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tragic case Missing woman's sister reveals agony after false alarm following unidentified body exhumation

New TV series focuses Priscilla Clarke (25) who went missing while out horse-riding with her employer, Linda Kavanagh (38) in 1988.

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Priscilla Clarke, missing from Enniskerry since 1988

Priscilla Clarke, missing from Enniskerry since 1988

Priscilla Clarke, missing from Enniskerry since 1988

A woman whose sister is missing, presumed drowned, for 33 years has urged for a reappraisal into how coroners operate here following a false alarm involving an exhumation of an unidentified body.

Louth woman Priscilla Clarke (25) went missing while out horse-riding with her employer, Linda Kavanagh (38), near Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, in 1988.

Linda's body was found in a nearby river and Priscilla's remains were never found, presumed to have been washed out to sea.

In December 1995, the badly decomposed remains of a young woman washed up on Ballinamona Strand in Co. Wexford.

She had braces on her lower teeth and VW car keys in her pocket. Investigators discovered that her jeans were made in Belgium, her shoes were from France, no car to match the VW keys was ever found.

It wasn't until 2007 that Priscilla's sister Claire, a mother-of-four and grandmother from Adree, Co. Louth, discovered by chance that remains had been discovered not too far from where her sister went missing.

"When somebody's remains are not found, there is never a certainty; you can never close the book and say 'that's exactly what happened', you just can't," Claire tells the Sunday World (she also takes part in a new Virgin Media series which starts tonight, Ireland's Unidentified Bodies).

"The Guards certainly believe it's an accident and the evidence that they have and that has been passed on to us that there was a lot of rain the previous day and a lot of rain that day itself, the two women went horse-riding, and the water comes down from the Sugar Loaf, the Dargle was very much in flood at that stage.

"Crossing the river was a very foolhardy thing to do, there's no doubt about it.

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 Priscilla's sister Claire

Priscilla's sister Claire

Priscilla's sister Claire

"Our belief is Priscilla attempted to save the life of Linda, based on what we can find."

Claire's father Patrick, who died in 2008, never gave up the search for his missing daughter and the Wexford find was one he thought might lead to closure.

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Patrick had five children and Priscilla was one of twins.

She trained as a nurse, loved horse-riding and had also qualified in life saving in swimming, which her family believe may have spurred her on to rescue Linda if she had fallen into the water.

"My father was watching at the time, getting tidal charts to see where it was possible if she was in the river, where her body was washed out to.

"He was concerned she might have been washed out to Wales and buried there," she recalls. "The same could have happened here, where she could have ended up in Dublin or wherever and buried in an unmarked grave.

"Enniskerry has a lot of wooden areas in it and you'd find yourself walking around, just calling her name and hoping against hope that maybe she got injured or something.

"Other times you'd be walking along the coast looking and searching for a body and there are children playing and adults sunbathing and your mission is so different."

She adds: "There was no DNA back then. The whole case was quite shabby. The divers disappeared after a week, but we continued searching. The Guards kind of closed their books."

Claire felt that the similarities to her own sister with the Wexford find were too strong to ignore and lobbied to have the woman's remains exhumed for a DNA sample to be taken.

Finally they managed to get the body exhumed, but they were devastated when no match emerged.

"My father, after that he just switched off from everything, even his small farm," she confesses. "His focus was to find Priscilla. At the time in Enniskerry he said 'I'm not coming home without her'".

But worse was to come when Claire put in a Freedom of Information request for correspondence about the body found in Wexford and it emerged that its head disappeared during the post-mortem by Dr John Harbison and the remains were re-interred without a skull.

"It meant no facial reconstruction could be done, which has led to success in other cases," she stresses.

"The woman in Wexford, she couldn't have a grave for herself, she is buried in a single grave with two other men, vagrants. It's like a famine grave, which is pretty mean-spirited of Wexford County Council."

Twenty-five years on we still don't know who Ballinamona woman is, but investigators believe that someone, somewhere must be looking for her.

"That took us by surprise that there could be bodies buried in Ireland that families weren't told about," adds Claire. "

"You sit back and gather up your thoughts again and you process them and you still think 'is there more people out there after we discovered one person'."

Claire had also another reason for going on the programme.

"This could be happening to other families. If you have a body found, wherever it is found, the corners are notified," she explains.

"They won't hold an inquest, because they don't feel its within their remit to do that, so then they are the ones that give instructions for the person to be buried.

"Where if there was a public inquest, I could look into it. The coroners operate as free agents and answer to no one. In England there is a chief coroner and he insures they are trained and the policies are applied across the whole jurisdiction. Here they are absolutely free agents."

Ireland's Unidentified Bodies, tonight, Virgin Media One, 10pm.

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