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Thursday 23 November 2017

Family bid sad farewell to 'radiant, joyful' Aoife

Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Phelans recall life of bubbly sister, 30, whose body was found buried in oil barrel

'Aoife Estelle Phelan -- beautiful, radiant, joyful star," was how the murdered woman's brother Darragh described his sister during a heartbreaking funeral service in Laois yesterday afternoon.

After an agonising two-week search, the Phelan family said a final goodbye to their beloved daughter and sister at a mass attended by more than 1,000 mourners in the small Ballyroan Parish Church.

The 30-year-old woman went missing on October 25 after leaving a friend's house in Portlaoise and was found on Wednesday inside an oil barrel, buried in a rubbish pit not far from her home.

She told her family that she was four months pregnant before she went missing but a post-mortem on her body revealed that she was not expecting a child.

A brass band led the procession into the church followed by Aoife's coffin, carried by her five brothers, Darragh, Trevor, Michael-Anthony, Bradley and Dave.

Her parents, Mick and Betty, were accompanied by Aoife's sisters, Donna, Leighanne, Nicole, Lavina, Shona and Shalane.

During the ceremony, Fr Gerard Ahern described Aoife as "someone who was full of life" and "someone who was caring and always thoughtful".

"If Aoife was to come in here she would probably say 'what are you all doing here,' so we have to be happy in life. She was a happy person who lived life to the full. She would say 'cheer up, life has to go on, I know it's difficult but I will be there to help you'."

A box of Barry's Tea was laid on her coffin because, as Fr Ahern said, "no other brand suited Aoife".

A Bon Jovi CD represented her love of music and her close friend Daniel Houlihan left a key-ring as a reminder of the presents he would bring her home from his travels abroad.

Much to the consternation of her brothers, Aoife was an ardent fan of Chelsea Football Club and her favourite team mug was also placed on the coffin.

Darragh recalled how she teased her Manchester United-supporting brothers when Chelsea won the Champions League last season.

Darragh, a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, also told how Aoife dressed his bed in a Chelsea duvet and pillow case when her team won the trophy.

"Aoife's bubbly personality brought so much joy and happiness to her family and friends near and far. Her smile was, and shall forever be, in our hearts."

He also told the congregation about his sister's talent for sketching and how she would help her younger sister with her art homework for school.

Fr Ahern also thanked the gardai for their assistance over the past two weeks, especially the garda liaison officer who had formed a close bond with the family since the tragedy.

"The events of the last two weeks have cast a shadow on Aoife's family, on her relations and friends and, indeed, the entire community. I think all of us find it hard to understand or take in fully what has happened. In a sense, it all seems unreal. That someone should die in the circumstances that Aoife's life was taken, goes beyond human understanding.

"Words fail to express our feelings and to describe our emotions. It is a senseless loss."

The search for Aoife ended on Wednesday in a field on Timahoe Road, a couple of minutes outside Portlaoise town.

On that dreary and cold November morning, the otherwise unassuming rural community became a hive of garda activity when an oil barrel containing Aofie's remains was found buried in a pit.

The stretch of road was instantly engulfed by a wave of yellow-and-blue vehicles as members of the Garda Technical Bureau and several squad cars descended on the scene.

A handful of unmarked cars arrived soon after, carrying senior members of the force including newly appointed Portlaoise Superintendent Yvonne Lundan, and Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne.

Sombre conversations were held among the assembled officers while other gardai made phone calls in hushed tones.

Behind the house, forensic officers dressed head-to-toe in white protective overalls erected a blue tent over the excavated hole where the au pair's body was found.

A senior detective told the small number of media gathered that the premises and surrounding area had become a crime scene.

Garda crime-scene tape was stretched around the front of the house, taking in the adjoining shed and continuing around the field where Aoife's body was found.

The road leading up to the house was also sealed off and only the reporters who had arrived earlier in the morning were allowed stay and watch the operation unfold.

In the middle of the commotion, a neighbour living directly opposite the scene returned from a primary school run with an SUV full of children.

Local pensioner, Tony Whelan, who passed the crime scene on his daily walk through the community, said in the 50 years he lived in the area he'd never heard of such a tragic death.

The top brass soon disappeared and a couple of uniformed gardai were left on duty to guard the house while members of the technical bureau maintained the scene in anticipation of the State pathologist's arrival.

Then the back-up arrived -- a kettle, cups and a packet of biscuits for the gardai tasked with patrolling the crime scene.

A black BMW 6 Series coupe seemed out of place amongst the six or seven-year-old Ford Mondeo garda vehicles when it arrived at the scene around 2pm.

As did the high-heel wearing blonde who stepped from the car, accompanied by a tall red-head carrying a black plastic sack.

However, State Pathologist Marie Cassidy is someone well accustomed to the brutality of daily life.

Garda divers were still scouring the river for the missing woman as the tragic discovery was made.

The theory was one of a number of lines of inquiry that had been pursued by gardai since Aoife was last seen at around 8pm on Thursday, October 25.

Two days later, on Saturday the 27th, gardai issued an appeal for public assistance and Aoife's parents, Michael and Betty, made an emotional appeal for information, with her father saying: "I don't want her to be another Jo Jo Dullard."

Her mother said it was completely out of character for her daughter not to make contact and said she had been in good humour before she went missing.

Five days after she had disappeared, sources were reported as saying that gardai believed it "highly unlikely" that Aoife had been a victim of foul play.

The next day, garda divers searched a man-made lake near the house she had been visiting before she went missing but again it showed up no clues as to what happened to the "bubbly" child minder.

On November 1, her family held a candlelit vigil on Colliers View, where she had been last seen a week earlier.

Her distraught mother again pleaded for her daughter's safe return.

"Aoife, we will be strong as a family and we will bring you home, we love you, Aoife, so come home," she said.

Gardai continued to search areas Portlaoise and Mountmellick in the coming days, but they remained mystified as to what happened to the woman.

On Monday, a breakthrough in the operation led to a search of the River Barrow near the Laois/Kildare border, where garda divers were again deployed.

Two days later, gardai received the tip-off that would eventually lead to the discovery of Aoife's body in the pit in Timahoe.

Sunday Independent

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