Schoolbag only clue to boy who vanished into thin air
Breakthrough in case of teen missing for 30 years, writes Gareth Morgan
On the afternoon of October 23, 1986, Philip Cairns never arrived at his school desk.
The 13-year-old schoolboy was a creature of habit, and rarely deviated from his routine, always coming home for lunch.
On that ordinary Friday afternoon, Philip finished his lunch, waved goodbye to his grandmother, and began the journey he had taken each day for the previous six weeks towards his secondary school.
But Philip Cairns never made it back to Coláiste Éanna.
His school friends and family never saw him again.
He vanished without a trace. In the days after his disappearance, the nightmare of the situation began to unfold.
A nationwide search was launched but the schoolboy from Ballyroan Road in Rathfarnham, Dublin, was never seen again.
His body has never been found.
Initial searches of the Rathfarnham area were fruitless. Hundreds of sightings were reported but none were ever confirmed.
The only clue was a discarded schoolbag, spotted by two girls in a laneway close to his school the following Wednesday.
Strangely, on the night it was found the bag was bone dry, but it had been raining heavily beforehand.
It was thought the boy's killer, anxious to be rid of evidence or perhaps trying to mislead the gardaí, had placed it there, because the lane had been searched several days previously and nothing was found.
The bag contained some of Philip's books, but his geography book and two religion books ('Christian Way 1' and the 'Good News New Testament') were missing.
His father, Philip Snr, died in July 2014 without ever discovering what had happened to his son.
His mother Alice and his five siblings Mary, Sandra, Helen, Suzanne and Eoin always hoped for his return.
"I always look down at the spot beside the lamppost were his bag was left, and I always wonder. It's very sad," Alice said in an interview last October.
"The day he went missing was the one day that I didn't stand at the gate and watch him walk up the road towards the school.
"I had an appointment with one of my daughters in the dental hospital that afternoon and so I wasn't at home when Philip left the house."
Alice previously said that "Philip is always there in the sense that he is not there. At Christmas, birthdays, weddings, we think of how Philip should be with us."
Philip's younger brother, Eoin, who was just 11 at the time, relived the mystery of Philip's disappearance when he spoke to Ryan Tubridy on his radio show last year.
"Knowing what we know of Philip, he only had his clothes on and his schoolbag. He only had 50p on him. Knowing my brother, he would not have gone off on a whim. He wouldn't have decided to go on an adventure."
He added: "You have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. More than likely there will not be a happy ending.
"We will more than likely find him rather than him find us." The schoolbag was sealed in plastic and locked in a safe in Rathfarnham Garda Station.
Speaking last October, on the anniversary of Philip's disappearance, Detective Sergeant Tom Doyle outlined how he believes advances in science and forensic technology could make the bag a vital clue once again.
"At the time it was found in 1986, DNA profiling was a limited concept. There was a danger that testing the bag might produce a mixed profile because the bag could have been handled by many people," Det Sgt Doyle said.
"The key is being able to separate out the profiles of any DNA found on the bag, and technology is increasingly moving in that direction. I am convinced this schoolbag holds the answers as to what happened to Philip," he added.
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A woman came forward to gardaí last month, offering a crucial new lead in the case.
Finally, the discarded schoolbag may yield the secrets it has held for the past three decades.