharing what’s really going on, it can make a difference.


“I’m proud of myself. I fought back as hard as I got. There was no way I was going to let it lie. My life was worth too much to me and my children for me to go quietly.”


If the haunting air of Táimse im’ Chodladh tries to wake those from their sleep


Arise my loyal family and take up your weapons

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

And level to the ground every English clown.

-I am asleep and don’t waken me-

If only three survive, let there be shouts of triumph in all your towns;

From Carrick-on-Suir west to the banks of Dingle

Raise your blades and give the English their own treachery;

-I am asleep and don’t waken me…


…so the voice of this brave woman and her equally courageous children should serve as one more call for the rest of us – long used to the daily insults of a society that treats equality and fairness and respect as bad for business – to wake up…


I will not die leaving this country in unsafe hands…Fine Gael, youse need to go… time and time again you’ve let us down, and we’re sick of the lies, we’re sick of hearing you don’t know where your bank account is, you don’t know where the 20 grand came from; youse have to go….”


Maith an bhean!


Time to clear the closet of its skeletons, and this house of its debris… and put in its place, a society and a country fit for all beings, human and non-human…


“It’s acceptance. I believe that if I’m positive and happy and funny, and making a difference and making sure that my death is not meaningless, then the children will be okay.” Emma Mhic Mhathúna


I measc Laochra na n-Gael go raibh a anam dílis.


séamas carraher



Emma Mhic Mhathúna (left) and Mary Lou McDonald

By Sinn Féin via Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


Video Links

Emma Mhic Mhathúna on her misdiagnosed smear test | The Late Late Show | RTÉ One


Emma Mhic Mhathuna settles case against HSE and Quest Diagnostics for €7.5m


Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s message to Leo Varadkar


Emma Mhic Mhathuna “When you’re dying you’re the strongest you will ever be because you’re fighting for survival…”


Vicky Phelan’s Statement, Apr 26, 2018

Vicky Phelan talks to the press on the outcome of her recent court case against a US firm who misdiagnosed her cancer.


Ruth Coppinger TD – Why did no one question cervical cancer results from US labs?


Audio RTE

Emma Mhic Mhathúna spoke to Morning Ireland’s Audrey Carville this morning, Thursday, 10 May 2018


Táimse im’ Chodladh

Written in Munster in the 18th century. Blind harper Arthur O’Neill (1734-1818) from County Tyrone knew the tune as “Past One O’Clock”.


Iarla Ó Lionáird


Irish slow air : Planxty – “Taimse Im’ Chodladh”

Liam O’Flynn plays the traditional slow air “Taimse Im’ Chodladh” with “Planxty”. The air was published in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century





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