Inquest: Cork woman who pioneered Irish Sign Language use died in tragic house fire weeks before its recognition

Mary Moynihan.

An elderly woman died in a house fire sparked by a coal fire in her kitchen, an inquest in Cork heard today.

Mary Moynihan, 89, a leading figure in the Irish Deaf community and who pioneered the use of Irish Sign Language (ISL), died in the blaze at her home on the Model Farm Road in Cork city, on November 6 last.

Cork City Coroner, Philip Comyn, returned a verdict of accidental death after hearing details of the tragic case.

The inquest was told that Ms Moynihan, who was deaf and single, lived alone and independently thanks to the help and support of family and a HSE home help worker.

Home help Aileen Coughlan said she called to Ms Moynihan every morning, lunchtime and evening, seven days a week.

She called to Ms Moynihan's home at around 10.30am on November 6 last and did some jobs around the house.

She told the coroner that Ms Moynihan loved the heat from a fire and that the fire in the kitchen was lighting.

But she said she noticed that Ms Moynihan, who walked with the aid of a frame, seemed a bit tired. Ms Coughlan called to the house again at lunchtime and left at 2pm.

One of Ms Moynihan's nephews, Declan Donovan, who also called to the house regularly, said he arrived between 6.30pm and 7pm.

He said his aunt complained of the cold and he put some extra coal and briquettes on the fire, before replacing the fire guard.

"Everybody put the fire guard up," he said.

He left around 7pm as Ms Moynihan settled down to watch Nationwide on TV.

Ms Coughlan said she returned at 9pm to help Ms Moynihan to bed but when she opened the back door, she was met with a wall of smoke and raised the alarm. She said she heard banging from inside the house.

Third officer with Cork City Fire Brigade, Victor Shine, said they got the call at 9.25pm and were on the scene by 9.30pm.

He said when they arrived, flames were shooting through the kitchen window, which meant the fire had been ablaze for some time.

He also said the building's corrugated steel roof contributed to heat retention inside the property.

Firefighters brought the fire under control quickly and Ms Moynihan's badly burned body was found lying in the kitchen. Death was pronounced at the scene later.

Investigating Garda, Darren Suffin, said a report by forensic crime scene investigator, Garda Stephen Dennehy, found no evidence of forced entry at the house.

His report established that the seat of the fire was located in a fuel storage area to the left of the fireplace in the kitchen, where timber blocks and briquettes were stored.

He said he was satisfied that this was a tragic accidental fire.

A post mortem examination confirmed the cause of death was smoke inhalation due to a house fire.

Mr Comyn described it as a tragic case, but he praised Ms Moynihan's relatives and Ms Coughlan for ensuring that she was able to live independently at home right until her death.

Sgt Fergus Twomey extended his sympathies to the family, who thanked firefighters and gardaí for their professionalism and kindness on the night.

Mr Donovan said his aunt, although frail, was still very involved socially, and was even planning to meet friends the next day.

"She was involved in her younger life with older deaf people and when she got old, younger people came to visit her in her house. Nothing held her back. She had a great life," Mr Donovan said.

Poignantly, the ISL which Ms Moynihan used for most of her life was formally recognised as a minority language just weeks after her death.

Chairman of the Cork Deaf Club, Graham O'Shea, said Ms Moynihan had a strong character, and she was great company.

"She also had a marvellous sense of humour. She was a great storyteller and had many experiences to recount about her life as a deaf woman growing up in 1940s/50s Ireland," he said.

“She was much loved by her extended family, and by all of us in the Deaf community, especially here in Cork. She will be sorely missed.”

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