Locals resent criticism after deaths of husband and wife in their rural Tipperary bungalow went unnoticed
It was the time spent at home recovering from a recent injury that allowed one neighbour’s thoughts to turn to the puzzling situation at the bungalow next door in south Tipperary.
Local people had been given to believe Nicholas and Hilary Smith had moved away and gone to live in France.
It is understood a local woman, who had befriended the intensely private English couple, even inviting them to her daughter’s wedding, had received a note outlining their plans. She could not recall whether it had a stamp or had simply been dropped through her letterbox.
It is believed it has since been mislaid.
The note said the Smiths had sold their house to friends from England and would be moving to France immediately.
The new buyers would not be moving over for a while, but had family in Kilkenny who would look in on the property from time to time.
The Smiths had paid a local gardener up front for the year to keep cutting the grass and had told the post office to hold their mail, while the electricity and home heating oil continued to be paid by direct debit.
When the money ran out for the maintenance, the gardener continued to cut the grass for some time, saying he knew they would fix him up when they returned.
But something about the situation did not add up, said another of the couple’s neighbours, who also said he had been puzzled by what had happened for some time before that.
“I just got a strange feeling about it. I couldn’t understand what had happened and why there was no activity there. When I was working I was just coming and going with no time to think about it, but when I got injured I had the chance to start wondering about what had happened,” he said.
Through a newly created gap in the thick hedge about two-and-a-half metres high, he was able to spot the pristine 151 silver Volvo that had been driven solely by Mr Smith, who is said to have been a retired cruise ship captain. His wife did not drive.
The car had apparently been parked very deliberately and in a manner that had hidden it from the road, tucked in close to the wall in a corner of the yard created where the extension at the rear had connected with the original bungalow.
“I don’t know if he always parked it like that because the gap in the hedge was never there before,” the neighbour said, explaining how the position of the vehicle had troubled him, and it was this that had compelled him to contact gardaí.
Yesterday, forensic teams searched the bungalow at Rossane, outside Cloneen, for evidence of the circumstances behind the deaths of the couple, whose bodies had apparently lain in the house for some time.
The expiry dates on milk cartons and other perishable items in the fridge suggest they died in November or December 2020.
Some gardaí exiting the property clearly found welcome relief as they gulped in the fresh air.
Outside, the grass was almost knee-high. Beside its boundary of shrubs, now also overgrown, the garden had all but reverted to meadow and wildflowers.
It seemed beyond belief to imagine what had happened here, and yet at a time when the world had become forced to become socially distanced and isolated because of public health measures, it was all
too easy to see how this situation could have gone unnoticed.
In their time, the couple had kept the house as neat as a pin and had built a garage, which had housed the old car they had not sold, their neighbour said.
They had moved to Rossane after failing in their bid to buy a house in Clonmel.
In almost 11 years living close to the quiet-mannered couple, he had chatted with them only four times.
Their usual driving route did not take them past his house. Nor did the couple go out walking in the locality, which lies in the picturesque foothills of Slievenamon.
The main hillwalkers’ route runs the other side of the mountain and the wooded area near the couple’s bungalow was rarely frequented by visitors.
Another local person had seen Mr Smith only once, when he was spotted picking primroses in a nearby ditch.
His wife, meanwhile, is understood to have had arthritis, often keeping herself wrapped up in a shawl.
She also suffered from a sensitivity to sunlight, which meant the blinds and curtains of the bungalow were always kept closed.
However, they did not appear frail; indeed, the neighbour thought they looked younger than their years.
“They were a very close couple,” he said, adding that they were “pleasant” and “would salute you in the road if they met you”, but were not the type of people “who would tell you their life story”.
“But if they were private you had to respect that – you weren’t going to force yourself on them,” he added.
Recalling his last encounter with Mr Smith, the neighbour said he believed it was in September 2020 since they had both been in short sleeves.
They had greeted one another with the Covid elbow bump, and Mr Smith had asked him whether he had by any chance received a package for him in error.
The neighbour also recalled how Mr Smith had “done his research” and already knew by their first meeting that he was a member of the community heart programme, and was further reassured to hear he was trained in first aid.
A social media backlash – with questions raised as to how the fate of the Smiths could go unnoticed for so long – has deeply wounded the local community.
At the local garage, an older man ruefully raised his eyebrows.
“We’re in the spotlight,” he said quietly.
But the neighbour said: “The people who are making these comments on social media don’t know the situation.
“They don’t know the geography of the area and they think that when you have a neighbour that they’re close by – they don’t know the distance between the houses here.
“These people were private – you couldn’t just go knocking on their door and push your way in if they didn’t want it.”