The privilege was ours: Liverpool mourns The Lily Centre founder Peggy O’Brien
She said it sounded daft, but it simply sounded typical of Peggy O’Brien:
“I wish we’d have got breast cancer 20 years earlier, because then we could have helped even more people.”
Selfless, caring, ever focused on others instead of herself.
Today all those people who Peggy O’Brien helped through The Lily Centre, which she co-founded with Winnie Keating, were remembering her, an extraordinary woman who made an extraordinary difference to their lives.
She helped them cope with an illness which could have devastated them, and keep a smile on their face while they were doing it.
Her niece Hayley Vaughan said: “We were assured she didn’t suffer and that is important to us.
“To be honest, it’s all a little surreal, it’s such a shock. We keep expecting her to walk in any minute…”
The family has said that Peggy had gone to see Lisa McGann at the Eldoinian Village on Friday when she began to feel faint.
Lisa called an ambulance but Peggy had lost consciousness before she arrived at the Royal.
Hayley added: “Peggy had suffered a brain aneurism and, unfortunately, the bleed was too big and they couldn’t perform surgery.”
When Peggy lost Peter she lost part of herself, so it’s nice to think that they will be reunited now
Born in the Scotland Road area in June 1949, Peggy was one of seven children and went to St Gerard’s School.
She married late husband Peter on June 28, 1969, and the couple went on to have three sons, Peter, 46, John, 45, and Steven, 43, and eight grandchilden.
Hayley said: “Peter worked on the docks and Peggy was a barmaid at Mad Mick’s which is where I think they met, and they went on to manage pubs together for more than 20 years.
“They looked after The Wellington for friends before having two pubs of their own, The Hamlet on Scottie Road and The Corner House.
Peggy and Peter O’Brien on their wedding day – June 28, 1969
“Peter died from throat cancer in 2011 but Peggy nursed him at home while still carrying on with the work at The Lily Centre. To be honest, when Peggy lost Peter she lost part of herself, they were devoted to one another, so it’s nice to think that they will be reunited now.”
Peggy’s family had always known her as a person who ‘would do anything for anybody’: “That’s the way she’s always been,” said Hayley. “So when she got breast cancer 20 years ago, and discovered that there wasn’t any support for women, she helped set something up.”
Peggy had a mastectomy after being diagnosed in 1996, just three years before The Lily Centre began.
“It was started with a handful of people but it really took off when Peggy and Winnie realised there were so many people who needed help and support.”
And before long Peggy had enlisted help and support from a host of people including patrons like Cherie Blaire, Montse Benitez and Echo print editor, Susan Lee.
Her sister Lily smiled: “She had so much support. Peggy would have hounded people until they agreed to help but, to be honest, once you had met Peggy, you wanted to help her.
“She used to say to people ‘You’ve been Lilied’.”
Peggy was a one off
Peggy and Winnie started their incredible work from home – she joked their first office was a Kwik Save bag – offering practical and emotional support for breast cancer patients, and their families.
But it was in 1999 that The Lily Centre truly came into its own.
Peggy recalled only last year: “We began in a doctor’s surgery and I went to see a chap called Mike McDonald who worked in the local housing office to see if he knew of any available premises.
“He said he had a mate in the building trade and would get back to me.
“The very next morning he phoned me and his friend, Paul Flanagan, ended up driving me to this building in Silvester Street, and told me ‘it’s yours for as long as you want it’.”
The Lily Centre was born.
Peggy O’Brien (left) and Winnie Keating
From there Peggy and Winnie, with a host of volunteers, patrons and supporters, continued their pioneering work for 16 years.
It was work which earned them both the British Empire Medal and the centre, The Queen’s Award, and which saw them offer the hand of friendship, a shoulder to cry on and a reason to laugh to more than 1700 breast cancer sufferers and their families.
Peggy, along with her friend and co-founder Winnie, announced their retirement last year. It had been a difficult decision to step down but they hoped to spend more time with their families.
Hayley continued: “Peggy was a one off. She was so full of life and was looking forward to spending more time with her family and having a rest – although she still helped The Lily Centre.
“She would have been made up with all the attention she was getting on Twitter last night – it wasn’t surprising that the Royal had to issue family with a password because so many people were calling to see how she was!
“We are devastated, but she left a legacy in The Lily Centre and we are so very proud of Peggy.”
Their work will continue through Marina Dalglish’s charity foundation following Peggy and Winnie’s retirement, but as Peggy herself said: “It’s the end of an era.”
Peggy’s death yesterday was the end of an era too.
Liverpool lost one of its local legends but is all the richer and better for having known her, loved her, been helped by her and inspired by her.
June 3, 1949 to April 10, 2016.