Former Offaly Express journalist recalls the search for Fiona Pender
In the week the mother of missing Offaly woman Fiona Pender died, former Offaly Express journalist, Declan McSweeney, who once interviewed the chief suspect in the case, has recalled the story of the Tullamore woman, the scale of the subsequent search, and the sheer strength of her mother, Josephine Pender, and their family.
The untimely death of Josephine Pender has evoked a deep sense of sadness in all who knew her, and who admired the unbelievable courage she showed in the face of tragedies.
Having worked in the Offaly Express at the time of her daughter Fiona's disappearance in August 1996, I was intensely involved in coverage of the search for her.
It was the biggest Garda operation the Tullamore area had ever seen, involving the use of sub-aqua divers, helicopters, liaison with overseas police forces and intense searches of the Slieve Blooms.
In covering the story, I came from the vantage point of having known Fiona, and I had met her with her mother in the Bridge Centre just a couple of weeks before she went missing. It was the only time I had seen her since her return from Croydon, and she was her usual friendly self, with a lovely smile. We chatted briefly and told each other we'd see each other around.
Nobody, in their worst nightmare, could have imagined the ordeal which was to come to the doors of the Pender family. The tragedy was, of course, made all the worse both by the fact that Fiona was seven months' pregnant and that it followed the death of her brother Mark in a motorbike accident the previous year.
I was to speak to Josephine Pender a number of times and it was not always easy to combine the professional detachment of a journalist with being sensitive to the family's concerns. On one occasion, when I felt anxious on this point, I wrote to her and she rang me at home and thanked me.
On at least two occasions, Josephine and her late husband Seán warmly welcomed me at their home in Tullamore when I interviewed them about Fiona.
As time went on, and the search drew a blank, the story inevitably faded from the headlines, but the people of Tullamore never forgot what the Pender family were going through - a sign of this was that prayers for Fiona are sought weekly in the parish bulletin.
More recently, it has been shown by the development of a walk along the banks of the Grand Canal, where Fiona walked so often, and the monument designed by her brother John. In this regard, I am conscious of how Councillor Brendan Killeavy campaigned strongly to make this possible
As time went on, my contacts with Josephine Pender grew more and more infrequent, but I recall her sensitivity was shown when, in 2001, we met at a funeral and she sympathised with me on the death of my mother a month or so earlier.
One could not but admire not only her persistence in campaigning for an answer to the mystery of the disappearance of her daughter and unborn grandchild, but her courage and faith in the face of tragedy. The tribute paid by Monsignor Seán Heaney to her work at the Parish Centre, which he described as 'inspirational' was indeed a fitting one and we can only suppose that by throwing herself into this work, it helped her to get through the pain she experienced.
I have no doubt that Josephine is now reunited with Fiona and her baby, and with Mark and Seán, but would wish to sympathise with John and the extended Pender and Camon families. We must still have the hope that someday the body of Fiona will be found and given a proper burial alongside her parents and brother.
Emigrants from Tullamore, like myself, are united with those still in the town in supporting the family and in admiring the work of all those who have given them practical support down the years.
Declan McSweeney is now a sub-editor with Dunsar Media in Milton Keynes in the UK.
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