In the middle of the unimaginable, at a minor intersection in a rural Irish village, bewildering reality and a crushing sadness merged in memory of a shining spirit cruelly cut short.
Mourners gathered from early at this little junction where Idle Corner Road runs down to the main street, ending at the gates of St Brigid's Church in Mountbolus. They waited quietly in the January cold and intermittent morning rain, still coming to terms with the awful circumstances which brought them to this crossroads in Co Offaly.
How could this be happening?
Less than a week ago, Ashling Murphy was their talented young neighbour from Culla in Blue Ball who played camogie with the local club and taught music to the local kids and could turn out a fine traditional tune on the fiddle. She was teaching the first class in Durrow National School, having graduated from teacher training college a few months ago.
Everyone knew Ashling.
And then the evil strikes. She is violently murdered and killed by a lone stranger when out for a run in the afternoon sunshine along the well-trodden banks of the local canal.
A young life needlessly ended. The world changed forever for those left behind.
Once upon a week ago Ashling Murphy is going about her daily routine like any other active young woman.
Six days later she is gone, taken from her family in the most unspeakable of circumstances.
Six days later her shell-shocked family are attending her funeral, accepting the personal condolences of the President and the Taoiseach in their village church. Seven priests and a bishop officiate at the Mass. The service is televised live. An area outside is cordoned off for members of the media – local, national and international.
Six days later and the astonishing outpouring of national grief and anger continues. Ashling’s name is known the length and breadth of the country. Vigils held in her memory; makeshift shrines springing up in all sorts of places; prayers and poems offered; tears shed.
Six devastating days later, on the morning of Ashling's funeral, the local community gathers to remember her and stand in solidarity with her parents, Raymond and Kathleen, sister Amy, brother Cathal and boyfriend Ryan Casey.
"Together we grieve, we pray, we hurt – this is the heavy price we pay for love," said parish priest, Fr Michael Meade, during his homily.
Ashling was baptised in St Brigid’s.
Around the church, farmers have opened fields for use as car parks. Local men wearing high-vis jackets direct the traffic. Others act as stewards on the approach roads and in the church grounds. Others man the doors to the community hall, where the Mass will be shown on a big screen.
Inside and outside there are trestle tables with catering flasks of tea and coffee and trays of homemade cakes and sandwiches.
People want to help, help in any way they can. At least it’s something they can do.
The VIPs are among the first to arrive at the church. Ministers Helen McEntee, Catherine Martin and Norma Foley along with Ministers of State Pippa Hackett and Seán Fleming.
And then Taoiseach Micheál Martin, followed by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
But outside the gates, the children have been in place for almost an hour. The seven year olds from the two local primary schools, including Ashling’s class, wait in a line at the entrance, the saddest most innocent little guard of honour you ever saw.
The boys and girls are so well behaved, taking everything in with wide-eyed wonder. They each hold a single red rose and a copy of Ashling's beautiful graduation photograph. A few of them quietly play Rock, Paper, Scissors. One little boy asks if Joe Biden is coming when he hears talk of the president.
Their teachers stand behind them, trying hard not to get upset.
The Kilcormac and Killoughey GAA club form a guard of honour at the bottom of Idle Corner Road, which runs past the Lowertown cemetery and down to the junction with St Brigid's. The older men wear yellow and green sashes and the tearful members of Ashling's camogie team wear green and yellow tracksuits. Girls from the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Tullamore form another guard of honour.
Around the corner to the side of the community centre, Joe Freeley has come from Mayo with five white doves. He will release them towards the end of the Mass.
Glass lanterns lit with flickering candles are placed outside the front gates of many houses on the main road into the village. The strains of traditional Irish music fill the air as more and more musicians arrive with their instruments. Then the music gives way to the sound of engines as the funeral cortege appears on the cemetery road, a Garda motorcycle escort leading the way, blue lights flashing.
The children stop fidgeting at the sight, standing up straight. When the hearse passes they hold up their roses. There is a message on the photographs: “Fly High in the Sky. Our Shining Light.”
The principal mourners line up behind the coffin. Heartbroken and clinging to each other for support, they follow it inside. President Higgins approaches the Murphy family before taking his seat, touching the coffin as he passes it. There are hugs and tears from his wife Sabina.
The Taoiseach also offers his condolences to the grieving parents. He looks distraught as he talks to Ashling’s father.
Symbols reflecting her life are brought to the altar. They include a family photograph, a school book and a camogie stick.
In a lovely touch, as decided by the family, young women from Ashling’s family and friends provide the music, readings and prayers of the faithful.
“You have been robbed of your most precious gift – a gift that gave only joy and love, fun and laughter to many,” Fr Meade told the family.
Bishop Tom Deenihan spoke of “a depraved act of violence which deprived a kind, talented, loved and admired young woman of her life which has since united the country in grief and support”.
Mourners outside struggled to catch his words on the failing public address system. “We all know that no individual should die like Ashling and no family should suffer like Ashling’s. 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. Let us respect each other.”
There is, however, “a chink of light”, he said. It was carried by the vigils and the outpouring of support and sympathy and the local effort in recent days.
“Community is needed to overcome evils such as this.”
As the Mass drew to a close, one group of musicians set up on the road outside the gate. More made their way up to the cemetery. There were fiddles and button accordions, banjos, concertinas and guitars and Uileann pipes. The guard of honour reformed.
The funeral bell tolled as the family lined up behind the hearse in the churchyard, traditional music drifting on the air.
The President and his wife came to say farewell, both exchanging emotional embraces with the distraught parents, siblings and boyfriend.
Michael D and Sabina were there on behalf of the nation, conveying the feelings of the people.
Both crying as officials guided them back to their car, through the middle of the unimaginable, at a minor intersection in a rural Irish village.