Tullamore was shaken by the murder of Ashling Murphy
The words “community spirit” are spoken with such immediacy and so frequently in tragic moments that we risk undermining their power.
What does “community” even mean? It means individuals, it means families, it means peer groups, it means children’s classes, it means bands of musicians, it means camogie teams. All of these, and more, have been hit in Tullamore and across Offaly this week.
For everyone in the city, the shock experienced is profound. It’s traumatic. I live just 400 yards from the access point used by countless people to walk, jog and cycle the Grand Canal, the beautiful public amenity that Tullamore is blessed with.
The Fiona Pender Memorial there serves the purpose for which it was designed: a reminder that in 1996 we lost a 25-year-old pregnant woman who grew up near the waterway.
A quarter of a century after his disappearance, his disappearance remains an unsolved murder.
The atmosphere along Fiona’s Way was hushed yesterday as people continued to pay their respects in the only way possible, walking part of the route of Ashling Murphy’s fateful last steps. No one can walk for him, but they can try.
There were so many on the canal bank on that bright Wednesday afternoon when the 23-year-old teacher lost her life. The Grand Canal Greenway is now public property – as much a part of the community as the people who use it.
That’s why the attack on Ashling was an attack on all of us, especially our young women. It was a violation of our rights, our freedoms, the comforts we take for granted.
Almost everyone knows someone who has been in contact with the gardaí. Almost everyone knows someone with a connection to Ashling. And former suspect Radu Floricel, who joined expressions of support for the Murphys after his release, is also part of the community.
Ashling’s family home in Blueball is just a few miles south of Tullamore. Durrow National School, where she taught 28 first class boys and girls, is just a few miles north. She is a former student of the Sacré-Coeur secondary school a few meters from the canal.
Once we spotted a guard car and security tape at the canal, we knew something big was afoot, hoping the rumors of a woman’s death were false. Our hopes were dashed.
Those who had crossed paths with Ashling through traditional music were sending messages to each other. Likewise, camogie players, coaches and the GAA community. Parents of children at Durrow School have contacted to verify if the tragic news could be true.
In the search for meaning, there was grief, there was sympathy, there was support. But there was also anger, an understandable emotion.
There was relief that a man had been arrested. And then disbelief when he was released. And a strange and sinister acceptance when another suspect emerged, the gardaí continued their work, and the ripples of that stone thrown into the water when Ashling perished reached another village a few miles away.
Like many Irish towns, the Tullamore community is now diverse. Many “new” Offalys are not new at all. The decades since their arrival have passed quickly. Younger people know Ireland better than Eastern Europe.
Ashling’s death also had an impact on the so-called “immigrant” community. They have shouldered their own burden as others attempt to deal with the inexplicable – the murder of a young woman by an apparent stranger in broad daylight.
The New Irish work and live among us. A much smaller number are in direct service and one of them, Turkish journalist and asylum seeker Cagdas Gokbel, sent me a message that could have been written by any of us: “I was really horrified that this happened at a place where I was walking and cycling with my wife… I am so sad every day.
The astonishing bravery of the Murphy family has been an example to all of us. His father Ray played the banjo at the candlelight vigil on the canal bank at Cappincur, near the murder scene.
As I drove from there to the next vigil in Mountbolus, the Murphys’ home parish and the place where my mother grew up, the words of American Pie forced their way into my head: “But something touched deep within me. The day the music died.” Then Ray and his remaining daughter Amy joined the Ballyboy band Comhaltas for some tunes on the GAA field where hundreds of others had gathered in solidarity. The music lives.
Returning to a dark Tullamore later, I saw that the Christmas lights had been turned back on. There were even more flowers and candles by the canal. Ashling’s bright soul lives on too. She was one of us.
– If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.