The death of a school principal in the River Lee earlier this year bore all the hallmarks of an accident, Cork’s City coroner said yesterday.
Myra Cullinane was speaking after returning an open verdict in relation to the death of the Ursuline’s Sr Jean Browne in the city on January 15.
Dr Cullinane said that while the circumstances surrounding the death were in keeping with an accident, she said the evidence was not strong enough for her to record any verdict other than the open verdict.
Sr Browne, 53, originally from Midleton and who was living in the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock, was the principal of the Ursuline secondary school in Cork City.
The inquest heard that she had been busy preparing for a school evaluation in the weeks before her death. It was the school’s first such evaluation in eight years and Sr Browne’s first as the school principal.
Former principal Sr Mary McDaid, a close friend of Sr Browne’s since 1987, said that while there was a lot of work involved in preparing for an evaluation, Sr Browne was “not unduly phased” by it.
Sr McDaid said that the board of management made a presentation to the inspection team on January 6 and felt a great sense of pride and satisfaction afterwards.
She said Sr Browne was also satisfied with the ongoing discussions with the inspection team in the days afterwards as the evaluation continued.
She said that while Sr Browne was tired from the preparatory work, she had not been worried about her.
They spent the evening of January 14 relaxing and chatting about holidays — Sr Browne spoke of travelling to Italy and had also volunteered to help with the local Stations of the Cross.
“There was nothing unusual in her behaviour,” said Sr McDaid. “There was nothing of any sort to raise anxiety.”
Sr Browne retired to bed at around 10.15pm. She was not seen alive again.
The inquest was told that Sr Browne normally woke between 6am and 6.30am and would often go for a walk along Convent Rd, past the Pier Head pub, and along the Marina.
However, Sr McDaid became concerned at around 8.30am on January 15 when she noticed that the latch on a convent door was left open.
Concerns mounted when the Ursuline deputy principal, Lucy Lambe, phoned Sr McDaid at 9.30am to say Sr Browne had not shown up for work.
Sr McDaid said this was totally out of character for her friend and she contacted Sr Browne’s family. Gardaí were alerted and they visited the convent before canvassing for CCTV footage.
However, just after 2.40pm, a group of children on Castle Rd spotted a body in the river. They alerted a passerby who in turn contacted gardaí.
Sr Browne’s body was recovered a short time later and she was pronounced dead.
Margot Bolster said there was no evidence of natural disease, no evidence of significant trauma, and no evidence of third-party involvement, and that the cause of death was acute respiratory failure due to drowning.
She said Sr Browne had sustained minor injuries to her lower limbs which could have been sustained on entry to the water, in the water itself, or during attempts to exit the water.
“They are non-specific injuries but I could not out-rule that there was an attempt to exit the water,” said Dr Bolster.
Detective Garda Paul Radley said Sr Browne was seen on CCTV footage walking past the Pier Head pub at about 6.50am on January 15 but, despite extensive enquiries, gardaí could not establish when, where, or how she entered the water.
The inquest was told that winds in Cork City at the time reached speeds of between 31km/h and 50km/h with gusts of up to 83km/h.
Dr Cullinane recorded an open verdict and paid tribute to Sr Browne.
“This sudden event really caused shock and distress in the community,” said Dr Cullinane. “It is clear that she was valued and loved by her family and her community. She was an exemplary member of society.”
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