Tuesday 16 January 2018

School bag of Philip Cairns could solve mystery of his disappearance 29 years ago

The lane between Ann Devlin Road and Ann Devlin Drive in Rathfarnham where the schoolbag belonging to Philip Cairns was found.
The lane between Ann Devlin Road and Ann Devlin Drive in Rathfarnham where the schoolbag belonging to Philip Cairns was found.

This school bag holds vital clues capable of solving the sad mystery of the disappearance of Rathfarnham boy Philip Cairns 29 years ago, senior gardai believe.

Philip, who had just turned 13, vanished on the afternoon of October 23, 1986, while walking back to Colaiste Eanna school where he had been a first-year student for just over a month.

It was a case that shocked and baffled the country, and there were no clues in the case until the teenager's schoolbag was found dumped in a laneway six days later, yards from his home on Ballyroan Road.

It is now sealed in plastic and locked in a safe in Rathfarnham Garda Station.

Detective Sergeant Tom Doyle 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 told the Herald.

"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, so I am convinced this school bag holds the answers as to what happened to Philip," he added.

Philip's mother Alice and his siblings continue to hold out hope of finding him.


Alice frequently uses the long narrow concrete laneway where his school bag was found, often on her way to Ballyroan church to pray for him.

"I always look down at the spot beside the lamppost were his bag was left, and I always wonder. It's very sad," she told the Herald.

"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 daughter's in the dental hospital that afternoon and so I wasn't at home when Philip left the house," Alice added, looking from her driveway in the direction Philip would have walked that day 29 years ago.

Bridie Fitzgerald still remembers that night.

"It was found in the lane beside my back garden wall. I'll never forget it," she said.

"The story of Philip was already in the news and it was an awful sad event locally, and then I came home that evening and the gardai and the locals were all outside and there was a big commotion," she added,

"I was terrified that whoever left it there had been in my garden. The gardai searched my house and attic and everything, but nothing was ever found after that," Bridie added.

"Philip's disappearance is still something that everyone here remembers. It's awful for his family and it would be great if they could get answers," she told the Herald.

Det Sgt Doyle still hopes that the mystery can be solved, referring to a case in 2002 when former Army sergeant John Crerar was convicted of the murder of Kildare woman Phyllis Murphy almost 23 years after he killed her.

In that case a detective had kept a blood sample collected years earlier, and advances in DNA science meant it could be tested in greater detail against other evidence, and despite the passage of time a conviction was secured.

The extensive file on Philip is still open and active, and around 10 snippets of information a year are still given to gardai, especially around the time of the anniversary and public appeals for information.

"There are people who know the person or persons directly responsible for Philip's disappearance, and I appeal to those people to come forward and help put a stop to the grief of Philip's family," said Det Sgt Doyle.

"To the person directly responsible: This may have been some sort of an accident or something that got out of control when panic set in, but the most important thing is to find Philip. Anything else is secondary to that, please talk to us," he added.

Det Sgt Doyle also had a message for whoever left the school bag in the laneway.

"You may not be directly responsible for Philip's disappearance. You may have been told or coerced into putting the bag there and now fear you could be held responsible for his disappearance because of that," he said.

"If someone had control or influence over you back in 1986 you would be older and wiser now, and know that doing the right thing is the most important thing," he added.

"It is never too late, I can't stress that enough. I am here to listen.


"The same goes for anyone who may have any information but has not come forward. Don't assume we know what you know. If we do then it is easy to cross-reference it, but if we don't already know what you know it might be a vital link. Talk to us, even 30 years on," he added.

On the wall in Det Sgt Doyle's office is a Crimestoppers poster seeking information and offering a €10,000 reward for information on Philip.

The confirmation picture of the 13-year-old, familiar now to so many people, smiles out to the camera.

Speaking to Ryan Tubridy on RTE Radio One this week, Philip's younger brother Eoin said he was prepared for the worst.

"Anyone in our situation would hope that he comes back. But really, after 29 years we would just like to know where is he, or where he remains.

"If he is alive, I hope he's well. I'd love if he contacted us. I would love to see him again. But deep down, I know that the likelihood of that happening is very remote," he said.

"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."

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