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'Not having him around is the hardest thing for me...'

Conversations in college canteens usually vary from lively current affairs debates to scandalous confessions from the night before. But sitting at the table in Dublin's Independent Colleges, 23-year-old Darren Feehan's tragic account of his search for his missing father couldn't be any further from the norm.

"It's like torture, only worse. I would prefer someone to be sticking needles in me than to be going through this, I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

"I don't want to go to sleep at night because of the bad dreams. They are so vivid that when I wake up it seems like they are real."

On February 13, 2009, Darren's father, 43-year-old John Byrne, left his home in Finglas, Dublin, and never came back. After three days, when Darren started to become concerned that none of his father's friends could provide an explanation, he went to the gardai. Nearly 12 months, and a search of the Liffey later, they're no closer to finding him.

The student has spent the last year looking for his dad. He has travelled the country chasing leads and following up on sightings. Nights have been spent trawling the streets of Dublin, visiting shops, putting up posters and making enquiries. But still nothing.

Darren's parents split when he was a child. His mother remarried and he stayed with his dad. They shared a relationship which developed from father and son to that of best friends, making it harder for Darren to accept the fact that his father had vanished.

"He's not the type of person who would take his own life, he was probably just pissed off and wanted to get away for a while. He may never be seen again or he may be turn up at the door tomorrow."

On the surface nothing was amiss; John Byrne seemed to live a normal, happy life. The death of a close friend during new year's week had impacted on his mood, but not drastically enough to provoke such an extreme reaction.

"Not having him around is the hardest thing I have to deal with, and the not knowing is a constant struggle. It plays on my mind all the time and prevents me from concentrating on the things I should be focusing on in my daily life."

People go missing in Ireland regularly, and reports of unidentified bodies being found are often in the news. Hearing these stories brings fresh waves of pain for Darren. If the body fits the demographic of his father, then he is called to identify it.

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"The police will always ring me if they can't identify a body. But very often, the people are so badly decomposed that it is not possible, so they take a DNA sample. Then it's a two or three week wait before you hear back with the results."

When the samples don't match, it's a mixture of emotions for the 23-year-old, relief tinged with sorrow. While the latter is for the family of the person who's been found, getting that kind of closure is not an option he wants to explore.

"Bad as this is now, I'd rather this went out for a few years than to find him dead. The hope keeps me going -- if there was no hope I might as well give up."

The law student is in a support group for the families of missing persons.

Jo Jo Dollard's family and Trevor Deely's father are part of this group, and seeing the deteriorating affects of time on these people is harrowing for Darren.

"Jo Jo Dollard has been gone for 20 years and to see how much it has affected her family is scary. It's so drawn out it's torturous."

It doesn't get any easier; in fact the pain intensifies as happy times are revisited. Christmas just gone was a stark reminder that things had changed. Cards that had once been addressed to Darren and John looked empty without his name.

"This Christmas really hurt me. I've never spent one away from my Dad, I just told the lads that I didn't want see them over the holidays."

Holidays, birthdays and special occasions paint a lonely and forlorn picture for Darren although he tries hard not to get upset. Keeping his feelings in check is a challenge, and a quiet night alone in front of the TV can sometimes send him over the edge.

"I sometimes find myself in tears over something I see on TV. Before, I would have never cried at anything but I'm not crying because of what I've seen -- I'm crying because of how I feel."

Amazingly, Darren has managed to unearth something positive out of the situation. A year on and he has made some personal progress. Along with returning to college to 'make something of himself', he has a new outlook on life.

"When something unexpected like this happens, it opens your mind to things and forces you to sort out your priorities. I didn't have mine right. I have to try to be the best person that I can be. I believe that's what can make me happy. The last year has been a real eye-opener for me, it made me realise how precious life is and I don't want to squander it."

Living on the edge of salvation is a daily reality for Darren Feehan and, for now, all he can do is hope.

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