Barbara was branded a runaway but her children want answers, writes Catherine Fegan
SECRETS, even the ones that stay buried for decades, have a curious way of unravelling.
In one rural community in the heart of the Gaeltacht, the disappearance of Barbara Walsh more than 35 years ago was consigned to the annals of history.
Except for an appeal in this newspaper and a report on Raidió na Gaeltachta, the story of the 33-year-old who vanished from her family home barely got any attention at the time.
The young mother must have been depressed was the general theory that quickly emerged. Unable to cope with the struggles of raising seven children, she upped up and left. Case closed.
For those who know the truth about what really happened on the night Barbara walked out of her home, never to return again, it was a narrative that has served them well.
The case received very little publicity, there were no major Garda searches in the locality and it never appeared to have been treated as a suspicious case.
However, thanks to the efforts of her now-adult children, a reckoning with the past - with all its darkest secrets - is about to come hurtling to the fore.
“I look back now and I can see how everything was framed to ensure there would be no questions asked,” says Barbara’s daughter Jacquie, who was 14 when her mother disappeared.
“I think the view was taken that mum was a nobody. It was a small village that was very clannish back then and there are lots of secrets being kept about what really happened on the night she disappeared.”
It was the early hours of June 22, 1985 when Barbara Walsh, who was known as Babe Dara Aindriú, disappeared without a trace.
Her husband, Dara Aindriú, who died some years ago, had welcomed his brother Patrick and sister Catherine back from overseas on the night of June 21, 1985, with a night out in a local pub.
Most of those in the pub came back to the Walshes' house. Local residents who remember the night in question say those invited included several gardaí and the local priest.
As a small afterparty got underway, Jacquie recalls how her 18-year-old sister, also called Catherine, went downstairs and helped her mother make sandwiches for the assembled guests.
The party continued into the early hours. Exact details of what happened as it drew to a close remain unclear, but it appears that as the gathering dispersed, Barbara’s sister-in-law Catherine, left the house along with some of the other guests.
Barbara then appears to have fallen asleep on the couch while her husband slept upstairs. Perhaps she was waiting up for her sister-in-law to return, Jacquie has often wondered, but a lot remains unknown.
What has been established is that Catherine did return to the Walsh family home and went to bed, leaving her high heels downstairs.
Barbara was last seen at about 4am, when her daughter Jacquie woke to find her sleeping on the sofa.
“That was the last time I saw her," says Jacquie.
“She was asleep and I went to wake her up but she didn’t [wake up], so I got a pillow and blanket out of the hot press and put a pillow under her head and the blanket over her.”
It is believed that sometime after Jacqui last saw her mother, Barbara woke up and left the house.
“I believe a knock at the window from someone caused her to get up and leave the house. Mum just left in what she was wearing - black jeans, a white top and she took Jean’s beige jacket.
“Auntie Catherine’s shoes were just underneath a small table beside the TV and they were missing the next day, so she must have put them on.”
The next morning, Jacquie and her young siblings woke up to learn that their mother was not at home.
The couple had no car, and Barbara had no passport. There was no sign that she had packed, and she left reading glasses behind her.
Garda files indicate that no official report of her disappearance was recorded until June 29, a full week later.
Curiously, there was no attempt to organise a community search after Barbara didn’t return home.
“I suppose there was a hope that she would just turn up,” says Jacquie.
“There was talk that maybe she had gone to stay with family in England and this notion that she was depressed. In that paper interview he mentions post-natal depression.
“My dad wouldn’t have had a clue what that was. Someone offered this as an explanation to him and he went with it. And that’s what we thought for years, that she had just gone off and left us.”
The Walsh family home in Roisín na Maithníoch was about two miles outside the small village of Carna in Connemara. Separated from the rest of Ireland by vast bogs, bleak terrain and barren mountains, it is a sparsely settled area where some of the customs of the past are still alive.
The family lived a tough life on the coastal margins where seaweed harvesting, along with mixed farming, fishing, the dole and the relatively new industry of fish farming formed the staple economy.
“We lived off the land and we had very little,” says Jacquie.
“Our father was a farmer and he harvested seaweed during the season. He was a simple, hard-working man who saw his role as the provider.”
With his wife gone, Dara Aindriú raised the seven children with family help, and is said to have been a fine father. His wife was never referred to by him again.
“He would never ever talk about it, even if we brought it up,” says Jacquie.
“He just bottled a lot up but that was the way of it. There was great stigma attached to the fact that our mother had left us and I know he was heartbroken.
“I remember just dreading going back to school the summer after she left. You felt shame over it and that played into all the secrecy.”
At the time, in the small Irish-speaking community of Carna, it was deemed that Barbara, a woman who abandoned her own children, should never be spoken of again. More importantly, those tied to her disappearance ensured that any alternative explanation was never explored.
“Everyone in the community just closed up,” says Jacquie.
“No one has ever come to us with information and it was as if she never existed.”
As the years went by, the Walsh children grew up motherless but Barbara was never far from their thoughts.
Jacquie settled in nearby Carraroe in Co Galway and before her father’s death in 2007, gardaí in Clifden began to look at the case again.
When a letter arrived at the station, purporting to be sent on behalf of the Walsh family and saying that the revived probe was upsetting them, shadows from the past appeared to have re-appeared.
“It said that it was upsetting the family to be digging up mum's case again,” said Jacquie.
“It was signed from the Walsh family, or something to that effect. To our knowledge, no one in our family authored any such letter.”
Then, after having children of her own, Jacquie began investigating her mother's disappearance.
“It was only when we got older and started asking questions that certain people started to full us in on bits,” says Jacquie.
“People within the family, who knew things about that night, told us they had been quietly suspicious about what had happened.”
With the help of a private investigator, Jacquie established that her mother had no passport, had not changed her name by deed poll and had never applied for her PPS number.
Then, in 2009, when undertaking a course at NUI Galway, Jacquie began researching the Ireland’s missing persons website. As the website is run in line with the Garda Siochána, she was surprised to see that her mother was not included in it.
She got in touch with the then-sergeant in charge of her mother’s case to ask why.
“We got the picture up on the website about a year later and it snowballed from there,” she says.
“But I wonder would anything have happened at all with the case if we hadn’t pushed for that. Until then I had never told my kids my mum was missing. I always told them that she had passed away.
“I used to show them my grandmother's grave because they had the same name. It wasn’t until I got her picture on the missing persons website that I told them. I just didn’t want them to think I would up and go on them.”
In 2014, the family wrote to then-Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan about their mother’s disappearance to outline concerns they had with the investigation.
Ms O’Sullivan ordered a cold-case review in 2015, leading to 112 lines of inquiry. Gardaí interviewed close to 60 people and that November, when a search of Barbara’s former home and the surrounding lands was ordered, the case came to national prominence for the first time.
An excavator was hired, as was a sniffer dog from England trained for searches such as those of disappeared IRA victims.
The focus was not just on the small house, nestled between a lake and the sea, but also a stone-built outhouse and surrounding land. A few months later, the garda water unit searched the nearby lake.
Nothing of significance was found.
“I knew the focus would come on our father,” says Jacquie.
“They had a cadaver dog and I said you can rip the land apart but you will find noting on dad's land. Our father had no part in this.
“We believe mum was buried somewhere else and when we asked gardaí to search a particular area elsewhere they couldn’t because they didn’t have permission.”
Five years later, gardaí are still following up on information gathered during the 2015 review.
“Even now we feel that there are still people with information, particularly in the Carna area,” says Detective Sergeant Colm Mac Donnachadha, the man leading the latest probe.
“We are hoping with the passage of time that circumstances or attitudes my have changed and they may be in a position to come forward. It could be something that they think is insignificant when in fact it could be key to cracking this case.”
Last month, Det Sgt Mac Donnachadha marked the 35-year anniversary of Barbara’s disappearance with a public appeal calling on those with information to come forward. However, in the close-knit community of Roisín na Maithníoch and nearby Carna, old habits die hard. Silence, even in the midst of great injustice, is still seen by some as the customary way.
“For one reason or another, people have been reluctant to come forward,” says Mac Donnachadha.
“We got a lot of new information in 2015 but in the 30 years previous people hadn’t spoken about Barbara and had just kept things to themselves. We believe there is more information within the community. I think that people maybe feel that this is a private matter, a family matter, because that was certainly the belief at the time. In some quarters it was believed that she left of her own accord and no one really spoke of her again. After all this time, we really want to get answers for the family and find out what happened to Barbara.”
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