The 72-year-old grandmother who died in a shocking car inferno in Co. Cork this week was a ‘kind, warm and quiet’ nursing-home cook who had planned to retire this year.
As the tightknit community in the hamlet of Dromahane tried to come to terms with the grisly death of Mary O’Keefe yesterday, it emerged that a man in his 60s – believed to have been friends with the mother-of-three – had been arrested.
As well as looking forward to her long-deserved retirement, Ms O’Keefe was looking forward to getting back to normality once the pandemic was over.
Yesterday, people in the quiet village described the incident as their ‘worst tragedy in living memory’. Throughout the day, members of the parish gathered in small clusters, solemnly talking about the suspected killing of Ms O’Keefe. Four elderly women joined an impromptu tribute outside the Church of St Peter the Apostle and fought to control their emotions.
Few words were spoken. In truth, no words were capable of describing the scale of the tragedy.
Despite its small size, Dromahane is no stranger to grief. In recent years, several members of the community had lost their lives in road-traffic collisions.
And while any sudden death is no less than tragic than another, Thursday’s incident came with an extra layer of disbelief and bewilderment.
Many knew Ms O’Keefe as a quiet, pleasant woman who worked as a cook at a local nursing home.
She loved to dance, socialise with her neighbours and spend time with her family. The event left her community with a profound sense of powerlessness.
Shortly before a man was arrested in relation to her death, a close friend and neighbour of Ms O’Keefe said she could not get the ‘gruesomeness’ of the incident out of her head.
The details of what transpired after Mary and ‘a friend’ arrived in separate cars in a secluded area of Doneraile makes for difficult reading.
A member of the public first raised the alarm at around 4.30pm after they spotted a car on fire.
The forest trail had become increasingly popular since the pandemic and was the last place anyone might have expected danger to be lurking.
Gardaí and Cork Fire Brigade arrived at the scene less than 30 minutes later. It wasn’t until they inspected the vehicle that they realised a person was inside.
Sources say the body was burnt to such an extent that it will be ‘very difficult’ to make a formal identification following a postmortem.
After their discovery, gardai began a search of the surrounding area and minutes later, they discovered a man in his 60s lying in a nearby river.
He was retrieved from the water and given immediate medical assistance as he was suffering from severe hypothermia.
He was subsequently taken to Cork University Hospital and questioned by investigating officers yesterday.
Local rumours that the incident occurred as a result of a freak accident soon became less prevalent when gardaí arrested the man on suspicion of unlawful killing yesterday evening.
However, they stressed the nature of their investigation will be determined by the postmortem results.
Little is known about the identity of the man, who is from Limerick, but it’s understood he had worked in the forestry industry.
Neighbours of Ms O’Keefe said they didn’t know much about him but revealed he was ‘good friends’ with the 72-year-old.
Gardaí kept the scene of the incident sealed off yesterday to members of the public. From the roadside, the dense trees sheltered the burnt-out car from view.
As the afternoon progressed, a recovery truck removed the charred shell of the vehicle which was tightly wrapped up in a sheet.
A short distance away from the cordon, Ms O’Keefe’s white Ford EcoSport SUV sat untouched.
After Garda forensics examined it, her car was also removed for further assessment.
Meanwhile, those closest to Ms O’Keefe were quick to shake off unfounded speculation about what happened and were eager to talk about a ‘life well lived’.
Dromahane resident Ann O’Shea said: ‘Mary was a friend and neighbour of mine for 48 years. I was there for her when her husband
Donal died, and we spent many hours happily chatting about all sorts of things. Her children and grandchildren meant the world to her and although she was a very quiet person, Mary loved to dance at any given opportunity.
‘She worked as a cook locally and spent many years feeding the residents at Nazareth Nursing Home. She was only talking to me recently about her plans to retire later this year.’
Ms O’Shea added that she first learned of her friend’s death on Thursday evening. ‘When the gardai told me the news, I thought I was going to collapse. I was in such a complete state of shock that it’s hard to remember exactly what they said,’ she added.
‘I still can’t come to terms with what happened and just don’t know what to think or feel or act.
‘I don’t want to think about how someone could rob Mary of her life. I’m just hoping that this was all just a freak accident.’
Another neighbour and retired teacher, John Cavanagh, described her as ‘a warm, loving lady with the kindest heart’.
‘I’ve known Mary for decades and had the pleasure of teaching her children in school,’ he said.
‘Her family are so well respected in Dromahane and no one could say an unkind word against them.
‘I’m just so saddened by the news of her death that I don’t know what to do with myself. My only source of joy at the moment is thinking about all the good times we spent together down through the years.’
The voice of parish priest, Fr
Gerard Coleman, started to tremble when offering his condolences.
‘Everyone in Dromahane is just feeling numb. It’s certainly the worst tragedy to befall the community in living memory,’ he said.
‘Although, I did not know Mary personally, I’m aware she was a very hard-working woman who would go out of her way to help anyone in need.’
Frank Roche, a councillor in the Fermoy area of Cork, said the community has never been plunged into such catastrophe.
‘Drumdeer [Wood] is a quiet area and nothing like this has ever happened before,’ he said.
‘It’s a rural woodland area, and if you wanted to go for walks in the area, you would usually go to a park which is three miles up the road. It’s normally used by people hunting, or shooting or hound dogs – it wouldn’t be an area where people go walking.’
A postmortem was carried out last night by Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margot Bolster.
However, due to the sheer damage caused by the flames, Ms O’Keefe’s gender and age is still to be formally confirmed.