Mary - a stolen child
She was seven years old when she disappeared without trace. Was Mary Boyle simply swallowed up by the bleak bogland, or did Britain's worst child-killer, Robert Black who visited Donegal around that time have something to with her disappearance? Brighid McLaughlin, who spent a childhood summer in Donegal, revisited the area and tried to unravel this painful mystery
DEMONSTRATIVE depravities are often acted out in areas of remote isolation. It would be harder to find a more isolated spot than the bleak bogs of Cashelard, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal. In March 1977, something odd and horrible happened in this marshy, desolate place.
St Patrick's Day 1977 started off idyllically enough. The family of seven-year-old Mary Boyle were paying an annual visit to Mary's grandparents' remote cottage in Cashelard. Mary, dressed in trousers and a knitted cardigan, her long hair tied back with a ribbon, came into the house and gave her mother a hug and a kiss. ``Mum, I forgot to kiss you this morning,'' she said. These were the last words she spoke to her mother.
Inside, the adults were about to have dinner; Mary went outside to play with her identical twin sister Ann, older brother Paddy, and two cousins. Her uncle Gerry Gallagher, who was working on the roof of his house, decided to go across the bog to return a ladder to the Cawleys, his neighbours, who lived 400 yards away. Mary, brimming with high childish impulses, followed him.
At around 3.45pm, she walked behind her uncle towards the Cawleys' house, and when she reached a water-filled patch he told her to turn back. She was last seen, by her uncle Gerry, eating a packet of Tayto crisps. The return trek to her grandparents' farmhouse should have taken no more than five minutes. In the meantime, Mr Gallagher chatted briefly with the Cawleys and returned to the house at 4.30pm.
Mrs Ann Boyle was in the kitchen of her parents' house when she discovered that her daughter Mary was missing. There was panic.
``I looked out the front door. The rest of the children were playing in a thicket in the front garden, Mary was not there. My brother Gerry was fixing a stone wall in front of the house. I asked him did he see Mary, he didn't answer, he must not have heard me. Ten minutes later I asked did anyone see Mary and Gerry shot off in his car down the road. I remember in desperation asking my mother to light a candle. I shook holy water all over the place. I felt so panicky and I remember I ran out to the rocks shouting and crying. I hoped and prayed that God would protect her. When Gerry came back to the house he said she had followed him earlier to the Cawleys' house and that she turned back. I got into the car and drove along the road in different directions. It was a nightmare.''
THE entire lake at Upper Cashelard behind her grandparents' house was drained. A trench was dug by a mechanical digger. The painstaking search of the desolate bog produced no body.
The Boyle family live in Keadue, Burtonport. Theirs is a typical neat house which fits into the spread of modern bungalows that dot the Donegal landscape. The Boyles are modest, kind people whose whole lives have been directed by the flow of sadness generated by the loss of their daughter. Their granddaughter, Mary Boyle, dressed in a football jersey, bears an uncanny resemblance to their beloved missing child. Mr Boyle sits nervously whistling under his breath. It all seems too much for him, so his wife Ann does most of the talking.
``Mary never leaves our mind,'' she says. ``It is something that we live with, we don't cope very well. In 1977 you never thought of anything happening to a child, but now you do. One man came to see us, he said he was a diviner, a fellow from Cork, he said Mary was in Scotland so I went to Scotland. Another bloke said she was in a mine-shaft in Belfast. Just a while back, a body was found at Murvagh Golf Club, but the golf green was not in there when Mary was alive. Ann has felt the whole thing very hard.''
Their 30-year-old daughter Ann, Mary's identical twin sister, is a timid, quiet lady who, of course, looks exactly as her sister would. The resemblance make you feel somewhat ill at ease. Anne was married in 1995. She always wanted Mary to be bridesmaid, and kept putting back the wedding, hoping that Mary would be found.
It was sad business talking to them. Their agony and helplessness is pitiable. After I interviewed the family I drove to Annagry for a break. I was in no hurry and I wanted to think of happier things.
Annagry, Co Donegal, is a pretty, stony place thatched with yellow whin bushes the colour of butter. It was a nostalgic visit for me. The last time I was there I was 12 years of age, learning Irish in the gaeltacht with my two sisters Aisling and Deirdre. We had a ball staying in Teach Gillespie. Not much has changed in the beauty and the people. High-tech factories button the Bunbeg shore. There is a new airport in Carrickfin. As I walked the sands of its honey-yellow beach, I would never have guessed the revelations that would soon lay before me.
Two hours later I was minding my own business, relaxing by the fire with a drink, when I met a woman called Emer (not her real name) who told me a most extraordinary story. ``Brighid, did you ever hear of Robert Black, the child-killer?''
Of course I did, I said, thinking of Britain's most notoriously evil child-murderer. Nine murders to his name and God knows how many unsolved.
``Prepare yourself,'' she said. ``Few people know that Robert Black, the sex monster, was sitting in this very bar in 1976 and 1978 a year before and a year after Mary Boyle went missing.''
I could not believe what I was hearing. It seemed like a terrifying conceit. I was suddenly privy to a serial killer's presence in Donegal.
Britain's worst child killer who had done more brutal deeds than Ian Brady of the Moors Murders was loose in Donegal for over two years, before and after Mary went missing. This was the man who bundled little girls into his filthy van, tied them up, gagged and stripped them and zipped them into a sleeping bag. Though impotent, he subjected each girl to a serious sexual assault. Gardai know now that he was in Northern Ireland the day she went missing. Ballyshannon is only a stone's throw away. Was he whistling a tune at another gate for poor Mary Boyle? I was staggered. Not being under suspicion, he would have been able to flit in and out of Donegal like an owl in the night.
``The year Mary went missing,'' said Emer, ``I had a girl working with me. She was always telling me about her nights out, who she fancied and the crack they were up to. His name kept coming up for a few weeks every night.
```Whose? Robert's?' I asked. `Oh, he's just a truck driver I met. He works in the North, delivering things.' `What kind of fellow is he?' `To tell you the truth, I don't like him at all,' she said.
``They were always off in a group to a disco in Dodges, Gweedore, one night or to Annagry another night. He turned up at a pub in 1976, a year before Mary went missing. None of us knew who he was. He was also here in 1978, a year after Mary went missing. According to the girls he had been coming there for years. The girls in the pub knew him as a man who visited several times, delivering posters.''
They had no idea that the scruffy, soft-spoken man with the Scottish accent who rolled his own cigarettes from a battered tin can was a serial killer, the man that Hector Clark, the senior policeman who led the investigation, called ``the most evil of evil characters'' in his book Fear of the Stranger. This was a man obsessed with teenage porn magazines called Lollitots, this was a vicious and compulsive hunter of young girls, the most vicious and emotionless child killer since the Moors murderers.
Little did my own mother know that in those innocent days, when her three children were in Annagry, so was Robert Black. It is a strange world.
BLACK claimed to have killed at least 19 girls across the Continent. Who is to say that he refrained from killing children when he was in Ireland? He was in Belfast on the day another child, Jennifer Cardy, disappeared in Co Antrim. Her body was found a week later in a layby used mainly by truck drivers; her killer was never caught.
One of the disquieting aspects of Robert Black's stay in Donegal in 1978 was that he overnighted with a family with children.
``The following morning he asked to borrow their car under the auspices of buying a Sunday newspaper,'' says Emer. ``My young son was walking to Mass on the main street in Annagry when Black stopped him. My son might have looked like a girl from the back: he had long hair, which was the Seventies fashion.''
According to Emer, Black asked her son for the local paper shop, a fact that he himself with his visits to Annagry would well have known. He encouraged the child to come nearer the car as he was not satisfied with the shop the child pointed out. He asked for another shop. The child was confused. Black went off in the car and didn't stop at any shop. He took a small detour towards Rannafast and circled back to Annagry in a matter of minutes, and then attempted to abduct a young girl known to all in the area.
In 1978, a year after Mary Boyle's disappearance, the gardai knew nothing of Robert Black other than that his name appeared in an after-hours drinking episode near Annagry, an episode which Emer recalls vividly. The circumstances of that late-night transgression were that a normally friendly Garda went through a routine of taking names. The first name, Green, was a lady; the second name was White; the third name was Robert Black. The last man copped on to the irony of it and decided to throw in Johnny Blue. With a shadowy suspicion that he was being ridiculed, the Garda charged them with after-hours drinking. That resulted in a local publican having to pay a fine. Black's name was mentioned in the Garda records.
The investigation in England threw up his various itineraries and the Irish police became aware of his presence in Ireland in the Seventies. And a presence which, ironically, could have been thrown up by their own records of one late-night binge.
Even more sickening was a conversation that occurred on one of his visits to a bar in Dungloe. One of the girls innocently referred to the Mary Boyle murder a year previously, and Black asked if some of the girls would show him where her house was. ``I want to see where her twin sister lives,'' he said. When they declined, he became enraged and agitated. He was very insistent about them showing him the house. Thinking that he had a strange obsession with dead people, they refused to bring him.
THAT night I thought about Black, who was finally caught in 1990 in the middle of an attempted abduction. A revolting mass of material was discovered at his digs, including child pornography magazines, films, videos and children's clothing.
In 1994, Black received 10 life sentences for the abduction, sexual assault and murder of three schoolgirls and the attempted kidnap of a fourth. When Black was put into a cell Chief Detective Hector Clark, who had led the investigation, knew he had his man by the stench of Black's body odours. Black rarely washed.
I wondered, had innocent people been tormented for nothing? It was a harrowing thought. Black knows the black secrets of his own dark deeds. He has never mentioned Mary Boyle in his interviews.
One of Black's most regular parking spaces was the old Cope yard behind Big John's Bar, now called the Bridge Inn, in Dungloe. Time and time again Black and a regular group of innocent friends would leave Annagry by car. The Donegal youngsters thought it was odd that he never once volunteered a lift; even when there was a crowd he would resist having to bring anybody in the van.
Those that met him felt he was a bit of an oddball. On one such occasion his van was already in the car park when they arrived. One of the girls approached the van and she thought she heard a crying sound coming from within. She assumed it might be a pet or something. Black wasn't in the van on this occasion. At another time, on leaving Big John's one of the girls headed toward the van and she was followed very dramatically by Black and severely reprimanded for having gone anywhere near it. Suddenly Black was supercharged with aggression; she was frightened by his overwrought reactions.
I called to see where Black parked his van. This yard is an open place guarded by the sea on one side and a warehouse on the other, where trucks tend to park.
It was only when Black was caught for murdering three children and his photograph was in the paper that Emer remembered his name. ``It all came to me in a flashback. I remembered one of the girls telling me she heard a child crying in the van.''
Entering from Enniskillen, Ballyshannon would have been one of the first towns on Black's path. If he wanted to use unapproved roads at that time, this hinterland would provide him with perfect cover as it did a number of exuberant poachers, three of whom were illegally fishing on the lake on the day of Mary Boyle's disappearance. If he had travelled the Sligo-Bundoran route from Dublin to Donegal he would have avoided going through the North in years of the security-conscious Troubles. Ballyshannon is only a stone's throw away from the North.
One of the girls who had met him on this occasion now lives in Annagry, and I met her. She took grave exception to discussing her past association with Robert Black with a journalist.
After I heard of Black's presence in Annagry, I went back to the Boyle family. According to Mrs Boyle there was one car seen on the road near the family house and the person never came forward. Whose was it? Was it Black's? We may never know. The real tragedy for the Boyle family is that Mary's body was never found.
The following day I decided to walk the boglands, where Mary went missing, with retired Superintendent Aidan Murray. A more decent man would be hard to find. He handed me a hat, Wellingtons and an old coat. ``You'll need these up in these wet boggy fields, they're full of swally-holes.''
We set off in his car towards Cashelard. ``Before I retired I wanted to find the body, and now I want to find it before I snuff it myself,'' he said with a sense of weariness. As we drove up to the mountain, he pointed out the two houses; they were only a 15-minute walk from one to another. We were walking on the very fringe of mystery.
``She definitely disappeared between A and B,'' he said. With a puckered brow he glanced at the damp, boggy distance between them. ``How could anybody dispose of a body in 20 minutes? On the day Mary went missing there were three poachers illegally fishing with an otterboard, which is a piece of timber with hooks hanging of it. These guys have eyes at the back of their heads and would have been keeping their eyes out for gardai. They never saw anything that day. It is very unlikely Black was up there. Somebody would have spotted his van.
``On December 16, 1994, myself and Superintendent Michael Duffy attended a meeting in Newcastle on Tyne about Black to see if there was a link with Mary Boyle. Because we had no body, there wasn't enough to go on. We had no high-tech equipment like we have now. We were basically plumbing the depths of bogs with short sticks rather than detectors. She could have fallen into a swally-hole, a big bog hole covered over with a layer of old vegetation, it floats like a mat and opens like skin. But we've nothing, only this mountain.''
But what about her crisp bag? I said. She would have thrown it on to the ground and it would have taken a long time to disappear. Crisp bags stick to mud. ``We never found it,'' he said.
On my way back to Dublin, just outside Bundoran, I called in to Superintendent Michael Duffy, who was also on the case and who is reasonably familiar with Black's movements. He motioned me into his living-room with a punctilious gesture. When I spoke about Black, he heard me out. Were the stories I had heard in Annagry true?
``Yes,'' he said, thoughtfully. ``They are. It was Robert Black in Annagry.''
Do you think Black is a suspect? There was a long pause. I could see it was entirely alien to his methodical nature to plunge headlong into an answer. Nearly an hour later, he conceded, ``From what I know of this investigation and the information I have, Black should be interviewed about the disappearance of Mary Boyle.''
As I left Bundoran, I thought about the ``shoulds'', ``ifs'', ``buts'' and ``whys'' of life. I wondered, did Black hold another gruesome secret or was there an equally sinister reason why the body wasn't found? Was Mary Boyle abducted near the Cawley farm by Black or someone else? Or did Mary Boyle simply fall into a swally-hole? Only the bleak boglands hold the answer.
One thing is for certain. Nothing can fully describe the loss of a child and the effect it has on people's lives. Not one of us could ever imagine or want to imagine the Boyle family's miserable despondency, their intolerable despair, the strange, unnatural sense of things. Something in their sadness stirred within me the very sacredness of life.