UP to 150,000 people go missing in Ireland and Britain every year causing great distress to their loved ones. Most return home within a few days or get in touch with friends and family to indicate they are safe and well. Sadly in some cases a body is quickly discovered and a police investigation is launched. Yet there are many unexplained disappearances of women, men and children which remain a mystery despite extensive inquiries and sustained media campaigns seeking to uncover how and why they vanished.
Perhaps the most famous missing person of all is the 7th Earl of Lucan. The Irish peer, Richard Bingham, vanished on November 8, 1974, after his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was found murdered at his estranged wife’s home in London. Lady Lucan claimed her husband confessed to killing the girl by mistake before attempting to murder her too but she escaped and raised the alarm. Lucan’s borrowed car was found near the ferry port of Newhaven but there has been no trace of the missing peer since. The case has captured the public imagination for more than four decades and there have been thousands of so-called sightings around the world from South Africa to India and Australia. The Lucan family was granted probate over his Irish estate in 1999 but no death certificate was issued. If Lucan is still alive, he is 88. Following the passage of the UK’s Presumption of Death Act in 2013 George Bingham had is father declared dead and now styles himself the 8th Earl of Lucan.
In many cases the missing person may be a victim of a killer or killers. Criminals know that without a body to provide evidence it is very difficult for police to secure a conviction for murder. Women are victims of abductions and violence more often than men. Annie McCarrick, aged 26, disappeared in the Wicklow Mountains in 1993; Jo Jo Dullard, aged 21, disappeared while hitching a lift in Kildare in 1995; Fiona Pender, aged 25, was seven months pregnant when she vanished in the midlands in 1996. Ciara Breen, aged 17, sneaked out of her bedroom window in Dundalk one night in 1997 and was never seen again and Fiona Sinnott, aged 19, left behind an 11-month old child when she vanished from her home in Rosslare in 1998. The disappearance of so many young women in the space of just five years led Garda to believe they had a serial killer on their hands.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to seek information about the disappearance of 25-year-old Lisa Dorrian who vanished from a Ballyhalbert caravan park on February 28, 2005. Detectives believe her body may have been dumped at sea in July or early August 2005 but that a breakthrough in the case is still possible. Last year her sister Joanne made a renewed appeal for information after graffiti, found in Belfast, suggested the killer is known to somebody with crucial evidence. Detectives say they have identified two suspects.
But young men have also vanished. Gerard Conway, aged 32, and father of a young daughter, went missing from his home in Cookstown, county Tyrone, in January 2007. His mother has offered £100,000 for information which might help the family trace the man. Barman Martin Kelly, aged 21, from Holywood county Down went missing on New Year’s Day in 2006 after a night out in Belfast’s dockland. His father campaigns relentlessly for information about his son.
A number of people ‘disappeared’ during the Troubles and are thought to have been abducted and killed by armed groups with political motives. In 2003 the IRA issued an apology for the grief it had caused and in 2005 the British and Irish governments agreed to fund a forensic team to assist in the search for the bodies of the missing. Three people remain unaccounted for including a British Army officer Robert Nairac. A Victims Commission provides support for those who have suffered because of the disappearance of a loved one. In 2008 the Northern Ireland Executive introduced a Presumption of Death Bill which allows the High Court to declare a missing person dead and issue a death certificate. This permits a family to clear up outstanding legal matters relating to the estate of the deceased.
But Ireland’s most enduring, tragic and disturbing cases involve children. Mary Boyle, aged six, was last seen eating a packet of sweets near her grandmother’s home at Ballyshannon in county Donegal. Her uncle Gerry Gallaher was returning a ladder to a neighbour on the afternoon of March 18, 1977. The little girl followed him down a muddy and isolated lane between the two houses. She turned for home at a particularly boggy stretch and was never seen again. Philip Cairns, aged 13, was making his way to school, just a 15-minute walk from his home in Rathfarnham, Dublin, when he vanished on October 23, 1986. He ate lunch and said goodbye to his granny, but failed to return to class. His schoolbag was found nearby a week later but there has been no trace of the boy since. An £8,000 reward was offered for information in 2007.
In 2011 a predatory paedophile, Robert Black, was convicted of murdering Jennifer Cardy, aged nine. Her body was discovered miles from her home in Lisburn after a week of searches in 1981. Black, a delivery driver, had a long history of sex crimes dating back to his home in Scotland in 1963. In 2021 an inquest into the death of Castlederg teenager Arlene Arkinson found she was murdered by convicted child killer and rapist Robert Howard. The 15-year-old disappeared in 1994 after a night out in Bundoran in County Donegal. She was last seen in a car driven by Howard but her body has never been found. Black and Howard died in prison and we will never know the full extent of their crimes.
The evidence suggests they are not the only monsters in our midst.