The case is being reinvestigated in hope of finally catching the culprit, says Richard Fitzpatrick
NANCY SMYTH was 79 years of age when she was strangled to death. She was 4’ 9” and lived alone in the corner house of a street in Kilkenny city. Her husband had died the previous December, nine months before her murder in the early hours of Friday, Sept 11, 1987.
Her killer attempted to burn down her bungalow by setting a sofa on fire. The house was smoky, making visibility difficult, when the fire brigade arrived, but the fire had burned out in the living room.
Fire officers Tony Lacey and Martin Cleere opened the front door with a sledge hammer. When Lacey found the burning couch, he moved it and saw a body on the floor. The smoke was so thick he couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Her dog lay beside her, dead from smoke inhalation.
“When I found Nancy’s body,” says Mr Lacey, “I shouted to Martin and it was when we carried the body outside of the house that we saw it actually was Nancy. We knew that it was her home that we were going into that night. Her bungalow was quite unique on Wolfe Tone Street. I remember the intense smoke, and the heat of the smoke when we went into Nancy’s home. I got the impression that the fire had been burning for a couple of hours and had burned itself out due to lack of oxygen. I actually knew Nancy to see and her husband, Dick, also.”
Smyth was the youngest of nine children. Her parents died when she was young. She grew up in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, and later moved to Bray, Co Wicklow, Shankhill in Co Dublin and England, before settling in Kilkenny.
She worked as a house cleaner and married Dick Smyth in 1957. They didn’t have children but kept pigeons. Their house is distinct: it’s on the corner and is the only one on the street with a garden. It is opposite the Auxiliary hospital where Dick Smyth died.
A few hours before Nancy was murdered, a witness walked past her house, just after 12.45am, and noticed a man banging on her window. The witness slowed down, which prompted the man to walk out to the front gate to ask for a light for his cigarette. The witness gave him the light and walked on. When he looked back again, an elderly woman — which would have been Nancy, whom the witness didn’t know — opened the front door and started arguing with the man. The witness heard her say something about the man’s sister. The last time the witness looked back, Nancy had gone back indoors while the man had walked to the end of her railings.
“Nancy had a few drinks that night and was brought home seemingly by the man who owned the pub,” says Des Murphy, the nephew who identified her body. “We thought, initially, that there was an altercation in the pub with somebody. I can’t say whether that’s fact or fiction. There’s so much hearsay. There’s so much rumour and conjecture about the whole thing.
“The person who was seen at the front door wouldn’t have been a very reputable individual. He was a guy who could have been up to anything. She was home before this person started banging on her window. She knew him, I would reckon. All of us believe we know who did it, 99.9% [sure].”
The case is being reinvestigated by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The Garda Cold Case Unit completed a review of the case and made 200 recommendations. These included suggestions that all witnesses be re-interviewed and that forensic evidence be reexamined. The Gardaí are unable to “comment further” on progress as the case is ongoing.
“Gardaí choose what cases they’re going to revisit. When they have 200-plus murders, they have to select based on whatever information they have,” says Barry Cummins, the RTÉ reporter and author of a book which explores the Nancy Smyth case.
“It comes down to human nature. Think back to 25 years ago, where you were in your life and who you knew and who you may have been very friendly with, and whether you’re still friendly with those people now.
“Even within a family. People may have fallen out. People may have suspicions about their loved one and they’ve looked at that person for the last 25 years. There are proven cases where families just can’t deal with it. Somebody then does the right thing and passes over the bit of [crucial] information to the gardaí.
“It could be a bit of information that they’ve kind of been involved — I helped to wash my son’s clothes or my husband’s clothes, or destroyed something or gave a false alibi, and want to get it off my chest. If somebody does that, then the finger is pointed at the suspect.”
Barry Cummins’ The Cold Case Files: On the Trail of Ireland’s Undetected Killers is published by Gill & Macmillan €12.99