Wednesday 24 January 2018

Property sale evokes memories of tragedy

The family of missing Priscilla Clarke feels vindicated by the probe into her disappearance, writes Maeve Sheehan

LOST: Priscilla Clarke, from Ardee, Co Louth, who went
missing, presumed drowned, in 1988
LOST: Priscilla Clarke, from Ardee, Co Louth, who went missing, presumed drowned, in 1988

THE businessman Mark Kavanagh put his Georgian house in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, on the market last week for €3.6m.

It was a home befitting a millionaire: elaborate plasterwork, 200-year-old timber panelling, striking gardens with unbroken views of the Sugar Loaf mountain and rich in history. The photographs of Ballyorney House that featured in the property pages last week evoked not just its splendour. For one family, the pictures brought back memories of a tragedy buried in its past.

On May 3, 1988, Mark Kavanagh's wife, Lynda, and their children's nanny, Priscilla Clarke, 25, disappeared in a suspected drowning accident after setting out horse riding after heavy rain. Lynda's body was recovered within days from the River Dargle. Priscilla's body was never found.

Nineteen years passed before gardai ordered a "cold-case" review, prompting a fresh examination of her disappearance two years ago. Witnesses were re-interviewed and inquiries made to international agencies but there has been no progress in finding Priscilla's body.

For Claire Keane, Priscilla's sister, emotions came flooding back last week.

"You really like to know the last movements of someone on their last day, to put all the pieces together. When a person is missing, it's an ambiguous loss. You are always asking questions. When there is a funeral there is closure for the family," she said.

As for her parents, she said: "They never got over the fact that there is no grave to go to."

Priscilla's background could not have been further from the Kavanagh's. She was a country girl, from Ardee, Co Louth, and a much-loved nanny to Mark and Lynda Kavanagh's children. She adored the children, according to Claire.

Mark Kavanagh was by then a successful entrepreneur. He founded the hip burger restaurant Captain America's in Dublin, developed the Irish Financial Services Centre and ran Hardwicke Properties, the family business.

The family moved to Ballyorney House in Enniskerry in 1988, a Georgian pile, where Priscilla had her own room.

When he was later interviewed by Ivor Kenny, the management guru, Mark Kavanagh said he and his children had "lost the single most important person in all our lives" when they lost Lynda.

He recalled that he was in a meeting that afternoon when Lynda rang to say she was going horse riding. He began to worry when, by 6pm, she did not reply to his calls. At 9pm his young son phoned to ask where his mum was.

Gardai and a "media circus" descended on Enniskerry. Mark Kavanagh recalled that there were "hundreds of journalists" around the house. The Special Branch was apparently convinced that Lynda had been kidnapped -- IRA kidnappings were not uncommon at the time. He found Charles Haughey was "tremendously supportive".

It was Claire who got the call from Mark Kavanagh to say Priscilla and Lynda were missing. Claire broke the news to her parents in Ardee. Her father left immediately for Enniskerry in his battered old car. He repeated the gruelling journey every day for a week, with a flask of tea and home-made brown bread prepared by Priscilla's mother.

But the community of Enniskerry was "different to what we were used to", said Claire. Back home in Ardee, neighbours and friends gathered protectively around the Clarke family. They all wanted to come to Enniskerry to join the search for Priscilla immediately.

Gardai would not allow it, at least in the early days of their investigation when it was still unclear what happened to the women.

Priscilla's father, Paddy, her siblings and other family members made the long journeys from Ardee to Enniskerry to help in the search for her.

"As a family in distress, we did find Enniskerry a very 'gated' community. That's not a reflection on the people living there but really, it was the security they had. They were wealthy people," said Claire.

Lynda's body was recovered within days from the Dargle River. The suspicion was that Priscilla had been swept out to sea. The river was swollen. Witnesses had seen them on horseback and the horses were later found wandering the roads.

The search for Priscilla eventually was wound down. For months afterwards her father made the gruelling journey from Ardee to Enniskerry to continue the search for his daughter.

The family's nagging doubts about what happened to her persisted. For years, they were plagued with questions about her last hours.

Priscilla's father, who has since died, wrote numerous letters to the authorities urging them to continue to investigate her disappearance.

Nothing happened for years until the cold case review team, which re-examines unsolved cases, re-examined Priscilla's file. The unit produced 87 recommendations and gardai in Bray followed them up.

Surviving witnesses were interviewed again and leads followed up. The re-investigation uncovered some new information but nothing of any significance.

The garda file on Priscilla will not be closed until her body is found. For technical reasons, they cannot rule out foul play but it is believed that she drowned.

Despite all the re-investigations, Priscilla's body may never be recovered, and her family may never have a place to lay flowers and pray for her memory.

But after years of frustration and fruitless searching, they can at least feel vindicated that they did all they could.

Claire is involved in Missing in Ireland, a support service for families in a similar position to her own.

"We accept that at the present time, things are going to be handled in a more professional manner and we hope that the lack of information provided to our family won't happen again," she said.

Sunday Independent

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