Philip Cairns

This article about missing schoolboy Philip Cairns appeared in the Sunday Independent on February 3, 2008. Link at the end of the piece.

The first news I can ever remember hearing as a child was that another little boy from our area, Philip Cairns, had gone missing, apparently kidnapped on his way to school. It was 1986; I was 7 years old and found it strange to see our own streets on the television. News, up to that point, was something that happened elsewhere and now there were camera crews and reporters stalking the little lanes where we played. It was thrilling somehow to be vicariously a part of the drama.

I remember feeling convinced that Philip must have been living out my own fantasies of running away. He was already 13 in 1986, probably armed with confirmation money and therefore, in my eyes at least, virtually an adult. The people combing the hedgerows and rivers wouldn’t find him because he was right at that moment enjoying his lunch sandwiches in some secret hiding place, like the little boy in The Neverending Story. He would emerge at some point and reveal the ruse and return home to a hero’s welcome, never to be taken for granted again. I admired his audacity.

In school the next day the other kids had other theories. Philip had been taken by a ‘bad man’. A van had pulled over, they said, and a man had offered him sweets and he’d gotten in and the man had driven away. The teacher snapped at us not to talk about it but before the bell rang she asked us to offer up our prayers for Philip. It was the year we were to do our Holy Communion.

As a child you can sense when something frightens your parents and I could hear the alarm and seriousness in my parents’ voices when they warned me about strangers in the area. Them talking about it somehow made it real that something really bad had happened to Philip, that someone had taken him. The big horror films of the 1980s, particularly A Nightmare On Elm St. and Halloween all featured young people being preyed upon and were like allegories for the emerging awareness of paedophilia (a word that was barely used in those years). For a child fact and fiction mingle in the brain. Coming a week before Halloween Philip’s disappearance was like a real life horror and some kind of official confirmation that these bogeymen really existed.

I can remember seeing Philip’s parents on the news, grey with grief, appealing for anyone who had information to come forward. Everywhere they brandished the picture of their son in his confirmation outfit. Like the image of Madeleine twenty years later it was burned in our brain: The cheerful smile, the blue jacket, little red rosette. I imagined him sitting somewhere watching them on television, calling like the ghosts of the Smiths’ Suffer Little Children to ‘find me, find me, nothing more.’

His school bag was found a short time after he disappeared in a laneway that I have walked through many times. It was bone dry, even through there had been heavy rain in the previous days. Some of his books were missing from the bag, including his geography textbooks and two religion textbooks. It was sinister discovery, like finding a piece of Philip himself and seemingly confirmation that whoever had taken him was still around, dropping clues and prowling the suburbs for new victims. Rumours swirled of a white van lurking on street corners. We all became a little jumpy.

As the days and weeks turned into months and years the chances of Philip being found grew ever slimmer. We, his peers, all grew up but he remained frozen in time. His face, which had looked so grown up to me at the time, soon seemed like that of a little boy. No amount of digital aging could make him seem any older. Every time I heard of a missing child it brought him back into my mind: Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart, Sabine Dardenne, Shawn Hornbeck, they had all walked back in the door after being missing for a long time, presumed dead. Maybe one day Philip would show up, all broad shouldered and handsome, and tell us what really happened.

‘The very sad fact is that life went on after we lost Philip’, says Brendan Vaughn who was principal of Colaiste Eanna in Rathfarnham, the school Philip was attending when he went missing. ‘I can remember we all went out and helped with the search, it was the neighbourly thing to do. But after a while you had to just get on with things. Young people I think, are more resilient about things like that, they are able to forget more easily and put things behind them. Philip had just entered the secondary school the previous October so I wouldn’t have known him very well but his younger brother Eoin went to the school as well and he was a fine young man. It was so sad to think of what his poor parents and indeed his whole family went though.’

Unlike, say, the McCanns, the Cairns family never appeared particularly publicity friendly. Dismayed by several inaccurate and sensationalist reports they have limited their contact with the media to brief, concentrated appeals, including one late last year on RTE’s Crimewatch programme, spearheaded by Philip’s younger brother Eoin. His sisters Suzanne and Sandra have both become involved in missing children’s organisations. Those who know them though, say that the grief for Philip still burns. In an interview for a book, when Heaven Waits published last year Philip’s mother Alice said that she still prays for his safe return. “I hoped every day for months. I left the light on in the hall downstairs and in the bed at night. I used to listen to see if he would come in the door. You would be hoping the phone would ring and that would be him’

She acknowledged that Philip’s disappearance changed attitudes not only around the area he grew up but all across the country. ‘Nowadays of course people are more cautious. Back then we would be saying to kids ‘watch the roads, don’t be going out on the road. If it was after dark you might be worried alright but it would never cross your mind that something like this could happen at half past one in the afternoon.’

A cursory glance at the newspaper clippings containing reference to Philip shows why the family might be wary. The media, faced with the lack of any compelling narrative beyond the blank fact of a missing child, latched onto anything in the years after Philip’s disappearance. Like Madeleine years later every possible explanation and hair brained theory was given credence. It has been variously reported that a family member was involved, that Philip was kidnapped by Satanists or paedophiles or that he had been killed by accident and the person had panicked and never confessed. The latest story, which emerged late last year, is that the former partner of a suspected paedophile has come forward to claim that he abducted and then murdered Philip. Her story was allegedly corroborated by another women, who was also a former partner of the man in question.

‘I can absolutely confirm that that is not true’ says Det. Sgt. Tom Doyle who for the last ten years has headed up the investigation into Philip’s case. ‘That report was wildly inaccurate. We are still appealing for people to come forward, people who might be protecting someone, people who might have simply remembered something that they saw that day. There is of course the problem that it has been so long ago and people’s memories become distorted which makes it more and more difficult.’

The bag that was found in the laneway near Philip’s home in the days after he went missing is now sealed and stored in a Garda safe. ‘It has been carefully preserved in case we can ever link it to a suspect or in case there are advances in DNA techniques which might enable us to ascertain the people who might have handled the bag’, Tom Doyle told me.

The search at the time of Philip’s disappearance was beyond reproach he tells me. ‘I mean, this isn’t the dark ages we’re talking about. All of the precautions that could have been taken as regards checks on who was leaving the country and the county were done just as the would be done today. There wasn’t a Madeleine McCann type situation where there might have been possible errors that were difficult to rectify later.’

For all the inaccurate reports surrounding Philip’s disappearance he tells me that the media have overall been helpful in progressing Philip’s case. ‘Every time there has been a major story about him in the papers or on the television there has been a huge upsurge in the number of people contacting us. My attitude would be that it’s important to keep his name out there. Some member of the public has the answer to this riddle. We need to find that person.’

He is cautious about the Cairns family’s claim that the person who abducted Philip would have almost certainly known to him. ‘They have based that on their knowledge of Philip and according to them he wouldn’t get into a car with someone he didn’t know. But even if they feel sure of that we have to explore that possibility.’

There have, he tells me, been ‘many, many’ people who have come in to the Garda station in Rathfarnham with news of Philip Cairns’ whereabouts. ‘These range from people who think they might have remembered something from the time that might be important to the case to people who tell us they have seen him – he was supposedly spotted in Manchester – to clairvoyants and psychics who tell us that they can help with the investigation.’

Doyle says that he would give as much credence to the clairvoyants and psychics as he would to those who claim to have actually seen Philip Cairns. He points to the fact that ‘people with these talents or gifts or whatever you want to call them’ genuinely believe in their own abilities and ‘are not in any way seeking fame or notoriety, nor are they preying on the family or looking to make any money out of this. They are simply trying to help us get to the bottom of this case.’ He points to the fact that psychics have been ‘successfully’ used police departments all over the Western World, including the Los Angeles Police Department. ‘I think it’s important to keep an open mind.’

For Doyle, a detective of long experience, the case represents something of a grudge match. ‘When you are working for a case for a long time you get more and more determined to solve it.’

Still twenty years later the simple, spare facts of Philip’s disappearance are maddening and mesmerising. How can a young boy be simply swept off a fairly busy street in broad daylight on a weekday afternoon? If I was haunted by the thought of him so was everyone else I knew growing up. As the Madeleine case has shown news of a missing child stirs something deep inside us. Philip was like one of the stolen children of Celtic myth so it was no surprise that people would invent a mythology to surround him.

The Cairns family do not have that luxury. Tom Doyle, who sees them regularly, testifies that there are some wounds time will never heal. ‘I’ve spoken to Eoin (Philip’s brother) and he told me that not a single day goes by that he doesn’t think of Philip. It’s something when you can see a grown man in his thirties still get tears in his eyes describing a brother he hasn’t seen in twenty years.’

A €10,000 Euro reward has now been offered for information that leads to the solving of the Philip Cairns case. Doyle is still hopeful of a breakthrough. ‘And I really mean that. We are absolutely working on this case and I am confident that we will get a breakthrough. Somebody out there knows something. We will follow up every lead. All it takes is for one person to be right. I’d like to reassure anyone who is considering coming forward that they have nothing to fear. Any information given will be handled in strictest confidence.’

Alice, now a grandmother, can only sit and wait. ‘It was hard on all of us. It did change my life. I think of him all the time but you still hope – hope that nothing bad has been found. You just keep praying and then you say, ‘well the Lord knows where he is.’

Anyone with information on the disappearance of Philip Cairns can contact the Garda confidential phone line at 1800 666 111 or any Garda station.

Also see

Psychics and Missing Children

The involvement of psychics and clairvoyants in the hunt for missing children has long been controversial. Police forces in different countries including America and Britain have at different times turned to psychics in efforts to solve ‘cold’ cases and in some cases the psychics have apparently been successful. Several sources however, including the Klaas Foundation (which devoted itself to the recovery of missing children) the Australian Institute of Criminology and the American Society of Criminology point to the fact there has not been one documented case in which a psychic could be said to have provided truly helpful information. Parallels have been drawn with the work of criminal profilers, whose work has been largely discredited. The psychics, much like the profilers, make their predictions in language so ambiguous and contradictory that it could support virtually any interpretation. The techniques of the ‘cold reading’ that psychics employ were given names by the magician Ian Rowland in his book ‘The Full Facts About Cold Reading’. These include the Rainbow Ruse, which credits a person with a trait and its opposite (‘the paedophile you’re looking for is generally a quiet type but given the right circumstances he can be quite aggressive’) the Fuzzy Fact statement (‘he may have travelled with the child to Britain, or somewhere warmer, possibly Mediterranean’) and a host of other techniques which when employed together could convince even the most hardened sceptic that he is in the presence of someone with psychic powers.

The most famous and probably the richest psychic in America is Sylvia Browne who has been lauded by for her work on murder cases by Ted Gunderson, a former special agent with the FBI who claims to have worked with numerous psychics. Two studies of the cases Browne claims to have worked on, one conducted by legal writer Steven Brill and another by CNN, revealed that the details she gave either played no role in the investigations or the information she gave were too vague to be of use.

In 2003 just over 6 months after 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck had gone missing from his home in Missouri she told his parents on the Montel show that their son was dead, murdered by a dark man, with long hair and that his body was buried ‘near jagged rocks’. His mother burst into tears when she heard this while Browne faced her and nodded solemnly. Exactly a year ago this month Shawn Hornbeck was found alive in the home of a tall, shorthaired white man who is now serving several life sentences.


~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.

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