How could all those women vanish into thin air? The question is almost a cliche now, sounding more like clickbait for the kind of true crime documentaries that fuel full-time television channels. But cliches become cliches for a reason. Annie McCarrick. Deirdre Jacob. Fiona Pender. Ciara Breen. Jo Jo Dullard. Fiona Sinnott. Each disappeared without trace from one side of a small country in the space of a few years.
When Annie vanished without trace in 1993, it was another era in many respects. It was less than 10 years since a 22-year-old Garda recruit, Majella Moynihan – who had just given up a baby against her wishes – was summoned for questioning as part of a disciplinary case against her. Was the father of her child the first man with whom she had had sex? How long were they together? When had they commenced sexual relations? When had they had sex? Where? Had they used condoms? How had she become pregnant?
In 1993, the existence of the Magdalene laundries roared to public prominence, when the bodies of more than 130 residents of a convent were exhumed from unmarked graves. The idea that rape could occur within marriage had been recognised in law only three years before – although, it took 12 further years for a successful prosecution. Homosexual rape, oral rape and sexual assault with implements were also recognised for the first time in that 1990 law. Divorce was still banned. Women were judged.
The word stalking was entering the language in places like the US and Australia and was first recognised as a crime in 1990 legislation in California. In Ireland, effective measures to restrain stalking behaviour – as distinct from harassment – and protect victims finally made it into Irish law just last year.
In 1993, the internet was not yet in everyday use and social media was decades in the future. The last known images of Annie were captured quite clearly on CCTV in an AIB bank in Sandymount on the day she went missing. In one haunting shot, she appears to look straight up at a camera and to a stranger’s eye, she seems anxious, a demeanour at odds with home video footage of a funny, vibrant young woman. Mobile phones were uncommon in 1993, yet a mobile phone number was included on the missing posters that appeared all over Dublin, as her frantic American family employed private investigators and mobilised search parties and tried to piece together what they knew.
How likely was it that a woman with a striking, gregarious presence like Annie’s would have gone unnoticed in broad daylight by others around the pub or area?
It’s not hard to imagine their anguish, frustration or anger when after an inexplicable, thoroughly uncharacteristic disappearance, gardaí were theorising that a young woman could just have gone on an adventure. Or that without a body there was no crime scene – and therefore no murder. Or that such heavy reliance was placed on a single uncorroborated sighting in Johnnie Fox’s pub.
How likely was it that a woman with a striking, gregarious presence like Annie’s would have gone unnoticed in broad daylight by others around the pub or area? However, a woman who worked in Poppie’s cafe in Enniskerry was certain that Annie was in there with a gruff, square-jawed man at around 4pm; they were the last she served on her shift. More disturbingly that woman, now dead, said she passed on this information to gardaí but her daughter believes it was never followed up.
Now that Sandymount has become the renewed focus of the murder investigation, the family’s conviction that she may have known her killer assumes greater significance. Friends and family believed then and now that she was being harassed or stalked by someone she knew shortly before she went missing. She had confided to one family member that she had been struck by someone who was in a drunken state. She appeared to blame herself; she felt she had “messed up” but thought she could handle the problem on her own.
The family are adamant that all this information was included in faxed statements sent to Annie’s uncle in Dublin. He is certain that he passed them on to relevant authorities. It seems the faxes never reached the investigation team.
Yet for 30 years the central narrative around Annie’s disappearance had been that a young woman took a number 44 bus and vanished from Johnnie Fox’s pub in the mountains.
Her stoical mother Nancy appeared in Monday night’s RTÉ television documentary, talking about her beloved only child while the cameras roamed across lovely old images of a mother and daughter happy and smiling in each other’s company.
She was funny, very reliable, conscientious, said Nancy; she wasn’t fearful. She was solid, said a friend from childhood; she wouldn’t have gone off on an “adventure” because Ireland was her adventure.
They tried to explain all this to the gardaí. High-powered Irish Americans such as Jean Kennedy Smith were asked to intervene. It is difficult not to sympathise with senior officers of the time as they try now to explain their predicament 30 years on. No body, no crime; the few witnesses who came forward seemed reliable; no one offered corroboration; the tech that features so heavily in inquiries now – social media, street surveillance, roadside cameras, mobile phones, cell phone towers placing a caller in a particular radius – didn’t exist then.
But as the documentary moves into the cases of two other murdered women from those years, Patricia McGawley and Mary Cummins, the importance of case classification shoots into focus. When one young detective working alone back then succeeded in having their missing person cases upgraded to murder, the sudden contrast in resources and powers was astonishing and the murderer was found.
It has taken 30 years for the missing person case of Annie McCarrick to become a full murder inquiry, following an appeal from her mother to Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris.
Thirty years. In 2023 would society be less inclined to assume that a missing young woman is off on an adventure? If so, that in itself is progress of a kind.