A scattering of flowers placed on the side of a peaceful country road in the shadow of the wind turbines at Ballyandrew, Ferns, was the only lingering evidence yesterday (Monday) of the tragic story that had emerged there. A week previously, gardaí had cordoned off the road and were carrying out technical examinations at the scene as the skeletal remains of a woman in her fifties were discovered in a ditch bordering a field of winter crops.
Gardaí had visibly cut the hedges right back while carrying out their examinations and it had become clear that the woman had most likely crawled into a hollow space between two ditches, whether to rest or seeking shelter, and it was to be here her remains were found by two local people out walking. A spokesman for Enniscorthy Gardaí said that they are working to establish how long the woman's body had lain undiscovered, but said that it could have been up to a year. He also said that it could be 'some time' before they are in the position to release the woman's name.
The community of Ferns were horrified by the discovery and the fact that someone could have died so utterly alone in their midst. Compelled to do something and mark this woman's passing, a crowd gathered at St Aidan's Church last night to take part in a candlelit vigil and offer prayers for the mystery woman, who was seemingly unknown to locals and whose identity is yet to be revealed by gardaí.
'It's a real community effort,' said Eleanor Moynihan, one of those behind last night's vigil. 'We were driven to do something. I think for a woman to die on her own in a ditch like that really stirred something in me. Then she's in her fifties and I'm in my fifties myself. We felt, as a village, we just had to do something.'
A sense of mystery still surrounds the woman's identity. While an English passport was among the personal items found among her scant belongings she was said to have been living under an Italian identity and spoke with an Italian accent when she rented a room briefly from a pensioner in nearby Clonattin.
'Nobody seems to know who this woman was locally,' said Eleanor. 'Whoever she was though, she was somebody's loved one at some stage. Everyone was deeply shocked by the discovery. To think that someone could die like that in our own community...it's frightening. It's a lovely part of the country that she was found in as well. Very quiet and peaceful. It's just so sad.'
Local Parish Priest, Fr Paddy Cushen added that, while there are many unanswered questions, sometimes these things just happen.
'The whole place here was shocked,' he said. 'The fact that this woman died on her own out there is very sad. Things like this used to be a more common occurrence. Sometimes people just want to go off by themselves and don't want to be known to anybody. I think sadly that was the case here.'
The woman's remains were eventually discovered by locals out walking the road. A lady out for a Christmas Eve stroll noticed a piece of tarpaulin in the hedge on the land of local farmer Martin Doyle. When it was still there two weeks later, she decided to take a closer look and saw enough to know that a body lay beneath the plastic, a glimpse of nail polish suggesting the deceased was female.
However, the remains were so decomposed that they were skeletal; a post-mortem later confirming that they were those of a woman in her 50s. Gardaí do not suspect any foul play in the woman's death and believe that she died where she lay.
In a bag lying next to the woman's remains were some documents which hinted towards her identity - among them believed to be a UK passport and a curriculum vitae, listing places she had worked - something which gardaí are said to be following up. While the post-mortem suggested that the woman's body had lain in the hedge for 'approximately 12 months', reportedly among the documents recovered was a rent receipt dated last May for €60.
A 90 year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Independent over the weekend that it was he who the woman had been lodging with and that he was 'horrified' when gardaí knocked on his door. He described an unkempt woman of average height and slim build who really valued her privacy. She gave an Italian name and told him she was from a region between Naples and Rome. She also told him that she worked in a restaurant at the other end of the county that was run by Italians.
'Her main objective, when she came in, would be to get up to her bedroom without my even noticing her,' he said. 'I would just see a wisp of a black shadow going up the stairs. She must have had very soft shoes too because you wouldn't hear her coming in. And she made no noise at all in the room.'
'It later transpired that she was a woman of the roads,' he continued. 'She walked, she walked, she walked. I said to her, if you want me to give you a lift to any place when you are looking for a job, I will give you a lift.'
While the woman was said to have paid rent 'sporadically', she always insisted on a receipt and towards the end she stopped paying and the man said that he never chased her for the money. Then she departed in a manner as mysterious as she had arrived.
'She came down and she was in the hall at the front door and she turned around with a smile on her face and said "thanks",' he recalled. 'She just said one word going out the door, "thanks". That was the last I saw of her. I got the notion that she was walking away. I never asked her for the keys. She had two - the key to her room and the key of the hall door. I never got those back, so I was half expecting her to come back and let herself in. As days passed, I thought, well, perhaps she has got more suitable accommodation or something like that.'
Sadly that, seemingly was not the case and the elderly man was just as shocked as the rest of the North Wexford community last week when details of the grim find began to emerge.
Gardaí have said that they are awaiting the results of further tests to establish exactly how the woman died and DNA tests to establish her exact identity. The HSE and social services are also trying to establish if she was a client, while inquiries have been made to the UK and Italy through Interpol.
'Somewhere out there, someone is missing a family member,' a garda spokesman said. 'It's just a matter of tracking them down now at this stage and that's what we're working on.'
However, one of the things puzzling locals in the Ferns area is how the woman lay undiscovered for so long without coming to the attention of walkers, dogs or local farmers. Mr Doyle pointed out that the stretch of hedge near where she was found had only been cut back in November and nothing had been seen.
While there are a lot of unanswered questions, what is certain is that a short journey from the close-knit town of Ferns, a woman died a tragic and lonely death. It was with this in mind that locals gathered, lit a candle and offered their own silent prayers at St Aidan's Church last night.