30 Jun 2022

Tin whistles and tears, as thousands gather for funeral of Ashling Murphy

Tin whistles and tears, as thousands gather for funeral of Ashling Murphy

The pupils of Ashling Murphy were in school with their teacher last week. On Tuesday, they were in a church for her funeral.

The body of Ms Murphy, a talented musician and teacher, was found on the banks of the Grand Canal in Tullamore in Co Offaly, sparking a murder investigation.

Hours after the funeral on Tuesday, Irish police confirmed that a man had been arrested on suspicion of murder.

People started to gather early, lining the streets of the small village of Mountbolus to say goodbye to Ms Murphy.

St Brigid’s Church, where the funeral Mass was held, had seen fewer sadder days in its nearly 200-year history.

Neither had it likely ever seen a gathering of mourners. Irish president Michael D Higgins and Irish premier Micheal Martin, as well as Justice Minister Helen McEntee, made the hour-and-a-half journey from Dublin to attend the funeral which has shocked a nation.

But while those political figures slipped quietly into the church, it was Ms Murphy’s former pupils who stood outside the church on a cold January day to await the arrival of their former teacher.

Some fidgeted, others giggled. Others looked lost amid the crowd as thousands packed into the small village main street.

An Irish police officer, passing by as gardai managed and marshalled the swelling crowd, absentmindedly patted one of the children on the head as he walked by.

All the children clutched a photo of Ms Murphy, imprinted with the words: “Fly high in the sky, our shining light.”

It was a “depraved act of violence” that ended the life of the Durrow National School teacher, Bishop of Meath Tom Deenihan told the funeral.

He told mourners that Ms Murphy’s murder has questioned attitudes, particularly attitudes towards women, and “our values and morality”.

“Respect is an old-fashioned word but it is an important one. Respect was missing last Wednesday but it has re-emerged here all the stronger.”

A week later, the people of Co Offaly seemed determined to show the best of Irish values to those watching around the world.

In the local community centre beside the church, people packed inside to listen to the Mass. At the door, local women offered tea and cakes to mourners.

Beside the nearby GAA pitch, a large screen was erected – friends watched the proceedings quietly as only a few yards away, more people stood in the cold and the rain outside the church catching snippets of the service.

That GAA pitch, home to the local club Ms Murphy belonged to, has in previous years been a scene of jubilation and celebration.

On Tuesday, the same terrace was an ocean of sadness and solemn faces.

At times, it felt like grief was too much for words.

Music, so often, filled the gaps.

As the coffin of Ms Murphy left the church, it was to the sounds of the Irish traditional music she knew so well.

In the crowd earlier, children had held tokens of traditional music – tin whistles and fiddles.

“I played music with her all my life. Started playing music when I was seven or eight, and all through the years, all through the fleadhs, would have been competing with her. You’d always recognise the face. She was lovely,” Neil Corcoran, who attended the funeral with his mother, told PA news agency.

As the reels and rhythms filled the street, the musicians cried silently as they clutched fiddles, accordions and concertinas.

When the music stopped, briefly and suddenly, silence settled on the crowd.

There was no conversational chatter, just the sound of the engine of the hearse as thousands of people stood and stared forward in the direction of the graveyard, where Ms Murphy was to buried.

As suddenly as it had stopped, the music returned – the musicians playing through the cold and the tears.

“Together we grieve, we pray, we hurt,” Parish priest Michael Meade had earlier told mourners inside the church.

Together, he might also have said, the Tullamore community played music.

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