Tullamore will rise, and it will do so in honour of Ashling Murphy

A much-loved amenity is now tainted and will forever be tainted by brutality, but it will be used

 Gardaí continue their investigations  at the scene of the death of Ashling Murphy on the Grand Canal Way in Tullamore. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Gardaí continue their investigations at the scene of the death of Ashling Murphy on the Grand Canal Way in Tullamore. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

By early January every year, the reeds and bullrushes along the Grand Canal in Tullamore near Boland’s Lock and Digby Bridge have been cut back, making it easier to view the water’s edge.

In summer time the plants are dense and tall, in places the water is only a foot deep. Before Wednesday afternoon, in their darkest moments, some of the women who walk it daily may have occasionally felt uncomfortable.

But at this time of year it is clear. Fields, ditches, the occasional gateway and clumps of trees lie on one side of a straight path that is perfect for walking or running. Or, at least it was until Wednesday afternoon.

When I reach the stretch just beyond Boland’s Lock and before I get to Digby Bridge I know I am getting towards the half-way point of my daily walk. From my house to beyond the bridge is a brisk 30-minute walk.

Many, preferring a shorter stroll, tend to use Boland’s Lock as the turning point, so there are usually fewer walkers and runners beyond that, but it is still a well-trafficked route.

It is a tarmacadamed route that I have walked hundreds, if not thousands of times, easier than the rough-grassed path on the other side of the canal. I have never felt unsafe there.

On Wednesday afternoon I walked the canal path at the same time that Ashling Murphy was killed, but I was on the western side of town on a quieter route, less popular with local walkers who prefer the Boland’s Lock side.

For years my mother, an even more enthusiastic and experienced walker, has cautioned me to take the Boland’s Lock walk as there are more people, so safer for a woman walking alone.

She also cautioned me not to wear earbuds to listen to music but to be aware of my surroundings. To be honest, this advice was more about hearing overtaking cyclists than anything more sinister.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the path became even more popular with locals, with Boland’s Lock often crowded – but within the social distancing rules – with people eager for some fresh air, just a sense of freedom.

The path is relatively new. In my youth, it was a grass track, muddy in winter. But it has been developed, now stretching for miles on both sides of the town. Eventually, it is hoped to open it up all the way to Dublin.

Digby Bridge is centuries old, high walled, built of stone, and the last bridge that can take traffic until Ballycommon 10km away. Last year a car park was opened to encourage more walkers.

Next to the bridge, a wooden gateway prevents cars turning onto the walkway, offering security for walkers. Walkers need only think about avoiding runners and cyclists. Or we did, until Wednesday afternoon.

Across the canal at Puttaghuan is the Sacred Heart School where Ashling Murphy attended from 2011 to 2017. Today, its students frequently relax or walk along the canal’s bank during breaks. Or they did, until Wednesday afternoon.

Not letting violence win

On Thursday a regular walker encouraged me to walk with her along our usual route. “We can’t let violence win. We have to get back to using that wonderful amenity. If we don’t then he wins.

“This is our town, our walkway, we should be able to use it, safely, whenever we want,” she said, hours before anyone in the town knew that Ashling Murphy’s killer is still at large, still a danger.

Once again women are second guessing their actions, making decisions on the basis of security fears. Will our sense of outrage win over our caution as mothers? What example are we giving our daughters if we capitulate and censor ourselves?

While there is now a palpable sense of fear among women in our small town, there is also a feeling of outrage – that a young woman, taking a run, in daylight, in a safe location, should have faced such an horrific death.

There is a sense of violation, too, that a much-loved amenity – once a vital trade link, inextricably linked with the town’s history, a vital artery for the Tullamore of today – is now tainted and will forever be tainted by brutality.

How long before local women feel safe? Yes, we will walk between Boland’s Lock and Digby Bridge. Will we feel safe? Not likely, not for some time, but Tullamore will rise, and it will do so in honour of Ashling Murphy.