Search for Jo Jo Dullard will continue, mourners hear at funeral of her sister Mary Phelan

The remains of Mary Phelan leave the Church of the Holy Cross following her funeral in Cuffesgrange, Kilkenny, today. Pic: Gareth Chaney/Collins

By Conor Kane

The search for Jo Jo Dullard will go on despite the death of her sister Mary Phelan who was one of the most tireless campaigners for justice for the missing woman, mourners at Mrs Phelan’s funeral were told.

Mary Phelan died last Friday morning at her Co Kilkenny home at the age of 67 after suffering from cancer, over 22 years after her beloved Jo Jo went missing, never to be seen again.

Among the symbols of her life brought to the altar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Cuffesgrange were a tea pot, a cookbook and the piece of crystal she was presented with as a Person of the Year recipient for her work on behalf of her sister and all missing people.

Friend of the family, Fr Willie Purcell, said in his homily that the two most important things to Mary Phelan, family and friendship, were well represented at the Mass, with the many mourners including her husband Martin, daughter Imelda, son Melvin, and sisters Kathleen and Nora.

She was pre-deceased by her brother Tom and grandson Darragh.

“When I was trawling through the many tributes to Mary, there was one very powerful tribute that hit me. It said, ‘Mary Phelan - an inspiration’,” he told the congregation.

Among those who visited the family home on Sunday night was former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

“Mary met many important people,” Fr Purcell said. “She met presidents and government leaders. About 20 years ago Mary and Martin went up to meet the taoiseach at the time. Just before they left, she opened her bag and took out a cake, because it was his birthday. That same taoiseach was there last night.”

Mary Phelan was a humble woman, small in stature, but with a heart as big as any that could be found, he added. “Even in the darkest days, Mary radiated hope and joy.”

She was a woman of great faith, who never gave up on God and had many medals and relics of the saints, whom she would ask to “watch over and protect Jo Jo” and everybody else.

"Her campaign to find Jo Jo and get justice for her missing sister, who was just 21 when she was last heard from in Moone in Co Kildare in November of 1995, often brought her into the media. But after all of the attention, and when the interviews were over, she would say “all I want to do is go home and wait for Jo Jo,” Fr Purcell said.

“One day I met Mary on High Street and we were talking about Jo Jo... She said ‘there’s not one day that goes by when I don’t think of her.

She’s in my heart all of the time.

She never lost hope that they would bring Jo Jo home, he said, even when their questions weren’t being answered, or things were happening too slowly, or the information they wanted wasn’t forthcoming.

“She never gave up the search. It was that hope that kept you, and her friends and her relatives and all of us strong in the search for Jo Jo.

“The greatest way we can remember her, and I know Mary would want to us to do this, is to keep the search going for Jo Jo.”

Even in her last days, she said, “we must keep praying,” and was talking about prayers for Jo Jo and not herself.

“Mary, we will bring Jo Jo home,” Fr Purcell concluded.

Before Mrs Phelan was buried in the nearby graveyard, short and loving tributes were paid to her by some family members including her daughter Imelda.

“When myself and my family think of Mam, we think of selflessness and caring for others,” she said, describing her mother as a small woman who was full of love and compassion.

“She outshone the biggest obstacles.”

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