Sitting close to the Burren and shielded by back roads, the home of Joe and Claire Collins is tucked away in the townland of Crossard, in Kilnaboy, a rural village in north Co Clare.
The exterior of the detached bungalow looks well-kept and is fronted by a neat garden. On Thursday morning, two vehicles were parked outside the house. Nothing seemed amiss.
Just a week earlier, the bodies of the married couple were found at the bungalow: Ms Collins (51) in a bedroom in the house, her husband (54) in an outhouse connected to the property.
Gardaí investigating the deaths of the married couple are treating the case as a murder-suicide. Detectives believe that Mr Collins killed his wife, before taking his own life.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said one neighbour on Thursday. “It doesn’t feel real.”
On Wednesday afternoon, 10km from Kilnaboy, in Kilfenora, the Burren Visitor Centre was closed. A short message, attached to a black ribbon and taped to the entrance of the centre, provided an explanation: “The Burren Visitor Centre is closed as a mark of respect on the sad passing of our manager, Claire Collins.”
“It’ll be open again, but I don’t know when,” a woman said, walking close to the centre. “It’s very sad, very shocking.”
Ms Collins was the “bright shining light” behind the recently revamped centre, said Joe Garrihy, a Fine Gael councillor based in Lisdoonvarna. Mr Garrihy knew Ms Collins from their time working on regeneration projects in Kilfenora.
“She was more than a manager; she was a friend in the place to everybody,” he said.
Ms Collins was responsible for transforming the visitor centre, another man says, walking close to the ruins of St Fachtna’s Cathedral in Kilfenora.
“It makes no sense, a total surprise. Very sad, we’re all very, very sad,” he says. “The whole county, I suppose, is steeped in sadness.”
Ms Collins had a great respect for people, and was very helpful, the man adds. “I’d say, if you asked about the husband, it would be the very same thing in Ennis – he worked in Ennis,” he says.
On Thursday morning, Ben Arra, wearing an apron and hat, was setting up shop for the day at Keane’s Butchers in Ennis. Mr Arra says he worked with Mr Collins, who was also a butcher, for more than two decades. He was in work in the days before his death.
“[There was] no way to see that coming, no way,” he says. Mr Arra adds that he might be biased, because of his friendship with Mr Collins, but that he only has “good things to say about Joe”.
Across north Clare, people speak highly of the couple: well-known, well-respected, well-liked. Their image of the couple, who were married for 30 years and had just recently become grandparents, jars with the tragic events of 10 days ago.
“There’s no explanation,” says Fr Pat O’Neill, a priest based in the village of Ruan. He officiated at the funeral for the couple in St Brigid’s Church in Corofin.
“[It’s a] small community, there’d be a huge amount of support,” he says. “[But] the people are numbed.”
Deborah McDermott, a native of Maine in the US, but a resident of Corofin for the last three years, was walking close to the church on Wednesday afternoon, carrying a small bag of groceries.
In the village, red-and-white chequered flags were draped from the windows of shops and homes, ahead of Corofin’s appearance in the semi-finals of the Munster Intermediate Hurling Championship on Sunday.
Ms McDermott, who did not know the Collins couple, says the funeral was one of the largest she had seen.
At the funeral, Sara Collins, daughter of Joe and Claire, read a poem to the congregation, stating: “Mum and Dad, we love you, we want you both to know.”
“[There was] big support for the family,” Ms McDermott says. “It really shook people up, for sure.”
“[Locals] don’t know what to think or what to say or to make of the whole situation,” Fr O’Neill says.
Garda sources said the case was being treated as one in which Mr Collins murdered his wife, Claire, inside their home and then took his own life.
Postmortems on their remains were completed by Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margot Bolster at University Hospital Limerick. As is standard – for privacy reasons and because a Garda investigation into the murder and suicide continues – the results of the postmortems were not released.
However, The Irish Times understands Ms Collins was asphyxiated, likely by smothering, and that Mr Collins died by suicide. A relative of the family called to the property on the afternoon of November 9th and phoned the emergency services at about 2.30pm.
The remains of Mr Collins were found in a shed while Ms Collins was found dead on a bed inside the house. Gardaí believe she was moved on to the bed by her husband after he murdered her.
Cases involving suicide often never reach a definitive conclusion in terms of establishing a motive. One line of inquiry being pursued by gardaí is that Mr Collins believed his wife was unhappy in the marriage and feared that it was ending.
Garda sources pointed out that because the man is now dead, efforts to establish his motives with any certainty may prove very difficult.
Interviews with the dead couple’s family and friends will form part of the investigation and may shed light on Mr Collins and his conduct and state of mind just before the murder. However, because the case will never result in criminal charges, evidence will never be aired in court.
Even though coroner’s inquests, which are public, will be held into the deaths, that process is only designed to establish the cause and does not explore motives or decide on culpability.
There is no State-run mechanism at present where the results of an investigation into murder-suicide cases are released. It means that unless surviving relatives speak to the media in time, no insight emerges into the background of such cases that may, perhaps, identify warning signs that could help prevent similar incidents in future.
The Garda last week issued a number of press releases relating to the case, but at no point has the force referred to the fact Ms Collins was murdered, or even that an investigation was under way into an unlawful killing.
Instead, they said the “primary focus” for investigating gardaí was to prepare a file for the coroner’s inquest, adding that gardaí were not looking for anyone else in relation to this incident – code for a murder-suicide, though neither is mentioned.
In his 2017 book, Mental Health in Ireland, Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, notes that according to international studies, 88 per cent of people who engage in murder-suicides are men, most commonly in their mid-40s.
Prof Kelly writes that the most common life event in the run-up to a murder-suicide is the loss of – or a significant change in – a close personal relationship. Mental illness – mainly depression – plays a role in a majority (roughly two-thirds) of murder-suicide cases, he notes.
From Ennis and up towards the Burren, to Kilfenora, people express shock and sadness, at the deaths of the couple, but not anger.
“No, no anger, at all,” a neighbour of the Collins’s and long-time resident of Crossard said on Thursday. “Good friends, they were good neighbours,” she said, gesturing towards the house. “If you ever needed anything, [I’d] call over – salt of the earth.”
The man walking by the cathedral in Kilfenora said the same.
“Why should there be anger? No, no, God no. There’s no anger, it’s just a sad case,” he said.
“All you can say is they were a highly regarded family, absolutely. No one understands anything, really.”
He added: “You don’t know what triggers the mind. No one knows. I suppose there’ll be an inquest. You don’t know what happened. No one knows.”
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