Letter casts new light on death of family who had locked themselves away from world
IT WAS at once a terrible and tragic scene. On July 12, 2000 the bodies of 83-year-old Frances Mulrooney and her three nieces, twins Catherine and Ruth Breege, 55, and their youngest sister, Josephine, 47, were found dead at Rinawade Grove, Leixlip, Co Kildare. The house had been secured with the doors and windows either locked or sealed and fridge was pushed up against the front door.
As deputy State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy entered the scene, she found no sign of disturbance and the house was clean, smelling strongly of disinfectant. The bodies of three of the women were found in the living room and the fourth woman was found in the kitchen.
Dr Marie Cassidy said in her deposition to the Coroner's Court on January 16, 2001 that it would appear that the four women lived and slept in the living room as the upstairs bedrooms seemed unused.
"The house had been stiflingly hot when first entered as the heating had been at its highest setting," Dr Cassidy said. "The curtains were drawn. There was no evidence of food preparation or cooking and no food was found. No drugs were found."
Post-mortem results indicated that the four women had been dead for some weeks. Frances Mulrooney showed features suggestive of broncho-pneumonia and the elderly woman is the only one of the four who could have died from natural causes. Dr Cassidy concluded that the death of three sisters was principally due to starvation. "As before their deaths they all appear to have been relatively able bodied, it can only be assumed that this was a deliberate, self-inflicted act on the part of each person."
She concluded that the women would have died in "much less than 60 days" after commencing fasting.
A letter written by one of the sisters, Ruth Breege, to a friend just days before her death and obtained by the Sunday Independent reveals that the women starved themselves to death to repay a karmic debt as part of a new age philosophy which has its roots in Hindu worship.
In a moving letter, she explained that "we cast off these dense physical bodies ... which to me are like great overcoats ... which our soul inhabits and when worn out we cast them off and we ascend into the higher realms in my opinion, our true home. This is, after all, what our Saviour Jesus, the Christ came to teach us. There can never be real justice here and looking for justice will only be futile and heartbreaking. I believe we all of us, every single soul has a Karmic debt to pay off (me very much included) an individual cross to carry to learn through this intense suffering (not 'suffering for suffering's sake')."
Fr Louis Hughes, an expert in Hindu spirituality, said it would be against Hindu beliefs to starve oneself to death and that the spirituality expressed in the letter indicates some form of new age philosophy. "There is no tradition within Hinduism which would go down the road to starvation to death to repay a karmic debt," he said.
In a deposition to the Coroner's Court, the friend to whom Ruth wrote this letter said that he had met Ruth in the early seventies when she placed an advertisement in a daily paper looking for people to form a vegetarian society. He described her as a very intelligent person, well read and one of the most gentle people he had ever met. "Her whole demeanour was one of gentleness."
He said that Ruth was a vegetarian and never ate meat or fish, no flesh foods. They had discussions about the benefits of fasting but he never knew her to go on a long fast. They would talk on occasion about the spirit life and she considered that an extension of our normal lives but "not like going over into it deliberately like killing herself".
Frances Mulrooney and her three nieces always lived apart, a closed exclusive nucleus made up of auntie and three sisters. Frances Mulrooney had been a surrogate mother to Catherine, Ruth and Josephine from birth.
In all, there was a family of five girls in the Feeney household and Frances Mulrooney was their mother's sister. Frances was en route to England to study nursing when she came to stay overnight with the family at their home over their hardware shop in Dolpin's Barn in Dublin. But her sister was heavily pregnant with the twins and it was a difficult pregnancy so she decided to stay.
After the twins were born, she decided to wait until they were hardy and then she never left. The twins were named Catherine and Breege but Breege decided to change her name to Ruth. Josephine was born in 1953 and Auntie looked after her too as their mother worked alongside her husband in the shop.
"They were like a separate family really, Auntie and the three girls. But I suppose the thing was that she was domineering too like my father," Frances Gallagher, the eldest of the five sisters, said. After school, the three girls did secretarial courses and found jobs but they never settled. "They never left the nest. Jo was very bright. She was in the top five in her secretarial class and she joined the civil service. But the money wasn't that good and so she left."
The family business thrived in the sixties and seventies. However, the eighties hit the Feeneys hard, not only economically but socially. Gradually more and more shops in the area were boarded up as inner city poverty and the scourge of drug abuse began to take its toll. Auntie and the three sisters moved to Tritonville Road in Sandymount. The girls changed their name by deed poll to Mulrooney. They separated themselves from those around them.
"They only spoke to one or two people. They were reserved, too much so. We would visit them every Sunday. But they were happy in their own way," Frances said.
The world of Frances Mulrooney and the three sisters was made whole by their retriever cross called Goldie and their half dozen cats. In 1998, the four women finally lost their battle to live out their lives at their home in Sandymount. In August 1998, the four women and their animals moved to live with their sister, Tess, while they sought to replace their home in Sandymount. In October, their beloved 13-year-old retriever, Goldie, died and then just before Christmas that year, the women moved to Leixlip.
The isolation of Rinawade drew the women into a virtual cocoon. Nothing mattered except that they were together. And in the 14 months that followed, a pact to die together was agreed and executed.