Brave until the end, Ruth Morrissey made a difference

We should not forget about Ruth Morrissey the daughter, the sister, the wife, and the mother, who had to spend her last days caught up in a legal fight over circumstances that never were of her making, writes Ann O'Loughlin
Brave until the end, Ruth Morrissey made a difference
Ruth Morrissey, pictured at the Four Courts with her husband Paul. Picture: Collins Courts

Brave until the end — that is what Ruth Morrissey was.

Here was a woman who had to step into the limelight to try and get justice for herself, but more importantly for the husband and young daughter she had to leave behind.

As Ruth battled a spreading cancer and took on a massive legal battle against the HSE and two US laboratories over her cervical smears, taken under the CervicalCheck screening programme, I got to know the woman as well as the litigant.

Ruth never wanted to be on the front pages and on the TV news, but she threw off the cloak of anonymity so that other women, those also battling with cervical cancer, would know clearly what was happening — that a young mother of one caught up in this CervicalCheck controversy and already fighting a relentless, nasty disease, was being dragged through the courts, something the then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged would not happen.

Ruth, in the last years of her life, was embroiled in a long-running legal battle that started when proceedings were initiated in May 2018. 

Indeed, Ruth and her husband Paul only realised they may have a case when they saw Vicky Phelan on television. Ms Phelan has become a champion for women stricken by cervical cancer and settled her own legal case for €2.5m.

Little did the Morrisseys know then, that Ruth’s case would take so long and become a landmark action which students of law will learn about in the future.

Ruth Morrissey with Vicky Phelan, who said in a tweet: 'I was on my own this morning at home when I received the news that I have been dreading for some time now; the news that my good friend and fellow CervicalCheck campaigner Ruth Morrissey has died.' Picture: @PhelanVicky
Ruth Morrissey with Vicky Phelan, who said in a tweet: 'I was on my own this morning at home when I received the news that I have been dreading for some time now; the news that my good friend and fellow CervicalCheck campaigner Ruth Morrissey has died.' Picture: @PhelanVicky

There are commentators who talk about “the Morrissey case”, "the Morrissey Judgment", and the "landmark Supreme Court decision".

But we should not forget about Ruth Morrissey the daughter, the sister, the wife, and the mother, who had to spend her last days caught up in a legal fight over circumstances that never were of her making.

We should not forget she spent most of her daughter’s seventh birthday sitting on the hard benches of the High Court in the Four Courts.

Neither should we forget that this woman endured days when others took to the airwaves, talking coldly about her case and claiming that screening programmes in general were in jeopardy after the Morrissey High Court judgment.

She came to the Four Courts that first time last July in a pretty, flowery, summer dress. She didn’t wear a wig, and her head was bare after several sessions of chemotherapy. 

She gripped her husband Paul’s hand and when the time came for her to give her evidence, she did so in a quiet voice to a hushed courtroom.

What she had to say was devastating. She wept in the witness box in the Four Courts as she recounted telling her daughter Libby, just seven years of age, of her cancer diagnosis.

"It is probably the most difficult conversation I had to have," she said. "She did not want Mammy to pass away.” 

Ruth said she told Libby she could not promise she would not pass away, but she made a promise that she would fight as hard as she could.

Paul broke down in the witness box as he told how at bedtime he had heard Libby ask her mother not to die.

"You hear her at bedtime say 'Mammy, don’t die; don’t leave me'. It is devastating," he said.

"It is like a bad dream you can't wake up from. Just imagine if it was your wife, the love of your life — it seems to be one thing after another. It is heartbreaking, terrifying, and unimaginable."

But Ruth knew she was the luckiest woman in the world to have the love of Paul — they met when she was 17 and he was 19 — and Libby, the daughter she adored. 

She also knew she was the unluckiest to have been one of the women caught up in the CervicalCheck nightmare.

Ruth never took out her feelings about her bad luck on those around her. 

Yes, she felt let down by what happened. 

Yes, she was angry and devastated and afraid of an uncertain future, but every time she came to the Four Courts she did so with her head held high, and with a smile for familiar faces. 

She remembered everybody’s name; the small details of their lives which made them feel good. When her condition was mentioned in conversation, she brushed away any suggestions of her bravery.

But Ruth was brave. She had the bravery of a mother fighting to stay with her daughter and husband.

She had the bravery of a woman dealt a terrible blow.

She had the bravery of a woman who wanted to effect change and help other women.

Ruth hoped she had made a difference — that and the love of her family is what kept her going.

She said to me once: “I don’t know if bravery is anything to do with it. When your back is against the wall, you come out fighting." 

Bravery had everything to do with it. She fought for her family and for other women. 

She did make a difference, in a very big way, through her legal action, but also to those who had the privilege to meet her in the Four Courts.

Brave and kind to the end…Ruth Morrissey.

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