Wednesday 21 February 2018

'Philip was the endless riddle of our young lives'

Donal Lynch was seven years old and living a few streets away when Philip Cairns vanished. He remembers the dark cloud that hung over the local area in the wake of the disappearance - and how an age of innocence was lost forever

Flashback: Students arrive back at Coláiste Éanna on the Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham after their mid-term break, days after Philip Cairns went missing.
Flashback: Students arrive back at Coláiste Éanna on the Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham after their mid-term break, days after Philip Cairns went missing.
Phillip Cairns

A missing child changes everything, for everyone. For years after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the beach bars around the Algarve were full of children, propped up on bars, watching bemusedly as mummy did a shot or daddy tried his hand at karaoke. Nobody dared leave them in the hotel room, as my parents did to me when I was a child. As a whole generation of parents did. The little picture of Madeleine holding the tennis balls, the grief stricken face of her mother, the curious corporate speak of her father, changed all that; there weren't enough shots in all Portugal to block out the memories of it all. And so the kids came too. The bars even started making virgin cocktails.

Growing up, Philip Cairns was our Madeleine; the endless, defining riddle of our young lives and the catalyst of unforeseen consequences. At the most prosaic and immediate level, the legacy of his disappearance was congestion. In the months and years after he vanished, the roads around the schools in Templeogue and Rathfarnham became backed up with cars, in a way that might seem normal today in today's world of overparenting, SUVs and toddler playdates, but was very unusual back then.

A generation of country people, who had made these bland, built-up suburbs roughly habitable, and who had themselves walked to school through the fields, now hardly trusted their children to navigate a few hundred yards. They drove them if at all possible.

The quiet laneways, which formed shortcuts through the endless housing estates, were avoided at all costs. Everyone looked over their shoulders. Philip had gone missing in broad daylight, after all. And if ever anyone doubted the wisdom of this kind of helicopter parenting, they needed only call to mind the black-and-white photo, the little red rosette, the boy who would never be a man.

I was seven when Philip went missing, I grew up a few minutes walk from his home and he was the first big news story of which I was aware. As a child you don't really take in the adult grief of the situation. To me, in the photos, Philip seemed almost like a man. It seemed impossible that he would be just gone. I could conceive someone dying, but not simply being gone. I imagined him having run away, living out some swashbuckling fantasy like the boy prince in The NeverEnding Story, the most popular children's film in the year he was last seen. The hero rode on the back of a friendly luck dragon. Philip must have had some luck, at least the luck to not have been outright murdered.

In the little grainy photo that was published in the press, he seemed grown up enough to make it on his own. The little brown satchel, his homemade haircut, the rosette itself; they were all just like home. And, I reasoned, he probably still had his confirmation money.

In the eighties we became obsessed by paedophiles, a word which Irish people had only just learned.

Our local video shop was full of terror-inspiring B-movies like Without a Trace (about the abduction of the American six-year-old Alex Selky) and I Know My First Name is Stephen (about the disappearance of seven-year-old Steven Stayner in California). The biggest movie the year after Philip's disappearance was The Lost Boys, a vampire-themed allegory of abandoned youth. Looming over the whole decade was Freddy Krueger, the horribly burned child killer from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. In the movies there was closure, invariably happy endings. In real life, there were only long, dark years of waiting.

Children can detect when adults are afraid. Countless committees debated the precise language to be used in the Stay Safe programme which was piloted in our national school for the first time during my final years there.

The aim, it seemed, was to make us healthily wary of potential stranger danger without using the type of frankly sexual language which might affront our Catholic upbringing. When the teacher embarked on a little talk about the "no feeling" we might feel when offered a lift by strangers, one little girl put up her hand and asked if this was about a situation like the one that happened to Philip Cairns. The teacher glared and nodded. She could hardly deny it. In an unspoken but pervasive way, Philip would always be on the curriculum.

When children go missing, police units will often release computer generated images of what the child might look like today. They are usually laughably unlifelike, artificially maturing every sorry victim into an expressionless Mattel doll. Philip had one of these, too, but my generation never needed it. We had our memories and our own faces in the mirror, as a guide. Anyone who was a child around the time he went missing has their own inbuilt time-lapse shot of the man he might have turned out to be. Our wrinkles, our paunches, our bald heads, our impending middle age; it all gives us clues as to how he might have turned out. And reminds us just how long it has been since he went missing. Philip would have been 43 this year.

There were leads over the years in Philip's case, periodic explosions of tabloid speculation, but nothing that ever came close to solving the mystery.

The news of the possible involvement of notorious (and recently deceased) paedophile Eamon Cooke should have brought some succour, with the guards apparently believing he may be the key piece in the jigsaw puzzle, but it only begged more questions. Why had the woman, who had gone to gardaí with the information, waited so long? Can anyone who sat on information for that long, putting Philip's long-suffering family through yet more torture, really be trusted?

And, to be selfish about it, Cooke himself would make an unsatisfying culprit. When a predator dies without atoning, our vast reserve of impotent rage needs something to attach itself to, a proxy for all the useless blame; after Jimmy Savile, they attacked the BBC, the Church took the rap for its priests who never faced court, even creepy old Clement Freud left a widow to apologise. But so far, Captain Cooke has left nothing except unanswered questions and the ragged suspicion that just looking at his mad, dancing eyes, we ought to have known.

There's always a slight sadness when you think back on a childhood that's gone. My mother, in her wisdom, says that when people cry at other's stories they are usually crying, on some level, for themselves. Maybe it is self-pity but I've shed a tear when I think of Philip, because he was a child on the brink of the blazing years of adolescence, caught forever somewhere between the conscientious little rosette and the teenage mischief to come.

When you're a 13-year-old boy, you have all sorts of secrets from your family, the secrets themselves are a part of carving our your own identity. But at that age, you can never grasp how dangerous those secrets can be. Even at 13, your sanctioned life of family and school can often be just the surface.

What did Philip not say? How much did he show of his burgeoning life to the people who loved him? Heartbreakingly this week, his mother Alice said that he was only just getting into music, which is why she was sceptical of the involvement of Cooke.

Unlike the McCanns, she and her family can't bear the spotlight of media attention. Closure is the word that's always used, it's a word that the McCanns themselves use. But what does it even mean?

A friend of mine said this week: even if they decide that oul creep did it, it won't change the horrible years of wondering. It won't give Alice back her life, the thousands of walks through that desolate little laneway where he went missing, the prayers, the rosary beads moving through those slowly ageing hands. Can there be any relief at the end of what she's gone through? Any peace?

The ghouls and the guards pull at the threads of the mystery of Philip. But the pain, the loss, and the long, dark years of waiting - those will never be unravelled.

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