Without a trace: Families of Ireland's missing people reveal their fading hopes and never-ending heartbreak
The big read: Thousands of Irish people are reported missing each year and some never return home. As the months stretch into years, how do families cope with their unanswered questions? Kathy Donaghy reports
This Christmas will be the first in 18 years that the Shanahan family from Limerick have their son and brother Aengus 'Gussie' back with them. His remains were identified earlier this year after new advancements in DNA testing allowed investigators to do tests on bone fragments found in the River Shannon in 2001, just a year after Gussie went missing.
He's just one of a number of missing people who have recently been identified, bringing to an end an agonising wait for his family. It's hoped that other families will be able to bury long-lost loved ones in the coming months as science comes up with answers that searching and persistence alone could not deliver.
Gussie's older sister Grainne Shanahan says they still don't know what happened or how he ended up in the water. She recalls vividly the night he went missing: it was a Friday night and she knew immediately something was wrong.
"Back then we didn't have mobile phones so you couldn't try and contact anyone on a mobile. There was no such thing as social media. I think every family deals with it differently. Dad got stuck into organising search parties. Mam was at home pining for him and hoping for news. Mam had a stroke the year after Aengus went missing and lost the power of her legs. It really impacted on her health," she says.
While it affected all the family differently, Grainne says that as an older sister, she was devastated. "You're devastated that you weren't there to help him or protect him; you have guilt as well that there was nobody there to help him. You still have to have hope but as the years go by, you lose that," she says.
"We have always believed that someone harmed him. It's for someone to come forward and give us proof of that. Mam passed away in 2016. Towards the end, she almost gave up. She knew she would never meet him on this side; that the only way to meet him was on the other side. She died of a broken heart.
"We knew back in 2015 that there had been new DNA improvements. Back then, the gardaí came and took swabs of DNA from Mam and Dad. The news that it was him was bittersweet. It was finally we had got him home and finally we were able to bury him with Mammy. But what happened to him? We are delighted to have him with Mammy, but it opens up a new chapter of questions."
She adds: "Going forward, 100pc from my perspective, we'll be seeking justice for Aengus and making appeals. It's very much an open case. The key message for us at his funeral was that he wasn't just the boy in the missing poster - there were 20 years before that. He was a brother and a son. At times that can get lost in the missing poster. He'd be 38 now. He was a lovable rogue, adored by all of us. He saw the good in people. Sometimes it would have made him naïve to situations. He wouldn't have seen the bad in people."
Grainne says that after so many years of waiting, the family is still getting used to the idea that he's been found. "My heart goes out to other families. We hope others will get that news," she says.
According to Dr Dorothy Ramsbottom, DNA Development and Cold Case Manager at Forensic Science Ireland, a number of things have come together at the same time which is resulting in breakthroughs in identifying people missing for many years.
She explains that in 2015, with the commencement of the national DNA database, a software system called CODIS - developed by the FBI - was introduced. Two indexes were created as part of the database - the first was the investigative index, which houses all the crime stains generated in case work, and the second was an identification index to house all the DNA generated in missing persons' cases.
One of the first labs in Europe
This identification index was created separately and solely as a repository for the DNA supplied by family members who have a missing loved one. Up until 2015, there was no way to keep all this information together.
"We are one of the first labs in Europe to develop what we call familial searching. This software allows us to compare the profiles of the families against profiles of missing persons. It's the reason we have started making progress," says Dr Ramsbottom.
As well as the ability to do familial searching, improvements in DNA extraction methods together with a more sensitive DNA technology meant scientists at the lab could generate DNA profiles from degraded samples. For the first time, it was possible to generate DNA profiles from previously very challenging samples of tissue or bone. When a new profile from unidentified human remains is compared with samples on the familial database, matches can be made. Crucial to the success of identifying missing people is family members - particularly parents of those missing - giving DNA samples. Samples from the remains of around 20 people have yet to be analysed using the new technology and Dr Ramsbottom says she hopes this will mean they can bring news of a positive identification to more families in the coming months.
Sergeant Richie Lynch, who heads up the Garda Missing Persons Bureau, says it's important for families to know that gardaí will keep looking. "The key message for people is to give DNA. Sometimes people might think 'what's the point?' when someone is missing 20 years. But we can only identify people when the family have given that DNA. All of the advances in science are of no benefit unless families give DNA," he says.
"We are still trying - regardless of the passage of time - to find people. It's important to those families whose loved one hasn't been recovered to know we haven't forgotten," says Sgt Lynch.
Advancements in science
Last month, 70-year-old Teresa Gallagher from Cabra in Dublin received the news that the remains of her son James, who went missing in Dublin in February 1999 at the age of 18, had been identified. His remains had been recovered in Dublin in 2002, only three years after he disappeared, but only identified very recently as a result of advancements in forensic science. Two years ago, Teresa gave DNA when gardaí called to her home.
"When a person dies belonging to you, you know the funeral Mass will be two days later. That's normal. It's not normal to be waiting. I lived one day at a time. I believe to this day that my faith kept me going," she says.
She recalls the night her son went missing. Nothing out of the ordinary happened but she knew when he wasn't on the last bus home that something was wrong. Even now after all these years, she has to wait a bit longer. Her son's remains have not yet been released for burial.
"I never gave up that I would get him home," she says.
It was the support of friends and others who had loved ones missing that helped her through the years of waiting for word of James, according to Teresa. She and her good friend Clare Shine, whose son Paul Shine-Dixon disappeared in the south of France in 2009, became a great support to one another over the years of not knowing.
In February, Clare, who lives in Finglas in Dublin, was informed that her son's remains had been identified due to the work of Forensic Science Ireland and their French counterparts.
"It was unbelievable. There was healing in it, but I was heartbroken that it was his remains. Sometimes I felt that I'd never get any closure. When Paul's remains were found, so was his watch. He went missing on May 3, 2009. His watch stopped at 19 minutes past four on the fourth," says Clare.
For other families, the wait goes on. They are still waiting for a fragment of information that might cast some light on what happened to a loved one or where they went.
At his home in Waterford City, Gerry Keenan is still hoping to find out what happened to his sister Imelda Keenan, who went missing 25 years ago. She was 22 years old at the time.
Gerry, the eldest in a family of nine, recalls a shy country girl who would be 47 today and who is still greatly missed. "My mam died in 2008. She prayed every day that she would get some kind of closure. She told me on her deathbed that she wouldn't get an answer," says Gerry.
"I've always thought there'd be light at the end of the tunnel, that if I give up, everyone would give up. I try to keep it going as much as I can. It affects people in different ways. This has taken a toll on all of us. I'm a happy-go-lucky guy, but at the end of the day when I sit down, the tears start to fall. I hide it in front of people," he says.
Gerry believes in his heart that his sister was harmed and he wants anyone with any knowledge of what happened to Imelda to come forward. "I hope that one of these days someone will come and say 'we know where your little sister is - we'll take you out of your pain'. I'd kiss them and say 'you're not one bit late with the news'."
In 2009, Gerry had a plaque erected to Imelda in the city.
"It's the nearest we'll get to a grave. It's somewhere people can stop and say a prayer. I go down there every day. I can only pray that we will get some kind of word," he says.
The National Missing Persons Helpline and website was set up in 2004 by Dermot Browne after his son Derek went missing in 2003. For 13 weeks he looked for his son, searching from early morning until it was dark. He eventually found Derek, who had taken his own life.
But the experience of having nobody he could call, combined with the fact he was beginning to get calls from people who had a loved one missing, inspired him to set up the helpline. It gets hundreds of calls every year, and the organisation also brings families together where they can talk.
Dermot says that unless you have been through the experience of searching for a loved one, you can't adequately describe what that is like. While time moves on, he says families get caught in the particular date and year their loved one went missing.
Michael Jacob, whose 18-year-old daughter Deirdre went missing near her home in July 1998, says you hear the word 'closure' being used but it doesn't fit their family.
"You're talking about closing a file and it's over and done with. Even if we know some of the answers, we'll still have questions.
"There will always be questions - closure doesn't come into it," he says.
Michael says day-to-day life has to be lived. There are times, he says, it feels like only yesterday that Deirdre was still around. Other times, it feels like 100 years. The loss is ongoing, he says.
Michael believes gardaí should engage with family members of missing people at every opportunity because they are in what he describes as a lost situation themselves. "We don't expect to know every twist and turn, but we need to be taken into a degree of trust by gardaí," he says.
"There are days and times like at family gatherings you look around and you don't see her. The enormity of the loss will hit you many times every day. There are so many unexplained questions. Sometimes the questions mount up and it becomes enormous. You have to try and take some degree of positivity from it because you have to forge ahead at all costs," says Michael.
See missingpersons.ie for more information or call the National Missing Persons Helpline at 1890 442 552