June Butler takes a look at Robbie Walsh’s feature The Letters.
In April 2018, Ireland was rocked by a health scandal that ultimately had catastrophic consequences for the people involved. It came to light that 206 women had developed cervical cancer as a result of misdiagnosed cervical smear tests. 162 women were not informed of the newly amended results and did not know that the initial ‘normal’ outcome of the tests had been an error. It led to an outcry of horror from all strata of Irish society – across the board, the awfulness of what had occurred became a byword for tragedy. Women from every walk of life, single, married, widowed, with or without children, sisters, mothers, cousins, daughters – it affected 162 innocents along with their wider circle of friends and family condemning them to a painful, drawn-out, debilitating illness before their demise. And the worst part of all, is that it could so easily have been avoided.
Vicky Phelan, a 43 year old mother of two was given a false negative reading from a 2011 smear test. By 2014 however, Phelan had terminal cancer yet was not told this fact despite an audit of Cervical Check in that same year indicating that an incorrect reading had been given.
In 2017, Dr. Grainne Flannelly advised gynaecologist Dr Kevin Hickey that several women in the midwest region of Ireland should not be told about the false negative results but that the results should be filed instead without informing the victims.
On April 28th, 2018, Dr. Grainne Flannelly, Clinical Director of Cervical Checks, stepped down from her overseeing role.
The story is based on the lives of three fictitious characters, all women. Sam (Mary Murray) lives with her feisty daughters, all of primary school age. Sam ekes an existence from hand to mouth, dependent on the kindness of strangers and some very sinister loan sharks who prey on her vulnerability as a deserted wife and mother of four.
Cliona (Sarah Carroll) is on the spectrum of autism and from time to time, endures periods of acute anxiety. Despite this, she excels at her job. Cliona inhabits a silent world and tries to imbue it with peace and calm. It is her only way of dealing with feelings that sometimes overwhelm her.
Mary (Kathleen Warner Yeates) was adopted as a baby by a couple who then moved to America. Her mother Bridget (Ann Russell) was 14 years old when she became pregnant with Mary and was moved to one of the notorious Mother and Baby Homes. While there, Bridget, like so many others, was abused by nuns and her infant removed from her care. Now suffering from dementia, Bridget has developed a chronic fear of nuns and no longer recognises friends and family. Mary returned from America to search for her birth mother and upon realising her mother needed her, became Bridget’s primary care-giver, which presents challenges of its own.
Anthony (John Connors) plays a supporting role as a social worker to both Sam and Mary.
Sam, Cliona, and Mary are every woman. Harried, stressed, dealing with money issues, worrying about loved ones, charming, compassionate, empathetic, multi-tasking. Every woman in existence emanates from the lives of these three. They represent all and none. The trio assume an essential role in showing how an oversight on the part of medical experts had such a lethal impact. Yes, there are elements of drama in that symptoms are dwelt upon but the dwelling is a necessary evil – the shocking action of carelessness and neglect, ended the lives of dozens. Had any of the women caught up in the event been given the diagnosis early enough, many lives would have been spared. It is the wanton waste, the unnecessary callousness that is being examined in The Letters.
There are some searing performances in The Letters – Sam, Cliona and Mary are portrayed as conscious beings, flawed, yet wondrous in the face of what are insurmountable odds. Bridget, as Mary’s mother, is rendered with compassion and honesty. There is some wonderful acting among these women. Anthony (John Connors) plays a supporting role with understanding and insight.
Director Robbie Walsh has courageously addressed one of the most serious crises of confidence in the Irish healthcare system encountered in living memory. The affected women were initially shocked, then understandably utterly distraught. Trying to come to terms with what was an effective death sentence, tormented the victims well beyond the limits of human endurance and laid shame at the feet of the Irish health services. For the women who died, the Hippocratic Oath ‘primum non nocere’ or ‘first do no harm’ were words without meaning or substance as their rights to life were nullified and annihilated.
The Letters is in Irish cinemas from 29th October 2021.