GARDAI are preparing to launch a full-scale murder investigation today following a post-mortem examination on the body of a woman found washed up on a beach in Co Clare yesterday.
The post-mortem is expected to confirm the woman is 43-year-old Deirdre McCarthy, who was last seen alive in her home, Turlough House, in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, on Sunday night.
Gardai said last night that the outcome of the post-mortem would determine their next move.
But they are already treating the death as suspicious and officers have privately expressed concerns that Ms McCarthy was murdered.
Officers think it is likely that Ms McCarthy, who was single and lived alone, was killed by somebody she knew and that her body was then dumped into the sea.
As part of their initial inquiries into her disappearance, gardai seized two cars for technical examination and interviewed a number of her friends and associates about her last-known movements.
The discovery of the body was made on Fanore beach, about 15 km from Ballyvaughan, as the search for Ms McCarthy was about to resume for a fourth day.
A man taking an early-morning walk on the beach spotted the partially clothed body around 7.40am and alerted the gardai.
Access to that part of the beach is through a caravan park and the body was found about 30 metres away from the sand dunes.
Members of the Garda Technical Bureau, who had arrived from Dublin earlier in the week and spent much of Wednesday examining the missing woman's home, were deployed to the beach as the scene was being sealed off.
The body was later removed by hearse to the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick, where the assistant state pathologist, Dr Khalid Jabber, will begin the post-mortem examination this morning.
Gardai said that formal identification of the body would not take place before then. An incident room has been set up at Ennistymon garda station.
Speaking at the scene of the grim discovery, Supt Peter Duff said: "We are treating this death as suspicious.
"We will know more after the post-mortem examination and in the meantime our investigations are continuing".
Officers have established that Ms McCarthy had been socialising with friends in a pub on Sunday night and that she had later been given a lift home.
Gardai are satisfied that she entered the house as the clothing she was wearing on Sunday was found inside.
They are now trying to determine the events between the time she was last seen alive and her reported disappearance.
Ms McCarthy was described by friends yesterday as quiet, reserved and very nervous. She had worked in a local guesthouse for about 20 years and was regarded as "a real hard worker".
"You could set your clock by her. She never missed a day's work in her life, even when she was sick", one friend confided.
Ms McCarthy was reported missing on Monday morning when she had been due to babysit for a friend but failed to turn up.
Her friend called to her house but found it locked. Later that day, her sister, Helen Geoghegan, said she felt: "Something is definitely wrong."
The search got under way on Monday evening, involving gardai and the Doolin unit of the Irish Coastguard.
They were joined on Tuesday by another coastguard unit from Killaloe and dozens of local people as well as the garda dog unit and a rescue helicopter.
Local priest Fr Richard Flanagan, who had been liaising with the McCarthy family, said: "This is a small but tight-knit community and everyone is totally shocked by Deirdre's death.
"Deirdre was a lovely, quiet girl but very nervous and did not like the dark. That's why we thought it was out of character for her to go off by herself."