A country 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 determine 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.