Tuesday 17 July 2018

Philip kept his dignity, but died not knowing why his son disappeared

Gardai searching the River Dodder area in Rathfarnham following the disappearence of 13 year old schoolboy Philip Cairns
Gardai searching the River Dodder area in Rathfarnham following the disappearence of 13 year old schoolboy Philip Cairns
The schoolbag belonging to 13 year old schoolboy Philip Cairns in a laneway near his home on Ballyroan Road, Rathfarnham
Alice and Philip Cairns, parents of the boy who disappeared
Philip Cairns
Alice and Philip Cairns, parents of Philip Cairns who went missing in 1986 at the launch of the new website ie.Missingkids.com at Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park (14/09/04)

OCTOBER 23 1986. It's a date that will be forever etched on my memory, the day that Dublin schoolboy Philip Cairns disappeared, a mystery which continues to baffle gardai almost three decades later.

I covered the case for The Herald and the search ran from days into weeks, into months, and sadly into years.

Indeed years later, I often called to the Cairns' family home on Ballyroan Road to visit Philip's mum, Alice, and many's the cups of tea she made for me in the family kitchen as we talked - usually at anniversary time - about the search for the missing schoolboy with the cherubic, innocent face.

The gently-spoken silver-haired dad, Philip Cairns (Senior), was always polite and would direct me on to his wife for the chat.

I will never forget the couple's ashen faces, seated behind the interview table at Terenure Garda Station as the they made a pre-Christmas plea in December 1986 for Philip's safe return. All the houses in the Rathfarnham area where they lived were decked out with lights and sparkling Christmas trees. But they were living a nightmare, on a parallel universe it must have seemed.

The couple cut a tragic figure as they walked into the garda station to make a plea on TV for their darling son to be returned to them. Alice wiped the tears from behind her glasses and her husband, after whom the schoolboy was named - the first son after four daughters - sat in silence, his sad face etched with a look of fear that Philip might never return to them.

It was a fear that came to pass and tragically, Mr Cairns died this week without ever finding out what happened to his eldest son.

The two Philips in the Cairns family were great buddies, and while the schoolboy went to mass and devotations at Ballyroan church with his mum, he went fishing with his dad.


The boys in the family were into sport. Eoin, the youngest child in the family often told how the boys liked to play soccer, fishing and hurling.

A reporter's life is studded with stories that struck a chord with them because of the people they met along the way and this was certainly one. I interviewed dozens of eye witnesses in the days and weeks after Philip disappeared. I was there the day Philip's schoolbag mysteriously turned up in a laneway near his home, a week after he disappeared. I followed gardai and volunteers as they combed parks and the foothills of the Dublin mountains.

I drank tea with his mum Alice, and while I didn't get to speak to Philip Cairns Senior very much, he held himself with a dignity and showed genuine respect for the people looking for his son.


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