Circumstances conspired to see tragic Cloneen couple disappear in plain sight

"I keep going over in my head what I could have done, or what I should have done," says neighbour Seanie Morrissey.
Circumstances conspired to see tragic Cloneen couple disappear in plain sight

The house in Cloneen, Co Tipperary where English couple Nick and Hilary Smith were found dead. Picture: Neil Mchael

When a man from Cloneen died suddenly this week, the tragedy rocked the wider Co Tipperary community.

Hundreds of people attended his wake and hundreds more filed quietly into the Church of the Nativity for his funeral Mass.

The community around Fethard and Mullinahone and Cloneen and Drangan was doing what it does best — rallying around grief-stricken friends and family.

The tight-knit community shared memories of him, before and after the service.

Against this background of community solidarity and friendship, people struggle to comprehend the deaths of Nick and Hilary Smith, pensioners whose bodies were discovered the same day the man from Cloneen had died.

They lived in the same community and their homes were just a few short minutes apart, but so few people actually knew the Smiths.

The couple’s bodies lay undiscovered for 18 months, leading many to wonder how often anybody had called to the couple’s door to ask after them.

How could people not miss them, and just how remote a location is it for nobody to realise something was wrong?

How many cars would have driven past the couple’s house every day since November 2020 and how, in this day and age, can a couple disappear in plain sight?

Despite some typically cruel and misplaced commentary on social media about the Smiths' neighbours, there is an explanation.

Few passers-by

Although they did accept an invitation to attend a local wedding in Dundrum House Hotel a few years ago, the couple only very rarely mixed with neighbours.

They moved into the house after renting a property elsewhere, possibly Waterford.

One neighbour said Mr Smith told him he had served in the Falklands War, while that neighbour's mother would later tell gardaí that Mr Smith came from Norwich, England and that both he and his wife were only children.

However, another neighbour said that Mr Smith had a brother who he hadn't spoken to for 20 years.

They were hardly ever even seen in the now-overgrown grounds of their home in Cloneen, based on a remote rural road that few people would choose to go down unless they actually lived on it.

The house near Cloneen, Co Tipperary, owned by Nick and Hilary Smith. Picture: Neil Mchael
The house near Cloneen, Co Tipperary, owned by Nick and Hilary Smith. Picture: Neil Mchael

Indeed, there are few passers-by.

Those that do are either in their cars, heading away from the area, or joggers who live in one of the 10 or so houses nearby.

Plans to leave

Because Mr Smith had let it be known he and his wife planned to go away for “more than a few weeks”, none of those passing by the house paid much attention after the Smiths vanished, around November 2020, because they simply took the Smiths at their word.

Bespectacled Mr Smith, who was described as softly-spoken, about 5ft 8in, and well-groomed, is understood to have spoken to someone about the delivery of parcels of pills to the home while the couple planned to be away.

Arrangements were put in place for the lawn to be cut by a local groundsman.

The man, who lives in a nearby village, was paid €500 to mow the front lawn whenever it needed cutting — a job he and his son did even after the money ran out.

The couple is also understood to have written a letter to a local woman, explaining that they were going away.

They also appear to have said relatives of an English couple they knew would be keeping an eye on the house from time to time.

The Smiths also appear to have told others they were actually either selling the bungalow or had already sold it to another English couple.

Some neighbours are mystified by reports that Mr Smith apparently also said the couple planned to move to the south of France because Mrs Smith, described as a short, slight woman, suffered from a condition that made it difficult for her to be out in direct sunlight.

They wondered how moving to the warmest place in France — a place famed for its long dry summers and mild winters — would suit someone with Mrs Smith’s condition.

Mr Smith is said to have referenced this condition as an explanation as to why the blinds in the house were always down and the curtains always drawn.

One local resident, who asked not to be named, said: “What many of us are scratching our heads over is the elaborate arrangements and explanations that came from the couple before they dropped out of sight.

I am told he said the property had actually been sold and that it had been bought by an English couple who had relatives in Kilkenny.

“I also heard that he said that the relatives of the UK couple would be coming to Cloneen to check the house on their way to shop in Tesco in Clonmel because they didn’t have a Tesco in Kilkenny.”

Visits to post office

Another resident also pointed out that the Smiths themselves very rarely shopped locally and instead did their shopping in the branch of Tesco in Clonmel.

Mr Smith would be seen driving through the village with his wife at least once or twice a week and it was always in the direction of Clonmel.

Up to the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, he used to be seen regularly in Cloneen Post Office.

“He’d come in, and head to the back of the shop to the post office counter,” a resident said.

“If he saw Deirdre, the postmistress, he would salute her by saying: ‘Good morning Jo-Jo’.

“It was very odd. I would look over at Deidre and she would just shrug her shoulders, shake her head, and raise her eyes up to the ceiling.

“Any time I was in the shop and he would walk in, it was always: ‘Good morning, Jo-Jo’.”

According to people who attended the post office over the years, he rarely bought anything other than an occasional copy of the UK's Daily Express.

He also almost always seemed to be sending parcels back to the UK that were — or appeared to be — returns, as he would be overheard telling Deirdre or her sister.

Pandemic lockdowns

After lockdowns were introduced, the post office in Cloneen closed its front door and instead either delivered people's messages themselves or handed them out through a hatch.

Although he had been a regular visitor before the pandemic, he was rarely seen among the local residents waiting patiently on the street in line to be served.

A resident who used to walk past the Smith's house each morning regularly told the Irish Examiner that there appeared to always be a steady stream of small cardboard box parcels left at the front of the house.

“Possibly as many as two or three a week,” they said.

But, they also said, although these stopped in November 2020, the mail did still arrive at the property up until a few weeks ago as they had seen it being delivered by the local postman.

Simple explanation

Local councillor Mark Fitzgerald. Picture: Neil Mchael.
Local councillor Mark Fitzgerald. Picture: Neil Mchael.

Local Fine Gael councillor Mark Fitzgerald says he regrets not having tried to clarify matters for people, especially after some of the negative commentary on social media.

But he says he felt constrained by his assumption that it was better to say little or nothing at such an early stage into a garda investigation into the couple's deaths.

“The fact is that while there are people on social media who might want to jump to any manner of conclusions, the facts speak for themselves,” he said.

The reason why they lay undiscovered for so long is that they told a neighbour that they were going away for a while. And as nobody has seen them, they assumed they had gone away.”

It’s a simple explanation, but it goes a long way to explain how someone can just disappear in a close-knit community.

The consensus is that locals respect each other’s privacy, but the minute there is any hint that someone might need help, they are very good at rallying around.

When Mr Fitzgerald’s father Noel died suddenly in 2018, he recalls “hundreds” of people not just paying their respects to him and his family, but also offering whatever help they could.

A resident of nearby Fethard told of how she had lost her two dogs recently, and residents in surrounding areas went out and searched for them.

High hedges

The Smith’s white bungalow sits in the middle of a cluster of houses that start at a sharp bend.

Although it has a house on either side, you cannot see it at all from either of these properties.

This is because both properties adjoin the Smiths' house with 15ft to 20ft hedging.

Most of the other houses nearby have the same-sized hedges separating themselves from their neighbours.

“People like their privacy,” one local resident said.

"We are friendly when we meet, but I would safely say most of the people around here value privacy to the extent that while they don’t want to be observed all the time by their neighbours, they also don’t want to see everything.

They respect other people’s privacy and others respect theirs.”

But they added: “Now if any of their neighbours needed help with anything, they would be around their house in a heartbeat.”

The neighbours on either side of the Smith homestead are both upset about what happened to the elderly couple.

'A lovely couple'

While one was out when the Irish Examiner called, the other — Seanie Morrissey — was in.

“They were a lovely couple who, like me, liked their private life,” he said.

“I rarely saw or spoke to them in the 10 years they were here.

“For a start, they were rarely in their front or back garden, and even if they were, there is a huge hedge and barn that separates us and the house they lived in. 

I respected their privacy and they respected mine. In that respect, they were ideal neighbours.

“They were very pleasant and very polite, and I liked them.

A floral tribute at the house in Cloneen.
A floral tribute at the house in Cloneen.

“I feel gutted about what happened, and I shiver at the thought that they were dead in the house next door for so long.

I keep going over in my head what I could have done, or what I should have done.

“But it was clear they wanted to be left alone, and they told people they were moving away and added to that, they paid to have the grass mowed at the front of the house.

“As far as I understood it, they were abroad and it just didn’t feel right to go snooping around their property while — I thought — they were away.”

Speak to anybody in the area and they all tell the same story. From the moment the couple arrived, they pretty much kept to themselves.

The blinds were always down and the couple’s two cars were always parked around the back of the house.

Mr Smith's “pride and joy” appeared to be his still spotless pale blue 08-reg Volvo S60 diesel saloon, which was parked in a new corrugated steel shed at the back of the couple’s home.

The shutter appears to have been lifted recently and reveals the front of the car, which he may have brought with him from the UK, beside what appears to be a fridge.

Another Volvo — a 151-reg Volvo S40 petrol saloon — is parked to the side of the property, well out of sight from the main road.

Like its older model in the garage behind it, it is spotless.

The metal garden shed where one of Nick Smith's two Volvos is parked back of the house near Cloneen, Co Tipperary. Picture: Neil Mchael
The metal garden shed where one of Nick Smith's two Volvos is parked back of the house near Cloneen, Co Tipperary. Picture: Neil Mchael

Indeed, the only sign of its exposure to the elements over the past 18 months or so are the weeds growing up into the right-front wheel arch.

While initial questions about how the couple could lie dead and undiscovered in their own home for so long, there are now still more questions.

As, for example, it is now looking likely Mr Smith may have died of natural causes, there is still a question mark over not only how he died, but how long after her husband died did Mrs Smith die.

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