On February 19th, 2011, 35-year old Grace Farrell was found frozen to death in an alcove of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in the East Village. Now new details of how and why she died have emerged in a new radio documentary on RTE in Ireland which was broadcast this Saturday.
The homeless Irish woman had emigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s to make a new life and to meet her mother.
The Irish Times reports that her mother was unable to care for her. After an initial attempt at adoption and then a second foster-care placement attempt, Grace at St Vincent’s, a Daughters of Charity children’s home in Drogheda, at the age of seven. Her mother, meanwhile, had left for the States.
Emmanuel Touhey, who was at the orphanage with Grace, remembers her as a ‘shy but fun-loving child.”
“She had a very loud and deep laugh, and she would be very mischievous, and she could have this terrible serious frown, and then this great guffaw would come out of her,” he says.
“I think she enjoyed her own company, but she also craved the company of others. You know, just like we all did, she wanted to feel loved and she wanted to feel secure.”
When she was 11 or 12, Grace went to live with her paternal grandparents nearby and experienced a “happy and stable period” for a time.
“Her grandparents gave her such a wonderful life, they really did. They were so good to her. I mean, she really wanted for nothing,” her cousin Diane recalled.
Near the end of her teenage years, Grace’s inner turmoil began to show, mainly through alcohol abuse.
“There was an instance one time when we had to bring her home because she was that drunk,” says Shirley, a friend.
“She had a bottle in her hand, and she fell and cut her whole hand, and it kind of did get to the stage where it was a lot of work to be out with her, because you were just constantly minding her, and I think that’s probably why we drifted apart.”
After she left school, Grace moved to England for a year, before returning to Ireland. She then decided to move to the United States to find her mother.
“It was always a big gap in Grace’s life,” says Shirley. “It was something that she always talked about, her mother in America, and I knew – I think we all knew – that she was going to go and try and find her mam and get closure.”
Grace would find her mother in the Bronx, but things did not go well.
Albert Muñiz met Grace one day on the Lower East Side.
“It must have been sometime around seven o’clock on July 4th, and I went out to get cigarettes,” he says. “I see these girls kicking her. She was on the floor, trembling, you know, and I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Are you crazy? Don’t be hurting her.’
“But then I walked away, and they walked away, and they left her there, but then something told me to just turn around. So she stood up, and she started trembling, really trembling, and she was all wet, and I said, ‘Excuse me, young lady, do you need help . . . Are you okay?’ She said, ‘No . . . and I do need help.’ ”
Albert took her in, and they formed a relationship. On September 20th, 1998, Grace had a son, whom they named Oliver.
Grace seemed to be settling down for a while, but she soon began drinking again, with homeless people in a nearby park.
Muñiz says she would sometimes go missing for weeks, even months. “She would disappear . . . I had to get flyers with her picture and go all over the East Side.”
On the night of February 19, 2011, the coldest day of that New York winter, Grace ended up in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side, an area popular with homeless people in the city.
She settled into the alcove of a doorway outside St Brigid’s church, lying down on a couple of flimsy pieces of cardboard.
Fr Patrick Moloney, a native of Co Limerick, has lived near Tompkins Square Park for nearly 60 years. He said he used to see Grace pass his door regularly, and he remembers the day clearly.
“It was an extremely cold day. I wasn’t at all surprised,” he says about hearing the news of her death. “All I was told was that she was found in the doorway.”
“There’s no common denominator here,” he said, speaking of those who hit rock bottom.
“It reaches out to all kinds of people. So many of them will get that feeling of euphoria, and then they die of exposure because they don’t feel the cold creeping in on them. That is very possibly what happened to that dear lady. She probably went in her sleep very peacefully – and tragically.”
In Ireland Grace’s friends were shocked at the news of her death.
“A headline with ‘woman freezes to death’ just stabs at the heart of anybody who loved and knew her,” says Diane. “She wasn’t homeless; she chose to be away from her home, and I know her family came from that point of view as well, because the first question people ask is, ‘Where’s her family? Why did nobody help her?’
“And that’s just not how it was . . . She really did have a chance with her grandparents. They were so good, and the love that she got in that home . . . We’re never going to know the reason.”
Emmanuel, who had also eventually emigrated to the U.S., and ended up covering politics as a journalist in Washington D.C. was also shocked at the news of Grace’s death.
He wrote about her in a New York Times blog. “I wanted people to understand that, yes, she was a statistic, but she was a person as well, and she had a difficult life that had combined and resulted in her early death on the streets of New York, and it was really a very sad story.
“I think that, despite how hard she tried and how much she hoped to live a life, one that she wanted to live for her son and for her family, the odds were against her from the beginning.”