NewsCrime Desk

Pied piper paedophile Eamon Cooke and the disappearance of Philip Cairns - Chapter One

Eamon 'Captain' Cooke
Eamon 'Captain' Cooke

IT WAS a year marked by music classics when A-Ha, Dire Straits, Madonna and Status Quo vied for the number one position, along with Chris de Burgh and his cheesy love song 'Lady in Red'.

But the airwaves were dominated by the Swedish group Europe and their enor­mous hit ‘The Final Countdown’, which topped the charts in 25 countries and is still belted out today as the ultimate rock anthem.

It was a year when Nissan launched its Sunny and Opel unveiled its Senator, Kadett and Corsa models at a car show in the RDS. But they were the fancier mo­tors. Datsuns and Fiat 127s were the standard wheels for most working families crippled by years of recession, high unemployment and mass emigration.

For years Charles Haughey and Gareth Fitzgerald, the Punch and Judy of Irish politics, had dominated government with power alternating between their two par­ties amidst a hidden backdrop of corruption at the highest level in the Irish state. In playgrounds, children’s skipping games rhymed about the rivalry of the two leaders and whether a family voted Fianna Fail or Fine Gael still defined many.

The Catholic Church was still in its pomp and the influence of priests was all-encompassing. When the country went to the polls that year to vote on the removal of the prohibition of divorce from the Constitution the nation rejected it by more than 60 per cent. Ireland was a nation on the brink of change, but it hadn’t happened yet.

It was a year when crime, too, dominated the country with the daring raid by Martin ‘The General’ Cahill and his gang, who stole 18 paintings from the Beit collection at Russborough House and made international headlines.

Jack Charlton was one of the good guys - he had just arrived in Dublin and was fast becoming a household name as he offered fresh hope and a new era to soccer fans.

Despite all this, and just days before the first 20p coin entered circulation for the first time, 1986 was about to be remembered for something else. It would be the year that a 13-year-old schoolboy vanished off the face of the earth, leaving behind one of the most baffling and enduring mysteries of modern Irish life.

At first, to those outside his immediate family and gardai, it seemed that Philip Cairns must have run away. Children simply didn’t go missing in Ireland and save for the mystery of little Mary Boyle in Donegal some nine years previous, no kids had disappeared. It was still ten years before the emergence of the notorious Leinster vanishing triangle or the name Larry Murphy had ever been heard.

Philip was the fifth of six children of Alice and Philip Cairns Snr. Four girls - Mary, Sandra, Helen and Suzanne - came before him and little brother Eoin made up the large family.

A gentle boy, not used to rough and tumble, Philip was quiet, unassuming and mannerly. He played football with his younger brother in the back garden and with other boys on the road. They went fishing with their dad. He enjoyed hurling. The family lived a simple life and were devout Catholics. They had never come onto the radar of the gardai.

When he went missing on a bright and sunny Thursday afternoon on October 23rd near his home in Rathfarnham, south Dublin, Philip was on his way back to school having returned home for lunch. The mundane and ordinary circum­stances that surrounded how he vanished would haunt Ireland, and in particular the suburbs of south Dublin. They would also remain for decades the most baf­fling part of the mystery of what happened to Philip Cairns.

Philip had just started at secondary school at nearby Colaiste Eanna and had become accustomed to spending his lunch breaks at home where his mother Al­ice would prepare him some food. He had come home from his morning classes at 1pm as usual. Their routine was simple and as he made his way back to school Alice would walk him to the gate and watch him as he strolled up the road.

The only thing that was slightly different that day was that Alice had a dental appointment in the city centre with another child and so left before Philip had finished eating. He did some maths homework at the kitchen table before packing up and leaving the house around 1.30pm. He was due back in school for 1.45pm and it took him 15 minutes to walk from the Ballyroan Road to his classroom. He looked in on his grandmother and told her he was off.

But he never arrived. Teachers assumed that his mother had kept him home and nobody realised that he was missing until that evening when Alice arrived home at 7pm and was greeted by her daughter, who told her that Philip had never come home.

Alarm bells immediately rang for Alice. Philip was not a wanderer and every day since he started at Colaiste Eanna he had come straight home from school at 4pm. His mum always knew where he was. This was completely out of character for her usually reliable son. With a mother’s intuition she was so worried that she dropped everything and went straight over to his friend’s house to see if he was there.

Philip’s friend hadn’t seen him that afternoon in school and his father, a local garda, began calling around the hospitals. Throughout the evening Alice kept telling herself that Philip might have met other children, or that he had gone to the library or that he was playing football but as night fell she knew it couldn’t be any of those things. Something was dreadfully wrong but not for one second could she contemplate that she would never see her son again. As rain and wind picked up, a deepening dread lodged in the pit of Alice Cairns’ stomach.

Throughout that first night a full Garda search got underway and the Cairns

family sat up counting the hours until dawn. Alice and her husband Philip Snr remained downstairs watching the telephone while his sisters and Eoin crowded at the top of the stairs until, one by one, they eventually succumbed to sleep.

At first light searches resumed with local gardai out looking for Philip and trying to trace the route he would have taken for any clues. In a world before so­cial media and 24-hour TV channels, news travelled more slowly, but in the area everyone knew that Philip was missing and in their droves they came out to help.

In Rathfarnham Garda station a team was being put together to conduct what would become one of the biggest responses to a missing person report in the history of the Irish state.

More than 50 officers were assigned to work the beat and were to operate around the clock until the boy was found. It was still within 24 hours since his last sighting and the team were upbeat – hopeful they would bring Philip home. From the off it was all hands on deck and each officer was assigned different tasks to take statements, carry out door-to-door inquiries and leave no stone unturned in thorough ground searches for any clues.

Hundreds of people came out to help and walked the streets trying to find Philip. Years later it would emerge that one of those who claimed to be part of the search party at the time was Eamon Cooke - a then famous pirate radio DJ who lived less than 15 minutes away.

By that evening Philip’s pictures were broadcast on the RTE news and appeals were launched for anyone who may have seen the boy or anything unusual to come forward.

While some still harboured hope that Philip was a runaway, gardai knew by the description of him given by the family that it was unlikely that he would cause such a commotion on a whim. Besides, there was money left on his bedside locker and other coins still lay around the house which he could have gathered up had he been planning an adventure. There appeared to be no evidence what­soever that there was any cause for concern in Philip’s life and his parents couldn’t identify a single person who would have wanted to do him harm.

As officers searched the area, friends and locals offered any help they could give but the hours passed and still there were no witness sightings of Philip, which struck the investigating team as highly unusual. Ballyroan Road was busy with cars constantly passing up and down, yet somewhere along that 15-minute route Philip appeared to have vanished in broad daylight.

Across the country a generation of parents, who as children had lived under the terrifying spectre of the Moors Murders in the UK, began to wonder if the child could possibly have been taken. Memories of the evil faces of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley revisited many from their own days as children when five kids were snatched and murdered between 1963 and 1965 across Manchester. Now as adults they clutched their own youngsters tight and warned them not to go out alone… at least until Philip was found safe and well.

As the week wore on, experienced detectives realised that hopes of find­ing Philip alive were fading yet still they searched and hunted and rummaged through undergrowth and bins and any garden or laneway that could hold some sort of a clue. Vacant buildings, hospitals, airports, bus stations were all trawled but nothing showed up. Day after day gardai, many with children of their own, returned to base with nothing but a sinking feeling of hopelessness.

Alice Cairns prayed. She begged God to return her first born son to her. She said decades of the rosary. She paced the floors. She watched the phone. She searched each face that arrived at her door desperate to see some flicker of hope, some indication that Philip was coming home. And as each day passed the terror rose like a tsunami inside her.

Six days after the disappearance gardai visited Colaiste Eanna and summonsed school children to meet with them in a bid to find clues to Philip’s disappearance. They were asked about their classmate’s demeanour, his hobbies, his plans and anything he may have said or indicated in the days before he disappeared. They were also asked if there was any significant adult figure that may have befriended him outside his immediate family.

Not long after the meeting, at around 7.45pm on the sixth day of the search, two teenage girls walking in a laneway just yards from Philip’s home found his school bag. Orla O’Carroll and Catherine Hassett regularly walked through the lane between Anne Devlin Park and Anne Devlin Road. The bag was in plain sight. Catherine had passed through it the previous day and hadn’t seen anything. The navy army-surplus bag was well worn and on it Philip had etched the name of the popular band UB40. It was resting in a curve of the lane, an area that had been painstakingly searched in the previous few days. Two books were missing. The strap of the bag was wet but the contents were dry despite the fact that there had been heavy rain in the days since Philip’s disappearance.

The bag sparked hope that Philip was still alive and that gardai were about to get the break they so desperately needed after six long days and nights. It was im­mediately bagged for any forensics that could be garnered from it which culmi­nated in fingerprinting at the time. None was found. Nobody saw anyone leaving the bag there and nobody saw anyone strange in the area. Amazingly the team were faced with yet another brick wall and yet another baffling aspect to the Phil­ip Cairns mystery.

Finding the bag really brought the enormity of the situation home, first and foremost to Philip’s family. Where was he? And when would he ever come home?