One of the first stories I remember working on as a newly fledged journalist 14 years ago was that of a Belfast pensioner whose body lay undiscovered for a considerable time. The man had died in the three months before, but somehow his absence had gone unnoticed.
They remembered him in the local shop, and in the bookies, where he always liked to sit in the same seat at the window and watch his race results come up on the screen above. They remembered him always wearing a big leather hat.
But the phrases I heard most often from those who had lived alongside him in the quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of Belfast city centre, was that he was “a wee loner”, someone who “kept himself to himself”.
“I know everyone around here,” one neighbour said, hastily adding that they had been away when the death was discovered. “But to be honest, we don’t really bother much with each other.”
The story this week from Tipperary about the elderly couple whose bodies were found in their home, where they may have lain dead for 18 months, carries chilling echoes of that first story I worked on; but while it is rightly making headlines, the sad truth is that it is not as uncommon as we would like to think.
Earlier this year in Dublin, a pensioner’s decomposed remains were discovered at his property on Sallynoggin Road Lower, where it was believed he may have lain dead for more than a year.
The bodies of Michael Hurley (83) and Mary Holohan (79) lay undiscovered for several days in their Kilkenny home before family members became concerned and raised the alarm in 2018.
In October 2019, the Cork city coroner conducted two inquests within the space of a week into the deaths of two older men who had died alone in their homes. George Harrington (79) had lain dead for six months, and Ritchie Scanlan (85) had been dead for even longer.
“I find it troubling that this poor man living alone could have slipped through the cracks and be dead for over six months without anyone noticing,” coroner Philip Comyn said at Mr Scanlan’s inquest.
The idea that someone could die without anyone noticing is a appalling thought, one that taps into our worst fears. The fact all these deaths involved older people raises important questions about care and accountability around potentially vulnerable groups – who should have been looking out for them?
But that is not an easy question to answer. In an era of increased technical connectivity, far from making people more visible, it has made them less so. Messages can be delivered, pensions paid directly to accounts, no face-to-face contact required.
Families can fracture. Some time after that first story I worked on, I remember a family member of the deceased contacting me to say other issues had been at play.
And what of respecting privacy? The reasons behind the deaths in Tipperary are still unclear, but it struck me that the observations after the death in Belfast – that the pensioner had never invited social interaction – were in a similar vein.
“They kept to themselves,” one man said this week. “People didn’t want to intrude on their lives or their property.”
On a cultural level, we pride ourselves on our sociability, but we are also long-time subscribers to the importance of minding our own business, never more so than when it comes to those living around us. If someone does not seem keen on our company, well, we are not going to foist ourselves on them, are we? Good fences make good neighbours.
The idea of a community where every resident has their life intertwined with those around them is a bygone concept, if it ever truly existed. Even that bastion of perfect cul-de-sac co-existence, Australian TV show Neighbours, is heading for cancellation after 37 years.
I know that when I moved house several years ago, I was delighted to report to friends and family that my new neighbours were “quiet”. Of the 20 houses in our street, I’m friendly with some and know most to see, but if I didn’t see one of the quieter ones for a while, would I notice? I like to think I would, but an immediate realisation? Probably not.
In the aftermath of that first death I reported on and those since, there was an outcry . “What has happened to us as a society?” “How could there be so little care in the community?”
Before pointing the finger, ask yourself if you would have done any differently. If that quiet neighbour who is not on the street WhatsApp group failed to leave the bin out one week, would you be quick to notice and act?
“It’s a horrible way to go,” one of the pensioner’s neighbours told me all those years ago in Belfast, and it is those words that replay in my head each time I hear of a death being discovered, like those in Tipperary.
But how to stop it happening? There is no easy answer. I wish there was.