MAEVE SHEE­HAN: Tragic tale of the mys­tery woman who died on a Wex­ford road­side

A re­ceipt near the body of a woman found in a hedge led gar­dai to one of the few peo­ple who may have known her, writes

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page - Maeve Shee­han

ACOUNTRY road runs through the flat town­land of Ballyan­drew, a long straight­ish route to nowhere in par­tic­u­lar. It is mostly used by farm­ers, res­i­dents and dog walk­ers from the vil­lage of Ferns who like it be­cause it’s quiet. Hedgerows on ei­ther side bor­der fields of win­ter crops. Mid­way along, be­side a field of win­ter oats, two bunches of yel­low chrysan­the­mums and a pot­ted flow­er­ing plant mark the spot where the skele­tal re­mains of a woman were dis­cov­ered last Mon­day.

Gar­dai cut the hedges right back, re­veal­ing the hol­low be­tween two shrubs that she had crawled into, whether to rest, shel­ter or sleep. She was dis­cov­ered by a woman who lives close by. The woman first no­ticed a tar­pau­lin in the hedge on Christ­mas Eve, ac­cord­ing to Martin Doyle, the farmer who owns the land. When the tar­pau­lin was still there last Mon­day morn­ing — two weeks later — the woman took a closer look. She saw enough to know that a body lay be­neath the plas­tic, ac­cord­ing to Mr Doyle, and a glimpse of what she thought was nail pol­ish suggested the body was fe­male.

The re­mains were so de­com­posed that they were skele­tal. A post-mortem con­firmed that they were those of a woman in her 50s. Foul play was ruled out and gar­dai believe she died where she lay.

Who she was and for how long she had lain un­no­ticed, bur­rowed into a hedge on a coun­try road, some three or four kilo­me­tres from the near­est vil­lage, are ques­tions that con­tinue to res­onate in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, where no one knew her but sev­eral claim to have seen her walk­ing the coun­try roads like a nomad.

Her mea­gre be­long­ings threw up some clues as to her iden­tity. A small bag found be­side her body con­tained some pa­pers and are be­lieved to in­clude a UK pass­port and her cur­ricu­lum vitae list­ing places she had worked, which gar­dai are fol­low­ing up.

The post-mortem found that the woman’s body had lain in the hedge for “ap­prox­i­mately 12 months”. But among her mea­gre be­long­ings was a re­ceipt dated last May for €60 paid in rent.

The re­ceipt led gar­dai to a quiet hous­ing es­tate on the out­skirts of Gorey, and the home of a re­tired gen­tle­man who lives alone and oc­ca­sion­ally takes in lodgers.

Speak­ing to the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent this week­end, the man, who is in his 90s, asked not to be named. But he re­called vividly the enig­matic, dark-haired woman who he says ap­peared out­side his house last March, drenched with rain, in search of lodg­ings. She stayed for seven months, “a wisp of a black shadow” who kept to her room by night and walked for miles by day.

“I’ll tell you ex­actly when she came here. It was early March when she came here,” he said. She stood out­side, a “black fig­ure”. He no­ticed that she didn’t have a bag with her but “a kind of shawl with her chat­tels in it”. A black shawl around her shoul­ders was wet, he said. “I wanted to get her in, out of the rain.” He opened the front door and in­vited her in.

“She came in and I in­quired as to what she was do­ing. She said she was look­ing for ac­com­mo­da­tion,” he said. How she got to his door, he does not know. But he be­lieves some­one must have told her that he took in lodgers. Al­though her ap­pear­ance was “in­tim­i­dat­ing” to some peo­ple, he felt sorry for her. “So, I said: ‘Well, I will take you in tem­po­rar­ily un­til you have time as you could get other ac­com­mo­da­tion’,” he said.

She was of av­er­age height and slim. There was “not an iota of adi­pose tis­sue on her so she must have been on a spar­tan diet,” he said. She was un­kempt, her hair in pig­tails, but she was at­trac­tive. She claimed to be 30, he said, but he be­lieved she was at least a decade older.

She gave an Ital­ian name and told him she was from a re­gion be­tween Naples and Rome. She also told him that she worked in a restau­rant at the other end of the county that was run by Ital­ians.

“She spoke well. She had good com­mand of English. I never tried her out on Ital­iano,” he said.

The woman moved into the spare room, with a bath­room for her own use, and made her­self as un­ob­tru­sive as pos­si­ble.

“Her main ob­ject, when she came in, would be to get up to her bed­room with­out even my notic­ing her. I would just see a wisp of a black shadow go­ing up the stairs. She must have had very soft shoes too be­cause you wouldn’t hear her com­ing in. And she made no noise at all in the room,” he said.

He gave her a cup­board and fridge of her own in the kitchen. “I found that she never put an iota in it,” he says. He never saw her eat, as­sum­ing she would eat in the restau­rant where she said she worked. “But if I had, for in­stance, a barm brack on the ta­ble, three or four slices would be miss­ing, and some but­ter would be miss­ing. But I never saw her tak­ing any­thing. I didn’t bother about her do­ing that be­cause it was mi­nus­cule what she ac­tu­ally took.”

The pair had lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion — mostly the man said he never knew if she was in the house or not. He once asked about her fam­ily. “I put it this way to her: ‘Would you not like to go back and see your folks?’ To­tal si­lence. She never an­swered a word,” he said.

“It later tran­spired that she was a woman of the roads. She walked, she walked, she walked. I said to her, if you want me to give you a lift to any place when you are look­ing for a job, I will give you a lift,” he said, but she never did take up his of­fer. He said his neigh­bours used to re­port back to him af­ter see­ing her walk­ing in far-flung parts of the county.

She paid rent spo­rad­i­cally, he said, but al­ways in­sisted on a re­ceipt. To­ward the end, she stopped pay­ing and he said he never chased her for the money.

Al­though hazy on dates, he said she asked him for a writ­ten con­tract, and he agreed, writ­ing one for her that al­lowed her to stay un­til St Pa­trick’s Day, 2019.

But she left as mys­te­ri­ously as she ar­rived, around last Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to the man. “She came down and she was in the hall at the front door and she turned around with a smile on her face and said ‘thanks’. She just said one word go­ing out the door, ‘thanks’,” he said.

That was the last he saw of her. “I got the no­tion that she was walk­ing away. I never asked her for the keys. She had two — the key to her room and the key of the hall door. I never got those back, so I was half ex­pect­ing her to come back and let her­self in,” he added.

“As days passed, I thought, well, per­haps she has got more suitable ac­com­mo­da­tion or some­thing like that.”

He was hor­ri­fied when gar­dai con­tacted him last week.

“It is hor­ri­fy­ing that this would hap­pen, that a woman would die on the side of the road and no­body there to help her out,” he said. “I would have given her the room and she could have lived there for­ever if she wanted.”

Gar­dai are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the Gorey gen­tle­man’s elu­sive ten­ant was in­deed the same woman found in such tragic cir­cum­stances in a hedge more than 15 miles from the town.

The dates don’t quite align. The man in­sists that his ten­ant was with him from March un­til Oc­to­ber and the rent re­ceipt found on the woman’s body is dated last May, but the post-mortem suggested she died 12 months ago.

Gar­dai have taken his rent book — all the ten­ant’s pay­ments were metic­u­lously re­ceipted — while await­ing more test re­sults to de­ter­mine when and how the woman died, and DNA tests to de­ter- mine who ex­actly she was. The Health Ser­vice Ex­ec­u­tive and so­cial ser­vices are try­ing to es­tab­lish whether the woman was a client of their agen­cies. In­quiries with the UK and Italy are be­ing made through In­ter­pol.

Lo­cal peo­ple have ques­tioned how a year could pass with the body of a woman tucked into a road­side hedge with­out it com­ing to the at­ten­tion of lo­cals, farm­ers or dog walk­ers. The snows of last spring melted away into a long hot sum­mer. On Novem­ber 15, a work­man cut the hedgerows, an ex­er­cise that in­volves driv­ing the ma­chin­ery slowly along the road, par­al­lel to the hedgerows, ac­cord­ing to Martin Doyle, the landowner. The work­man didn’t no­tice any­thing, he said.

“What has shocked and sad­dened peo­ple is that a woman who no­body seemed to know could lie undis­cov­ered for so long,” said a lo­cal Fianna Fail coun­cil­lor, Joe Sul­li­van, who lives in Gorey. Al­though her in­ter­ac­tions were rare and few knew her, her plight has touched ev­ery­one.

The parish­ioners of Ferns will pay trib­ute to the woman to­mor­row at a can­dlelit pro­ces­sion in front of St Ai­dan’s Church at 6.30pm fol­lowed by Mass cel­e­brated by Fr Paddy Cushen.

Gar­dai are con­tin­u­ing to ap­peal for any­one with in­for­ma­tion to con­tact En­nis­cor­thy garda sta­tion on 053-9242580 or the Garda Con­fi­den­tial Line, 1 800 666 111.

‘I got the no­tion that she was walk­ing away. I never asked her for the keys’

DIS­COV­ERY: Gar­dai in Ballyan­drew, near Ferns, Co Wex­ford, where the skele­tal re­mains of a woman were found last Mon­day. A land­lord in Gorey, 15 miles away, be­lieves she was a for­mer ten­ant who kept to her room by night and walked for miles by day

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