The canal route in Co Offaly has been a haven for walkers and joggers during the pandemic – a popular trail for clearing the mind during the darkest days of Covid-19 lockdowns.

But on Wednesday the peacefulness of this picturesque stretch on the Grand Canal Greenway was violently shattered.

Primary school teacher Ashling Murphy (23), a young woman described as a star by all who knew her, never returned home from her run.

A forensic tent on the canal bank on Thursday covered the spot where she was killed.

A team of Garda divers scoured the stretch of water at Cappincur, about 3km east of Tullamore, while their colleagues search around the bank for anything unusual. Uniformed gardaí came and went, navigating their 4X4s over the tiny stone and humpbacked Digby Bridge, standing here since the late 1700s.

Gardaí search the scene of the murder of Ashling Murphy, on the banks of the Grand Canal, in Tullamore, beside Cappincur. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Gardaí search the scene of the murder of Ashling Murphy, on the banks of the Grand Canal, in Tullamore, beside Cappincur. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

A team of officers, in blue Garda-issue overalls, worked the undergrowth with pitchforks and rakes looking for anything that may be relevant to the investigation.

A steady flow of local women came and left floral tributes, some pausing briefly to reflect in the stillness, before leaving again. One woman came with her daughter of primary school age. Both were in tears.

“Tullamore is just in shock,” one woman confided. She and her peers couldn’t believe this could happen in “our town”.

“We were just saying to each other this is about the time she would have wrapped up her day in the classroom and come out here for her jog yesterday. But now she’s gone. Gone.”

Another woman said: “There is shock, absolutely. But there is a lot of anger. That stretch of the canal is called Boland’s Lock and then leading into that we have what we call Fiona Pender’s Way. And Fiona is someone we are remembering today too.”

Ms Pender was also from Tullamore and she was disappeared in August 1996 – aged 25 years at the time and seven months pregnant. Gardaí believe she was murdered and her body disposed of. Her remains have never been found. Despite several arrests, and a suspect being identified, nobody has ever been charged with any crime related to her disappearance.

From the townland of Blueball just outside Tullamore, Ms Murphy had a sporting background, playing with Kilcormac Killoughey Camogie Club. She was also a talented musician, playing fiddle and tin whistle and having just begun mastering the uilleann pipes.

When she completed her degree at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick she got a job in Durrow National School about 7km from Tullamore. She started as a substitute teacher last March and the job became permanent in September, when she took charge of first class.

Her pupils must now come to terms with her sudden loss.

School principal James Hogan told The Irish Times that staff had been “overwhelmed” with the messages they had received from the shocked local community, and from across the country.

“We’re highly devastated,” he said. “She was fantastic; a tremendous teacher and she had a shining light about her. First class idolised her, the kids are just heartbroken. There has been a lot of tears here today.”

The Irish Times

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