Portrait tells the story of Vicky Phelan's extraordinary life 

David Brennan bought Vicky Phelan’s triptych portrait when it went up for auction in 2021. He has since shown it at 18 venues around the country to bring her awareness campaign to a wider audience
Portrait tells the story of Vicky Phelan's extraordinary life 

David Brennan with Vicky's portrait

HE REMEMBERS her in her black bomber jacket coming home from school. He remembers how very friendly she was — and how fiercesome, always standing up for what was right.

David Brennan and Vicky Phelan go way back — back to when they were childhood neighbours in a Mooncoin housing estate, to when her mum, Gaby, would say to him, “would you ever stop knocking on the door and just run in”.

But David still felt that “I needed to knock on the door as a matter of courtesy”.

Vicky was a little older, he was friends with her brothers. “I’ve memories of her first car, a green Peugeot 106. She’d taxi myself and her brother, Robbie, in and out of Waterford. She couldn’t wait for an excuse to get in that car.”

In January 2021, shortly before heading to the US to participate in a clinical trial, Vicky appeared on The Late Late Show, where Vincent Devine’s triptych portrait of her was unveiled.

David was watching in Mooncoin. He and his wife, Alicia, looked at each other, the same thought occurring to both: David should buy it “so it wouldn’t leave Mooncoin”, but instead stay close to her family and friends.

He registered for the auction the following Monday. Five weeks later, he bought the portrait, commissioned by the charity Heroes Aid, for €58,000.

“Meanwhile, I’d been texting Vicky back and forth. The two of us were totally aligned in our vision for the portrait — it would be a conduit for bringing her awareness campaign, her campaign for change, to the people.

“It would tell her story and make a change. It would step in when Vicky was unable to — and when, eventually, Vicky wouldn’t be around.”

This element — when Vicky would not be around — both was unspoken and wasn’t, David says.

“There were subtle mentions of it in our texts. It didn’t need saying. We knew.”

Historic portrait of Ireland’s best known health campaigner Vicky Phelan is to be auctioned to raise money for the charity Heroes Aid which supports frontline healthcare workers
Historic portrait of Ireland’s best known health campaigner Vicky Phelan is to be auctioned to raise money for the charity Heroes Aid which supports frontline healthcare workers

Since January 2022, David has brought the ‘Vicky Phelan Campaign and Portrait Tour’ to 18 venues around Ireland. Audiences of between 200-500 turn up.

“We promote it among sports clubs, schools, businesses in the locality we’re attending, and among universities and colleges.

“People of all ages come — just recently I was talking to a 13-year-old girl who came along. It’s mostly women,” he says.

Though in Mooncoin, in late October (on Vicky’s birthday weekend), there was a good mix.

“We always have a cancer support centre involved as hosts in some way. And usually there’s a guest speaker, a cancer survivor, mostly young women and all of them have had cancer — whether breast, ovarian, or cervical — that could have been caught earlier, but wasn’t and spread.”

Other attendees include cancer patient advocate, and friend of Vicky, John Wall.

Her solicitor, Cian O’Carroll, comes to most events, as do members of the 221+ patient support group, such as Caoimhe O’Neill-Forde and Lorraine Walsh.

“Those who make up the audience come because of Vicky,” David says.

“It’s like no other event. It’s not [simply] a portrait viewing. It’s the use of a portrait to tell a story.

“You could hear a pin drop over the two hours. People are blown away — they’re amazed by how much Vicky did in her very limited time.”

The tour, David explains, is essentially about bringing Vicky’s story forth via the portrait, from her childhood through her adult life, telling of major traumatic events in her life prior to her cancer diagnosis, her uncovering of the CervicalCheck scandal in 2018, and beyond.

“It’s an emotionally-charged experience that recounts Vicky’s incredible bravery, in her enormous fight against the legal might of the State.”

The tour, he says, is a campaign for awareness and change. “This was what Vicky wanted her legacy to be: For the women of Ireland to fight for change in how the health services, and the State, treat women in the aftermath of a scandal.

“And for cultural change, a change in attitude towards women and gynaecological health, to normalise the discussion so people can speak freely.”

He talks about the emotions that fill the room.

“People are sad, there’s anger, happiness too. People leave, inspired by her story.”

Her parents, John and Gaby, have attended all the events. “They hear from people they’ve never met before what Vicky means to them, how she has changed their lives. I think that’s very inspiring and comforting for them. They see Vicky’s flame is still burning bright, her legacy being carried on.”

David Brennan and Vicky Phelan
David Brennan and Vicky Phelan

David, 44, a dad of three to Katie, 22, Stephen, almost 17, Ben, 15, runs an engineering construction business, based mostly in Britain. He funds the tour himself.

“The fundraising done at the events goes to the cancer support centres.”

He believes “everybody who has means should do something, over-and-above the usual taxes, to give back”.

When he is travelling to each of the events – in a vehicle he fondly calls the “Vicky van”— he listens to past interviews and podcasts she has done, “so she’s there with us”.

What is it like, being in the company of Vicky’s portrait — powerful, compelling and so full of symbolism?

“I feel it is a privilege, an inspirational one. I feel it’s a duty. She did so much with her limited time. I have time and I don’t have cancer. We all need to put our shoulder to the wheel. We all have a part to play.”

  • The “Vicky Phelan Campaign and Portrait Tour” will be at UL on Thursday, November 23, at 1pm. The tour is fully booked up for 2024 and David is taking bookings for 2025.
  • Visit www.vickyphelanportrait.com.

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