‘She was a fighter in a ball gown’: Emma Mhic Mhathúna funeral cortege passes by Dáil gates

Even in death, Emma Mhic Mhathúna would not be silenced.

‘She was a fighter in a ball gown’: Emma Mhic Mhathúna funeral cortege passes by Dáil gates

Even in death, Emma Mhic Mhathúna would not be silenced.

Her request that her funeral cortege pass by the Dáil brought the Tricolour to half-mast, pulled politicians on to the street, and challenged consciences to keep asking questions.

Why was a 37-year-old mother passing by in a hearse, her five bereft children following behind? Who was really responsible? What would be done to ensure it never happened again?

Emma Mhic Mathúna’s hearse stops at Government Buildings yesterday, in accordance with her final wishes.
Emma Mhic Mathúna’s hearse stops at Government Buildings yesterday, in accordance with her final wishes.

Emma’s voice could no longer be heard, but her message was loud and clear — the TDs and senators who emerged from behind Leinster House’s towering gates applauded a little awkwardly as she went by.

Inside, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had been paying tribute, telling the Dáil that Emma “fought like a lioness to protect and provide for her children”.

Everyone knew that everything Emma did was for the protection of her children — the life she built, the case she fought, the apologies she secured, the compensation she won.

She had succeeded in leaving them in the arms of loving relatives, with financial security and fantastic memories of a life lived fearlessly, always looking forward, always finding fun.

But for a woman whose life had become so very public through the CervicalCheck scandal, Emma still managed to have her secrets.

She was writing a book, her funeral Mass learned, in which she imagined her children and their friends on the first day of the summer holidays casting school uniforms aside with glee and filling their bags with crisps and biscuits for a trip to Ballydavid Head in their beloved adopted Kerry home.

One lad is teased for having plasters among his supplies.

“It’s my mam,” he pleads. “She made me, in case any of us get hurt.”

The other children understand. Mammies — they can be so embarrassing at times. So overprotective.

But there was no plaster for the hurt that hung over the five youngsters who sat in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin looking at a pine coffin and a spray of yellow and red flowers where their mum should be.

There is no protection against that kind of heartbreak and no bandage that will cover it up. There is only the hope that a mother’s love, however briefly it burns, can provide warmth for a lifetime.

Emma loved the Pro-Cathedral for the precious memories it held of her childhood days with her own mother, Annette, who also left this world too young at the age of just 44.

Annette worked across the road, Emma began primary school nearby, and they would call in and light candles, a simple gesture of hope and togetherness that Emma passed on to her own children, along with her strong faith.

She had refused to blame God for her suffering, said celebrant Fr Paddy Moran. God didn’t plan it, she had concluded — human error had caused it. Despite this, she was determined to pass on to her children her belief that people were fundamentally good and capable of learning from their mistakes.

Emma loved the Irish language — another legacy she wanted to leave her children — and the hymns she picked for her Mass were traditional Irish airs, simply sung to the accompaniment of the uileann pipes and harp.

There was just that one vibrant spray of flowers and a few family wreaths — she’d asked that donations be made instead to Brother Kevin Crowley’s Capuchin Day Centre for the homeless to help bring a little colour into their lives. Consideration for others was something Emma also wanted to embed in her offspring.

The yellow and red blooms that sat atop her coffin brought to mind the woman who refused to wear the dark cloak of victimhood and appeared in court in a red gown instead.

Perhaps inspired by her mum but making a statement of her own, her 16-year-old daughter, Natasha, dressed in radiant green.

Natasha showed composure beyond her years as she put her arms protectively around her smaller brothers, Seamus, Mario, Oisín, and Donnacha, all dressed smartly in matching light grey suits, all wearing the same slightly bewildered expression.

She took the podium to read in a strong clear voice a tribute from RTÉ broadcaster Ryan Tubridy who had hosted Emma on his shows in encounters that he regarded as unforgettable.

“She will be remembered as a mother, a campaigner, a fighter, and a woman in a ball gown taking on the people who needed to be challenged and refusing to back down,” he had written.

“Survivors don’t take nonsense lying down, they pick themselves up and speak truth to power. Emma spoke that truth and while we will all miss the woman we knew, her truth survives to fight another day.”

Earlier, Fr Moran had spoken similarly of Emma’s indomitable spirit, and how she gently but firmly chastised him when he said that if he were in her shoes, he would probably try to hide away from the world.

By contrast, Emma, even at her most exhausted, when the cancer treatment kept her in hospital, was texting friends that she had free bed and board and complimentary massage therapy. Would they like to come and stay, she joked.

“She held on to life for as long as she could,” said Fr Moran. “Giving up were not words in her vocabulary.”

Even in death, she wasn’t for hiding away, or adjusting her vocabulary. Her final route through Dublin, which brought the flags down and the politicians out, proved that.

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