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Unsolved True Crime 'Grief is like waves of the sea. You just never know when it's going to hit'

A house fire claimed the lives of Elizabeth Byrne's sister and two little girls. Thirty years later, gardaí upgraded the case to murder. In the first of a five-part series on unsolved crimes, Elizabeth tells Conor Feehan she just wants one thing - the truth

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Elizabeth Byrne with a photo of her two girls murdered in a fire over 30 years ago
Photo: Mark Condren

Elizabeth Byrne with a photo of her two girls murdered in a fire over 30 years ago Photo: Mark Condren

Elizabeth Byrne with a photo of her two girls murdered in a fire over 30 years ago Photo: Mark Condren

In the early hours of September 20, 1987, a fire ripped through a small house in Church Lane in Kilcock, Co Kildare, where 20-year-old Barbara Doyle was babysitting her nieces, Kerrie Ann (4) and Mary Ellen Byrne (8).

The children's mother, Elizabeth - Barbara's sister - and her husband, Aidan, went to a 21st birthday locally, and when they returned at around 3am they found the house in flames and neighbours trying frantically to get in.

Kerrie Ann, Mary Ellen and Barbara died in the blaze, which was believed by most to be an accident.

However, something kept gnawing at Elizabeth and Aidan.

Suspect

For years, Aidan, supported by Elizabeth, would urge gardai to consider a man known to the family as a possible suspect.

Time passed, and there came a shock in 2017, around the 30th anniversary of the fire, when gardai declared at a press conference at Leixlip Garda Station that the deaths were now being treated as murder.

Chief Superintendent Gerard Roche said new evidence uncovered during a cold case review had turned the investigation into a triple murder inquiry. Gardaí believed the fire was started deliberately.

Elizabeth still lives in the small house on Church Lane, and today tells the story of how her life changed in an instant in 1987, and how she has confidence in the garda investigation and hope that she will one day see justice for her family.

"On that day when it was announced that the investigation had been upgraded to murder, I felt our suspicions all along were correct. I knew then that we weren't going mad. There was something to what we had thought all along," said Elizabeth.

Aidan died seven years ago, but before he passed away she promised him she would keep up the campaign to get to the truth of what happened that night.

"For years it was difficult. To have that suspicion that the fire was deliberate and for it to take your family, for it not to be investigated that way was hard, and to know the person you suspect is involved is still free," Elizabeth said.

"I rang one of the gardaí and kept in touch with them. Then they said some other piece of evidence had come to light, I don't know what, and they announced they were changing the investigation to a murder.

"I used to bump into the person thought responsible, which was always very hard.

"He asked to meet me one time years ago, before the gardaí announced the change in the investigation, and told me he had nothing to do with the fire. I think he knew that I knew. I just told him there were a lot of questions to be answered."

In late Septem- ber 2017, only weeks after upgrading the investigation, detectives arrested a man in his 50s and questioned him, but he was never charged.

While from the outside the investigation appears to have stalled, Elizabeth remains confident that gardaí are continuing their work.

"I was disappointed when the case didn't progress, but I'm confident in the gardaí working on it, and I appeal for anyone who can help to come forward," she said.

"Somebody may have given a statement in the past, maybe under threat or fear, and wishes to change that now. It's never too late, even more than 30 years later.

"Everything was taken from the girls. They were four, eight and 20. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

"They could be mothers themselves now if they had lived. I could be a grandmother, but that will never happen now. I see the girls that were in school with Kerrie Ann and Mary Ellen, and they have families."

Precious

Looking at a photo of the girls on the wall, Elizabeth described her eldest daughter as a reserved, quiet and gentle girl.

"She loved her friends and living here on the lane and being in school," she said with a warm smile, holding on to the precious memory.

"Kerrie Ann was a little devil. She had only started school. Mary Ellen used to come in and say, 'You'll never guess what she's after doing now'.

"Barbara was a beautiful girl, she was just starting to plan her 21st birthday party. She loved those kids."

Several facts about the fire perplex Elizabeth to this day.

"When we came home, there was a lot of commotion," she said. "Nobody could get in with all the flames, but I saw Barbara's jacket outside, so we thought she had got out with the girls.

"People were searching for them, but then the firemen found them inside. The girls were still in bed and Barbara was on the landing.

"Days later, some dresses belonging to the girls were found in the church grounds across the lane. We don't know how they got there.

"A neighbour of ours also said she heard heavy footsteps, like leather on the ground, running past her house before the fire took hold.

"I think whoever set the fire had come to the house and there was an argument or confrontation with Barbara.

"When we got back, the kitchen was a wall of fire and the room the girls were in was directly above it and the smoke was going up the stairs."

Elizabeth said she hopes to see a resolution to the case before she dies.

Faith

"Grief is like the waves of the sea. You just never know when it's going to hit you," she said. "There are the birthdays, the anniversaries and the Christmases, but there are the ordinary days too, and it can just hit you.

"I have my faith and great support from my friends and neighbours. I just need anyone who knows the truth about what happened to tell the gardaí. I need that for my sister and my little girls."

Herald