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Mystery solved but the enigma of life of woman found dead in a ditch endures

Six months after Geraldine McGuinness's body was discovered, locals and gardai paid their final respects, writes Maeve Sheehan


The scene near Ballyandrew after Geraldine McGuinness was found. Photo: Patrick Browne

The scene near Ballyandrew after Geraldine McGuinness was found. Photo: Patrick Browne

The scene near Ballyandrew after Geraldine McGuinness was found. Photo: Patrick Browne

In the second week of January, two women out walking on a country road in Co Wexford discovered a body in the hollow of a ditch, in a case that made national headlines.

The remains were skeletal, compounding the distressing discovery for people who questioned how the body could have lain there unnoticed for so long. An initial post-mortem established the remains were of a woman who had been dead for approximately 12 months. But no one knew who she was.

Six months later, the mystery of the woman's identity has been solved. But how she came to die in the hedgerows of Ballyandrew, a townland outside Ferns, is still an enigma.

Her name was Geraldine McGuinness, 56 years old, a UK national of Irish heritage. She was buried by the State two weeks ago at Ballyduff cemetery, not far from where she was found, in a grave donated by the parish.

The service was deliberately low-key. The mourners were local people and 12 gardai in uniform, a number of whom shouldered her coffin. Fr Paddy Cushen, the parish priest of Ferns, presided over the service. "It was great that finality was brought to this occasion," he said. "She was somebody's child."

Geraldine McGuinness left little trace of her existence. She seemed to live her life as unobtrusively and inoffensively as possible, according to Inspector David O'Sullivan, who led the Garda investigation team after the discovery of her body.

When her body was found tucked in the hedgerow, beneath a tarpaulin sheet, gardai concluded that her death was not suspicious. A post-mortem suggested her body had lain there for up to a year, possibly since the heavy snows of 2018.

The Garda investigation turned to finding out who the woman was and how she came to be there, so a report could be prepared for a coroner's inquest.

A small bag lay beside her body that contained all of her worldly possessions and some clues.

A photocopy of a UK passport gave gardai a name that would have to be corroborated. A sketchy, typed CV listed mostly jobs in restaurants and included references to time spent in Italy - that would provide further lines of inquiry.

A receipt for €60 for rent from a landlord in Gorey provided a more fruitful, but also puzzling, lead. It was dated May 2018, some months after the initial post-mortem's approximate date of death.

Gardai traced the receipt to an elderly man who occasionally rented out a spare room in his semi-detached home in Gorey to lodgers.

He spoke to the Sunday Independent in January, on condition that we wouldn't name him. He spoke about a thin, dark-haired woman whom he says appeared outside his house in March 2018 in search of lodgings and stayed for seven months.

He described her as "a wisp of a black shadow" who walked everywhere, and who was intensely private.

She did tell him a little. He said she told him her name was Gabriella and she was from a region in Italy between Naples and Rome. She told him she worked in an Italian restaurant in the south of the county. She paid him rent sporadically and he said he didn't chase her for it.

He said she left as suddenly as she arrived, in October last year. She didn't tell him she was leaving, she just thanked him going out the door one day and he never saw her again.

Gardai believe Gabriella was Geraldine, that she was still alive in October of last year, and her elderly landlord may have been the last person who had any meaningful interaction with her.

The timing chimes with further analysis by a forensic anthropologist suggesting she could have died in late summer or autumn.

Gardai don't want to disclose details about Geraldine's life, or any interactions she may have had with health or social services.

An inquest to establish how she died will be held by the coroner and is expected to take place next year.

Inspector O'Sullivan did confirm that historical records they had obtained suggested that she had a "normal life" once.

She worked, she had an address, and she had travelled. She spent some time in Italy and is believed to have been in Ireland for about 10 years.

"We know very little about her. We didn't have, I suppose, the advantage of having people who really knew her," said Inspector O'Sullivan.

Gardai found out she had lived in north Wexford and Wicklow at different times, sometimes staying in temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts. But there are no records documenting where she lived or where she slept at night. Nor would gardai comment on whether she was known to social services.

Although the exact date of her death was never established, gardai said they are "fairly happy" she was alive in October. That was when her landlord last saw her. He was the last person known to have interacted with her.

In the weeks and months before she died, there were supposed sightings of her around Ferns but gardai could not confirm those sightings. Nor could they trace the restaurant where she claimed to work.

"We do not know where she was before that or where she went after that," said Inspector O'Sullivan.

"We had very little to go on as to when she went to Ferns and how she ended up in Ballyandrew."

A couple of months after her body was found, gardai traced Geraldine's family. Although she carried a UK passport, relatives were located in the Republic of Ireland.

They provided the DNA samples required to confirm her identity. It is understood she was not in contact with her relatives. According to gardai, they have asked for privacy.

Confirming Geraldine's identity meant she could be laid to rest. "That was a great relief to us, and to the community of Ferns as well, that they could say they knew who this woman is and that they could pay their respects to her," said Inspector O'Sullivan.

"From a personal perspective, it is a very sad story. It is sad that someone would be there undiscovered for so long."

Geraldine's remains were not claimed and she was buried by the State. The parishioners of Ballyduff provided the plot in their small picturesque ceremony at no cost and a headstone inscribed with her name will be erected.

The service took place on Saturday, June 15 at Kavanagh's Funeral Home in Ferns. The Garda investigation team showed up in force. Fr Cushen counted 12 gardai including the chief superintendent of Wexford, Pat McMenamin.

Local people also came, including one of the women who found Geraldine's remains, and the organisers of a vigil in the days afterwards. David O'Connor, a jockey turned singer from Ferns who won the RTE talent show You're a Star, performed at the service, accompanied by Ronan Moynihan, the organist.

Two flowers were placed on her coffin.

At Ballyduff cemetery, more people waited at the graveside, to the surprise of Fr Cushen. "When we went up there, there were about 20 to 30 locals who turned out. There were about 40 in all," he said. "It was fantastic to see such a presence.

"As a young curate, I was in London and when you saw deaths like that you might get four or five people coming to the funeral."

Gardai carried the coffin from the hearse, and after prayers, lowered it into the grave.

Fr Paddy Cushen said the community gave Geraldine a Christian burial, rather than a Catholic one, not knowing anything about her beliefs.

In his homily, he mentioned how in different parts of the country we hear of people disappearing. "There is always the hope that they will be found alive, but if not found alive, to be found and be able to be buried, and finality brought to their lives. It means so much for a family to achieve that finality and they have a place to go and pray for their loved one.

"We do not know the circumstances of the tragic death of this relatively young woman; she was a loving daughter of someone, a family member, and I have no doubt they would be delighted to know that she has received the full rites of the church and was laid to rest in consecrated ground."

"It was the proper thing to do, to pay our respects," said Inspector O'Sullivan. "It was one of those cases that you don't forget."

Sunday Independent