Keeping to yourself can have tragic outcome



On social media and elsewhere there was a lot of disquiet when the bodies of English couple Nicholas Smith (81) and his wife Hilary (79) were found at their home in Tipperary where they had been living for about eight years or so. Disquiet and dismay that their absence in the community of Cloneen could have gone unnoticed, unremarked upon, when it was disclosed that the couple had likely been dead for up to 18 months.

Apparently, the couple, who had spent much of their early married life working on cruise ships, had no children. Gardai are now trying to contact distant relatives in Australia. Sources in the community say the couple were very “private” and “kept themselves to themselves”. And, allegedly, had told neighbours back in October 2020 they were planning to move to France for some time and even paid a local handyman up front to look after the garden of their tidy bungalow.

Which, to some degree, explains the lack of curiosity in Cloneen as to the whereabouts or well-being of the couple.

Gardai have ruled out any foul play or suggestion of a murder-suicide pact and the people of Cloneen are to arrange funerals for the couple.

Nicholas and Hilary Smith being dead for 18 months before their bodies were discovered is, sadly, not a unique story. Earlier this year, a pensioner’s decomposed remains were discovered at his property on Sallynoggin Road Lower in Dublin, 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 in 2018. In October 2019, the Cork city coroner conducted two inquests within the space of a week into the deaths of two old men who had died alone in their homes. George Harrington (79) had lain dead for six months, and Ritchie Scanlan (85) 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.

That such could — and does — happen taps into our worst concerns.

That these deaths involved older people raises questions about care and accountability around potentially vulnerable people. Should their neighbours, their communities, not have been looking out for them? Arguably, that not’s easy to answer. We now live in a world of increased technical and virtual connectivity, where, 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 is required.

Many rural post offices are gone, bank branches too. All transactions are done by automatic monthly computerised set-ups. Food home delivered. People don’t need to ‘go out’ as much anymore, to be ‘seen’ by neighbours; for banter to be exchanged. In many instances, elderly people can’t because of mobility issues.

And there is the question of respecting privacy. “They kept to themselves,” one man said of the Smiths. “People didn’t want to intrude in their lives because they kept themselves to themselves.”

We Irish, as a people, may well pat ourselves on the back for our renowned sociability but we are also mindful of minding our own business, never more so than when it comes to those living around us. As someone once said, good fences make for good neighbours.

We are long past that era of Brinsley MacNamara’s The Valley Of The Squinting Windows. That one-time community or neighbourhood where everyone had their life interacting with those around them. Where it once took a village to raise a child.

According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), of the total population aged 65 and over, 156,799 souls live alone — that’s 26.7% of the total.

Loneliness and being alone, I would argue, has a direct correlation with the aforementioned State erosion of local communities and community infrastructure. That rural post office, the bank, the corner shop, the fair and the livestock mart were once all part of the fabric of society, contributing socially, as well as commercially, to people coming together.

When was the last time you or I checked on a neighbour living alone? To check that they were okay?

For many, a knock on the door can be the most welcome sound of their day. Indeed, may be the only welcoming sound in their solitary lives..

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