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long wait Coroner calls for new database of unidentified bodies at inquest for man whose remains were missing for 25 years

Denis Walsh Jr's remains were discovered in 1996 but weren't properly identified until this year

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Denis Walsh and his son Michael with a photograph of Denis Walsh Jr at the inquest into his death at Galway Coroner's Court. Photo: Eamon Ward

Denis Walsh and his son Michael with a photograph of Denis Walsh Jr at the inquest into his death at Galway Coroner's Court. Photo: Eamon Ward

Denis Walsh Junior

Denis Walsh Junior

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Denis Walsh and his son Michael with a photograph of Denis Walsh Jr at the inquest into his death at Galway Coroner's Court. Photo: Eamon Ward

A coroner has called for the establishment of a database of unidentified human remains found in the State, to help assist identifying body parts and return them to their loved ones.

Galway West coroner, Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin, said this database should be shared across all garda stations and coroners’ offices in the Republic.

Currently there is no official record of how many unidentified bodies or remains are stored in hospital mortuaries or lying in graves.

Dr MacLoughlin was speaking at the inquest into the death of Denis Walsh Jr, whose family were informed last February that his partial body had in fact been discovered 25 years ago, held in a hospital mortuary for 18 years and eventually buried in a communal grave in Co Galway.

Mr Walsh went missing from his home in Caherdavin, Limerick, on March 9, 1996.

Four weeks later, on April 7, and unknown to his family, the 23-year-old’s remains, including his torso, partial skull and hair, arms and forearms, were discovered washed up on Inis Mor, off Galway Bay.

The previous day, Mr Walsh’s parents, Denis and Mary, delivered flyers relating to their son to garda stations in Galway.

The inquest, held at Galway City Council headquarters, heard that it was not possible to identify the remains in 1996.

Bodily samples were taken from Mr Walsh’s remains and sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory, which were examined in July 2008, March 2011, and June 2017, all with negative results for a match.

Mr Walsh’s mother and father – now 82 and 81, respectively – provided gardaí with saliva swabs in February 2011, but a positive match was not made until February this year through advances in DNA technology.

Mr Walsh’s remains were exhumed from Galway and reinterred in the family’s plot in Limerick last Saturday.

Kieran O’Donovan, of Tynan O’Donovan solicitors, represented the Walsh family. He highlighted, in the inquest file, a letter from 1998, sent by Mayorstone garda station in Limerick to the Walsh family.

The letter stated that gardaí had, after Denis Jr went missing, immediately circulated details of the missing person’s case to local and national garda stations.

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The details were also sent to internal garda bulletins, the RUC, Interpol, media, search-and-rescue groups, social welfare offices, and neighbouring health boards.

Mr O’Donovan said it was not clear whether Galway gardaí circulated details of the discovery of the 1996 remains to other garda stations or Interpol.

In 1996, the Tuam Herald and Evening Herald carried a brief appeal by Salthill gardaí for information about the body.

Dr MacLoughlin said a review of unidentified remains, held in Galway in 2011, did not include a “look-back at existing DNA profiles” held at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Dublin.

“I’m not sure if they knew in Limerick what we had done in Galway. Probably not. We didn't know it was Denis Walsh’s remains we had in Galway. It was an opportunity missed there to identify the remains,” the coroner said.

Mr Walsh said it was his opinion that there had been “a complete breakdown in communication” within the gardaí in relation to the discovery of his son’s remains.

He told the inquest that, after his son went missing, a senior garda based at Mayorstone contacted his wife, Mary Walsh, telling her he thought that a body had been found in Limerick, when in fact no body had been found.

Dr MacLoughlin said a database “to look for DNA” of 20 unidentified remains in Galway was established in 2015, but he said: “This didn't include previous living profiles, so you were missed.”

He said that, in 2020, advances in DNA technology as well as increased resources at the Forensic Science Laboratory resulted in the compilation of a list of historical DNA files, “including unidentified remains we had in Galway”. This led to a match for Denis Walsh Jr’s remains.

The 25 years it took to identify him “compounded” the Walsh family’s trauma, Dr MacLoughlin said.

“For 18 years we had him in the mortuary and for seven years he was interred in a grave only 60/70 miles away, and I realise you went to huge lengths as a family to try and locate him,” he said.

“I know at the time, you came to Galway and issued out flyers, and the match had not been made between the torso in the Aran islands and [Denis].”

Recording an “open verdict”, the coroner recommended a database of unidentified bodies be compiled and shared with the Forensic Science Laboratory, gardaí and coroners, “so that at least we would be all talking to each other, and if anybody contacted me in Galway, then I could say I have x bodies and x DNA profiles.”

Denis Walsh snr said that some time after his son went missing, Cornwall police contacted Mayorstone gardaí to check if a body found on the UK coastline could be Denis Jr.

Mr Walsh added: “If the police in Cornwall were able to contact Mayorstone, why in the name of God did [Galway] not contact Mayorstone, and, if they did, then there was complete breakdown in communication somewhere along the line.”

Last February, Mayorstone gardaí sent a letter to the family acknowledging they had been left with “lots of justifiable questions on how it took so long to identify Denis”.

Speaking after the inquest, Mr Walsh said he remained “determined to get answers for it”.

A garda spokeswoman said gardaí had no further comment to make and that a “family liaison officer continues to engage and liaise with the family of Denis Walsh on behalf of gardaí.”

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