Saturday 27 May 2017

Philip Cairns case: A disappearance still hanging over us 30 years on

The Ireland in which Philip Cairns vanished was vastly different from today, yet the public never forgot his case, writes Liam Collins

Students arrive back to Coláiste Éanna on the Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham, after the mid-term break of October 1986. NPA/Independent collection
Students arrive back to Coláiste Éanna on the Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham, after the mid-term break of October 1986. NPA/Independent collection
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Like a bee in amber, Philip Cairns is forever preserved in the public imagination in one of those school photographs that every child gets taken. His seems more revealing, however, his bright smile forever frozen, a studded denim jacket replacing the usual school jumper.

This is the Philip Cairns that has come to haunt the public memory, turning up in the newspapers every few years, flattering to deceive as the mystery ultimately deepens and becomes more baffling than ever.

The lane where Philip’s bag was found, in 1986 and today, close to the Ballyroan Road in Rathfarnham
The lane where Philip’s bag was found, in 1986 and today, close to the Ballyroan Road in Rathfarnham

But it never goes away and every few years we wonder what happened in the hours after Philip came out of his house after lunch that Thursday, October 23, 1986, turned right and began walking towards Coláiste Éanna at the other end of the lengthy Ballyroan Road in Rathfarnam, Co Dublin - a destination he never reached.

His was a disappearance that burned slowly into the public imagination but has hung like a little dark cloud for three decades.

It was sunny and clear that day, with sharp frost expected after dark. There were probably a few Datsun or Fiat 127 cars parked in the driveways or an Opel Rekord, where now there are Hyundai jeeps, Skodas and the odd BMW. The sycamore, rowan and beech trees that now line the road in full bloom were mere saplings that day nearly 30 years ago, but otherwise little else has changed.

There is a curious link in the disappearance of Philip Cairns (pictured) and the paedophile Eamon 'Captain' Cooke, the depraved founder of Radio Dublin, in that they both shared the newspaper reports during the last days of October that year. Yet tenuous as that is, it is the only thing that bound them together until now.

Read more: Prime suspect DJ Eamon Cooke was a 'vile, evil, psychopathic individual... capable of killing' - victim speaks out

On Tuesday, October 21, 1986, Eamon Cooke was convicted at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court of conspiring to assault John Paul O'Toole, of the South Circular Road in Dublin. Cooke had seen his girlfriend, the mother of one of his 11 children, walking around town with O'Toole, an employee whom he had sacked from his pirate radio station then based in No 3 Sarsfield Road, Inchicore.

Cooke paid four thugs from Ballyfermot to teach the man he perceived as a love rival a lesson - which entailed throwing a milk bottle petrol bomb into O'Toole's flat.

They were all convicted. The four accomplices were given suspended sentences some days later, while Cooke's sentence was deferred until November 3.

A Garda on duty at the laneway on Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham from where 13 year old schoolboy Philip Cairns went missing on the afternoon of 23 October 1986. NPA/Independent collection
A Garda on duty at the laneway on Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham from where 13 year old schoolboy Philip Cairns went missing on the afternoon of 23 October 1986. NPA/Independent collection

The troubles in Northern Ireland were simmering that autumn, but the newspapers at the end of October were dominated by Charlie Haughey's attempt to destabilise the government of Garret FitzGerald with a vote of no confidence and the threat by Fine Gael maverick TD Liam Skelly to vote against his own party.

The day that Philip Cairns disappeared, Lieutenant General Michael J Costello, a veteran of the War of Independence, was buried with full military honours and a judge banned dancing in Blades public house in nearby Terenure.

There was a different feel to the Ireland of 1986, with Chris de Burgh warbling 'Lady in Red' all that summer. Those trying to escape the stifling confines of the old guard who ran RTÉ had found their own solution.

From kids tinkering with transmitters in their family garage to fully fledged illegal radio stations like Nova on the southside and Sunshine on the northside, pirate radio had responded and filled the demand.

It attracted the colourful and the brash, like Chris Carey and Robbie Robinson and the ugly and the vindictive Eamon Cooke, scruffy, an ash-tilted cigarette hanging from his lips, bragging that he was there first and preying on young girls with little dreams.

Dublin was alive with music; Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy, U2, Spandau Ballet, the Virgin Prunes, Def Leopard. You could see them all if you were looking. It was a world of vinyl and new records, like new cars, carried that fresh smell of anticipation.

Phil Solomon, one of the backers of Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station that inspired them all, would walk down Grafton Street with briefcases full of cash and a lot of the smart local promoters wanted to get a taste of the same honey.

For a time, I worked in ARD (Alternative Radio Dublin) up in Belvedere Place and saw the casual way it all worked. The first day I went in to do a news shift, I was left to my own devices until it neared the bulletin deadline, when I inquired curiously who the newsreader was.

"You are" I was told. It all worked on a wing and a prayer and the exciting anticipation of a police raid in mid-programme.

But was Philip Cairns linked to pirate radio - or to the notorious, thrice-married Eamon Cooke, who was at that time awaiting his sentence for conspiracy?

Anything is possible, but on the surface, they seem worlds apart.

Read more: 'Large number of people' come forward about potential leads in missing Philip Cairns case

Although he disappeared on the Thursday, it was a Bank Holiday weekend and so there were no newspapers on the Monday in those days. On Tuesday, October 28, four days after he had gone missing, there was a strip on page 3 of the Irish Independent under the headline: 'No sign yet of missing student.'

"He was a boy who came straight home from school, he was very quiet and we never had a problem with him," said his mother Alice, as his father Philip, a buyer with Nestle, stayed largely in the background.

"I believe that with all the people who are praying for him he will be all right," she said in the report.

It was an era when the churches were still full and people believed in prayer.

Later in the week, she appeared to speak directly to her son. "We hope you will come home soon, don't be worried about anything, we just want you home" she said.

But the discovery of his schoolbag on Thursday, October 30, 1986 in a laneway off Anne Devlin Road, threw a sinister shadow over the search. That's the way it has been on and off for 30 years now, with no trace of Philip Cairns ever found.

When Eamon Cooke returned to the dock in early November 1986, he received a suspended sentence. It was 2007 before he finally got justice - sentenced to 10 years for a series of sexual assaults on young girls. He died on June 4, this year in St Francis Hospice, Raheny, Dublin while on temporary release from prison. He was buried quietly four days later and there is little to mark his passing but two wilting wreaths on a tidy grave in Glasnevin Cemetery and a surge of news stories.

Philip Cairns, an innocent schoolboy, and Eamon Cooke, the convicted paedophile, are now inextricably linked by the events of that week towards the end of October, 1986. Can the boy's schoolbag yield up evidence of a connection or will it be just another false trail in a saga that seems to make no sense and have no ending?

His father, also Philip Cairns, has since died, but for his mother, his four sisters and brother, knowing would, at least, be a blessing.

Irish Independent

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