Alice Cairns is now a grandmother but she still lights a candle every evening for her missing son Philip. More than 20 years have passed since the 13-year-old disappeared one lunchtime. Over the years, countless theories and rumours have circulated and even psychics and clairvoyants have helped the police. But the schoolboy has never been seen since. Donal Lynch, who grew up in the same neighbourhood, looks back at the case
THE first news I can ever remember hearing as a child was that another little boy from our area, Philip Cairns, had gone missing, apparently kidnapped on his way to school. It was 1986; I was seven years old and found it strange to see our own streets on the television. News, up to that point, was something that happened elsewhere and now there were camera crews and reporters stalking the little lanes where we played. It was thrilling somehow to be vicariously a part of the drama.
I remember feeling convinced that Philip must have been living out my own fantasies of running away. He was already 13 in 1986, probably armed with confirmation money and therefore, in my eyes at least, virtually an adult. The people combing the hedgerows and rivers wouldn't find him because he was right at that moment enjoying his lunch sandwiches in some secret hiding place, like the little boy in The Neverending Story. He would emerge at some point and reveal the ruse and return home to a hero's welcome, never to be taken for granted again. I admired his audacity.
In school the next day, the other kids had other theories. Philip had been taken by a "bad man". A van had pulled over, they said, and a man had offered him sweets and he'd gotten in and the man had driven away. The teacher snapped at us not to talk about it, but before the bell rang she asked us to offer up our prayers for Philip. It was the year we were to do our Holy Communion.
As a child, you can sense when something frightens your parents, and I could hear the alarm and seriousness in my parents' voices when they warned me about strangers in the area. Them talking about it somehow made it real that something really bad had happened to Philip, that someone had taken him. The big horror films of the 1980s, particularly A Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween all featured young people being preyed upon and were like allegories for the emerging awareness of paedophilia (a word that was barely used in those years). For a child, fact and fiction mingle in the brain. Coming a week before Halloween, Philip's disappearance was like a real-life horror and some kind of official confirmation that these bogeymen really existed.
I can remember seeing Philip's parents on the news, grey with grief, appealing for anyone who had information to come forward. Everywhere, they brandished the picture of their son in his confirmation outfit. Like the image of Madeleine McCann 20 years later, it was burned into our brains: the cheerful smile, the blue jacket and the little red rosette. I imagined him sitting somewhere watching them on television, calling like the ghosts of the Smiths' Suffer Little Children to "find me, find me, nothing more".
His schoolbag was found a short time after he had disappeared, in a laneway that I have walked through many times. It was bone-dry, even through there had been heavy rain in the previous days. Some of his books were missing from the bag, including his geography textbooks and two religion textbooks. It was a sinister discovery, like finding a piece of Philip himself, and seemingly confirmation that whoever had taken him was still around, dropping clues and prowling the suburbs for new victims. Rumours swirled of a white van lurking on street corners. We all became a little jumpy.
As the days and weeks turned into years, the chances of Philip being found grew ever slimmer. We, his peers, all grew up but he remained frozen in time. His face, which had looked so grown-up to me at the time, soon seemed like that of a little boy. No amount of digital ageing could make him seem any older. Every time I heard of a missing child it brought him back into my mind: Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart, Sabine Dardenne, Shawn Hornbeck, they had all walked back in the door after being missing, presumed dead. Maybe one day Philip would show up, broad-shouldered and handsome, and tell us what really happened.
"The very sad fact is that life went on after we lost Philip," says Brendan Vaughn, who was principal of Colaiste Eanna in Rathfarnham, the school Philip was attending when he went missing. "I can remember we all went out and helped with the search, it was the neighbourly thing to do. But after a while you had to just get on with things. Young people, I think, are more resilient about things like that, they are able to forget more easily and put things behind them. Philip had just entered the secondary school the previous October, so I wouldn't have known him very well, but his younger brother, Eoin, went to the school as well and he was a fine young man. It was so sad to think of what his poor parents and indeed his whole family went though."
Unlike, say, the McCanns, the Cairns family never appeared particularly at ease with publicity. Dismayed by several inaccurate and sensationalist reports, they have limited their contact with the media to brief, concentrated appeals, including one late last year on RTE's Crimewatch programme, spearheaded by Philip's younger brother, Eoin. His sisters Suzanne and Sandra have both become involved in missing children's organisations. Those who know them say that the grief for Philip still burns. In an interview for a book, When Heaven Waits, published last year, Philip's mother, Alice, said that she still prays for his safe return. "I hoped every day for months. I left the light on in the hall downstairs and in the bed at night. I used to listen to see if he would come in the door. You would be hoping the phone would ring and that would be him."
She acknowledged that Philip's disappearance changed attitudes, not only in the area where he grew up but around the country too. "Nowadays, of course, people are more cautious. Back then. we would be saying to kids 'Watch the roads, don't be going out on the road. If it was after dark you might be worried, but it would never cross your mind that something like this could happen at 1.30 in the afternoon."
A cursory glance at the newspaper clippings containing reference to Philip shows why the family might be wary. The media, faced with the lack of any compelling narrative beyond the blank fact of a missing child, latched on to anything in the years after Philip's disappearance. Like Madeleine, years later, every possible explanation and hare-brained theory was given credence. It has been variously reported that a family member was involved, that Philip was kidnapped by Satanists or paedophiles or that he had been killed by accident and the person had panicked and never confessed. The latest story, which emerged late last year, is that the former partner of a suspected paedophile has come forward to claim that the paedophile abducted and then murdered Philip. Her story was allegedly corroborated by another woman, who was also a former partner of the man in question.
"I can absolutely confirm that that is not true," says Det Sgt Tom Doyle, who for the past 10 years has headed up the investigation into Philip's case. "That report was wildly inaccurate. We are still appealing for people to come forward, people who might be protecting someone, people who might have simply remembered something that they saw that day. There is, of course, the problem that it has been so long ago and people's memories become distorted -- which makes it more and more difficult."
The bag that was found in the laneway near Philip's home in the days after he went missing is now sealed and stored in a Garda safe. "It has been carefully preserved in case we can ever link it to a suspect, or in case there are advances in DNA techniques which might enable us to ascertain the people who might have handled the bag," Tom Doyle told me.
The search at the time of Philip's disappearance was beyond reproach he says. "I mean, this isn't the Dark Ages we're talking about. All of the precautions that could have been taken as regards checks on who was leaving the country and the county were done just as they would be done today. There wasn't a Madeleine McCann-type situation where there might have been possible errors that were difficult to rectify later."
For all the inaccurate reports surrounding Philip's disappearance, he tells me that overall, the media have been helpful in progressing the case. "Every time there has been a major story about him in the papers or on the television, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of people contacting us. My attitude would be that it's important to keep his name out there. Some member of the public has the answer to this riddle. We need to find that person."
He is cautious about the family's claim that whoever abducted Philip would have almost certainly known him. "They have based that on their knowledge of Philip, and according to them, he wouldn't get into a car with someone he didn't know. But, even if they feel sure of that, we have to explore that possibility."
There have, he says, been "many, many" people who have come in to the Garda station in Rathfarnham with news of Philip Cairns's whereabouts. "These range from people who think they might have remembered something from the time that might be important to the case to people who tell us they have seen him -- he was supposedly spotted in Manchester -- to clairvoyants and psychics who tell us that they can help with the investigation."
Doyle says that he would give as much credence to the clairvoyants and psychics as he would to those who claim to have actually seen Philip Cairns. He points to the fact that "people with these talents or gifts or whatever you want to call them" genuinely believe in their own abilities and "are not in any way seeking fame or notoriety, nor are they preying on the family or looking to make any money out of this. They are simply trying to help us get to the bottom of this case." He points to the fact that psychics have been "successfully" used by police departments all over the western world, including by the Los Angeles Police Department. "I think it's important to keep an open mind."
For Doyle, a detective of long experience, the case represents something of a grudge match. "When you are working a case for a long time, you get more and more determined to solve it."
Still, 20 years later, the simple, spare facts of his disappearance are maddening and mesmerising. How can a young boy be simply swept off a fairly busy street in broad daylight on a weekday afternoon? If I was haunted by the thought of him, so was everyone else I knew growing up. As the Madeleine case has shown, news of a missing child stirs something deep inside us. Philip was like one of the stolen children of Celtic myth so it was no surprise that people would invent a mythology to surround him.
The Cairns family do not have that luxury. Tom Doyle, who sees them regularly, testifies that there are some wounds time will never heal. "I've spoken to Eoin [Philip's brother] and he told me that not a single day goes by that he doesn't think of Philip. It's something when you can see a grown man in his thirties still get tears in his eyes describing a brother he hasn't seen in 20 years.''
A €10,000 reward has now been offered for information that leads to the solving of the Philip Cairns case. Doyle is still hopeful of a breakthrough. "And I really mean that. We are absolutely working on this case and I am confident that we will get a breakthrough. Somebody out there knows something. We will follow up every lead. All it takes is for one person to be right. I'd like to reassure anyone who is considering coming forward that they have nothing to fear. Any information given will be handled in strictest confidence."
Alice, now a grandmother, can only sit and wait. "It was hard on all of us. It did change my life. I think of him all the time but you still hope -- hope that nothing bad has been found. You just keep praying and then you say, 'Well, the Lord knows where he is.'"
Anyone with information on the disappearance of Philip Cairns can contact the Garda confidential phone line at 1800 666 111 or any Garda station. Also see www.missingkids.ie