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The Mysterious Disappearances of Ireland’s Vanishing Triangle

There seem to be places in this world where people have the tendency to just vanish. For whatever reasons these locations have the unsettling quality of erasing people off the face of the earth, and draw to themselves clusters of disappearances that have never been solved. One such place seems to reside within the country of Ireland, where over a period of several years women began to go missing for unexplained reasons and have never been seen again, their cases unresolved, and the Vanishing Triangle has become one of Ireland’s most perplexing unsolved mysteries.

Between the years of 1993 and 1998, Ireland was held in the grip of fear and paranoia when a strange series of high profile vanishings within an 80-mile radius around Dublin began to unfold. The first of these disappearances was that of 26-year-old student of Irish heritage Annie McCarrick, who was originally from Long Island, New York, in the United States. On March 26, 1993, McCarrick went about running some errands around Dublin and the village of Enniskerry that day, and she was confirmed to have been at a grocery store and bank, and then on a bus from Ranelagh bound for the quaint town of Enniskerry, a place she frequently visited, at approximately 3.40 p.m. This was the last confirmed sighting of McCarrick, but according to some reports she wound up that night at around 9 p.m at a popular pub called “Johnny Fox’s Pub,” in the village of Glencullen in the rural Dublin mountains, where she had purportedly gone to see an Irish dancing show.

Annie McCarrick

Witnesses would go on to claim that McCarrick had been with a young man in a wax jacket, who had apparently paid for her cover charge and also for her drinks. This is the last report of seeing her, and although no one apparently saw the two leave the pub, neither of them was ever to be seen again. When McCarrick did not show up the next day at work to pick up her paycheck and then was absent for a scheduled dinner party she was quickly listed as missing and one of the largest, most intensive searches in Ireland history would commence, including extensive ground searches and wide distribution of composite sketches of the unidentified man she had been seen with, but nothing would be found. The case has been baffling because no one can really even agree on where she was last seen. Although there are witnesses that put her at the pub between 9 and 11 p.m., authorities have remained skeptical that she would have gone out and walked the 6 km from Enniskerry to Johnnie Fox’s on a cold and wet evening, and there is even some doubt as to whether she ever reached Enniskerry at all.

This would be only the first strange and ominous disappearance of more to come. A mere 3 months later, 39-year-old Eva Brennan disappeared in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains after leaving her parents house in Rathdown Park, Rathgar on her way home to her own apartment on Sunday, July 25, 1993. Interestingly, this particular case was allegedly met by relative indifference, with the family going on to complain that authorities were doing little to try and find out what happened to the woman compared to the more well-known McCarrick case. It purportedly would not be until months later that there was any real effort to find out what happened at all. According to Eva’s sister, Colette McCann:

Finally, they decided they were going to take fingerprints. It was months later. We had cleaned up; there wouldn’t have been any left. Somebody could have visited her. She was not the type of person that would go out at night. She was careful. Something happened. Eva disappeared three months after Annie McCarrick . . . but there was a complete world of difference between the reaction to the disappearance of the American policeman’s daughter and Eva’s. It should not be the case that certain missing people have a priority over others. Eva was months missing before they came down. It is so frustrating.

Eva Brennan

The vanishings would continue when a year after that, 22-year-old Imelda Keenan went missing on January 3, 1994, after being last seen walking along Lomarard Street, in Waterford. This would be followed by the disappearance of Josephine Dollard, aged 21, who was last seen hitchhiking from Dublin to Kilkenny in November of 1995. One witness claimed to have seen her using a payphone, after which she would step off the face of the earth. A friend later claimed that Dollard had indeed called her, but had cut the call short after saying that a car was approaching. Then in 1996 a 25-year-old hairdresser and model named Fiona Pender, who was 7 months pregnant, went outside of her flat in the town of Tullamore, Co Offaly, and was never seen again. Police believed at the time that she had been murdered and perhaps buried in the Slieve Bloom Mountains but no sign of her was ever found.

In another case, Ciara Breen, 17, went missing from her own home at Bachelor’s Walk on the night of February 13, 1997. That evening, she had gone out with her mother to a local cafe, after which they had gone home and watched TV until they went to bed at 12.25 a.m. At 1:50 a.m., Ciara’s mother went to the bathroom and peeked into Ciara’s room to find that she was simply gone right from her room. Since she had not taken any of her belongings with her and was not known to just sneak out of her room at night it was considered unlikely that she had just left. Ciara Breen has never been found and no one knows what happened to her or why she should vanish at home from her own room.

Ciara Breen

The following year, in 1998, there was an equally bizarre disappearance when an 18-year-old student teacher named Deidre Jacob seemingly ceased to exist. The young woman had been witnessed by several motorists on her way home after running some errands, in broad daylight on a highly visible road she had been walking her whole life, and neighbors said that she had actually had made it to within just 200 yards of her parents’ house, but bizarrely she never managed to actually get there. She never entered the house, and even weirder, no one saw her leaving the area. She was simply there one moment right by her house and gone the next. She has never been seen since. One researcher of missing persons and journalist named Geraldine Niland said of the bizarre case:

Neighbors saw her about 200 yards from her home. And then, suddenly, she was gone. She literally was standing at the side of the road, about to cross over into her home, and then, she was gone.

That same year came the mysterious vanishing of 19-year-old Fiona Sinnott, who was last seen in public leaving a pub in Broadway, County Wexford with her boyfriend, who claimed that the next day she had gone off for a doctor’s appointment and then vanished into thin air. Despite many rumors of murder and frantic searches, no trace of her has ever been found. With so many disappearances happening over the same general geographic area in such quick succession, the media latched onto the morbid story and began calling the region “The Vanishing Triangle,” which was generally used to denote an area that stretched from Wexford in the south to Louth in the north and to Offaly in the west.

An area within the Vanishing Triangle

In all of these cases the victims shared some common traits. They all disappeared within a certain geographical range at the eastern part around the borders of Leinster. All of them were women between the ages of their late teens up to around 40, and all of them were described as looking quite young for their age. In every case the victim vanished without anything suspicious noted, often being seen as being there one second and gone the next, without leaving any evidence at all behind. The physical profile also seems to be similar in each case, and private investigator Brian McCarthy has said of the whole strange thing thus:

You have the same profile, young, attractive females, who have all disappeared inside a very close geographical triangle. The common denominator is there’s no evidence left behind, there’s no evidence at all. No shoe, no belt, no purse, no watch, nothing.

The area itself was no stranger to sinister happenings at the time, and there had in fact been mysterious deaths attributed to it even before these cases. For instance, in July of 1987 there was the disappearance of the 27-year-old mother of two Antoinette Smith, who turned up dead at Kilakee, in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Then there was the case of Patricia Doherty, 34, who vanished while out shopping only to turn up dead in the same mountains in June of 1992. There have been other remains found in the region which are less identifiable, and cases like these led the Irish authorities, called the garda, or also gardaí, to suspect that there was perhaps one or more serial killers behind the disappearances and deaths.

Indeed, in 1998, hot on the heels of the Sinnott vanishing, the gardaí set up a special task force called Operation Trace in an effort to track down any information to this end. They focused on the 6 main vanishings and came to the conclusion that the women had likely been murdered, and that the McCarrick, Dollard and Jacob cases were all linked. Various leads were pursued and there were several suspects looked at, but there was never enough evidence to make anything stick. Despite interviewing numerous potential witnesses and suspects and poring over all available information nothing concrete was turned up, although there were some possibly promising leads.

One of the most promising suspects was a rapist and all around bad guy named Larry Murphy, who was arrested in 2000 after kidnapping a local woman, throwing her in his car trunk, and raping her several times out in the wilderness before trying to strangle her to death. He was caught in the act by two hunters and arrested after trying to flee, and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was suspected that Murphy may have been behind at least some of the mysterious disappearances, especially since he lived in the same area where Dollard and Jacob had vanished and was similar in appearance to the description given for the man last seen with McCarrick, but he has maintained to this day that he had nothing to do with the “Vanishing Triangle” vanishings, and the mother of one of the victims, Jacob, also said that he was not responsible. Nevertheless, during his incarceration the vanishings stopped, making him more suspicious, and he was dubbed by the media “The Beast of Baltinglass.” Despite all of this, there was simply not enough evidence to link him to the disappearances and he has never been charged for them.

Larry Murphy

Also considered as a promising lead was a notorious IRA terrorist and child rapist, who was found to have possibly been with Annie McCarrick on the night she disappeared. According to the gardaí, there was reliable information that showed the man had told another IRA member that he had offered the missing women a ride that night, after which he claimed to have dropped her off at a bus stop. It was suspected that he had actually driven her into the mountains, killed her, and buried the body, possibly to keep her quiet about secret information he had divulged to her. Despite this lead, the IRA itself did nothing internally to punish him, and even when he continued assaults on children he was never convicted within the organization and the IRA did not alert the gardaí to these offenses. Suspiciously, the IRA moved the man to France and then later the U.S. shortly after McCarrick’s disappearance, and despite efforts to have him extradited he has never been arrested or charged for any of his crimes, leading to the idea that he was being protected by his own.

Compounding this lead has been the accusation that Irish authorities may have mishandled the case. Alan Bailey, formerly of the gardaí and who served thirteen years as National Coordinator for Operation Trace, wrote a book on the Vanishing Triangle called Missing, Presumed, in which he claims that the IRA suspect was not as adequately pursued by by authorities as they claimed. He states that he had a source who claimed that he approached the gardaí on several occasions with information about the IRA connection, but that these leads were not followed up on, even ignored, and that the IRA suspect was actually never seriously pursued. Indeed, throughout the book Bailey often admonishes the gardaí for general incompetence, shoddy police work, and mishandling of various leads and evidence concerning the missing women and other crimes.

Another possible suspect looked at in recent years is a rapist and murderer named Robert Howard, whose gruesome acts earned him the sinister media nickname “The Werewolf,” who one reporter described as “a known sexual deviant, a killer, a rapist, murderer,” and  “the personification of evil in Ireland.” In 2001, Howard was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, for which he was sentenced to life in prison, and he has a long rap sheet including the sexual assault of a 6-year-old girl and another on a 58-year-old woman. Howard was up to these gruesome acts at right about the time that these women were disappearing. One reporter named Jilly Beattie claimed that independent private investigator sources had dug up information that heavily pointed to Howard as the perpetrator of at least some of the vanishings, saying:

Robert Howard was connected with Annie McCarrick’s case, Jojo Dollard’s case and various other cases in Northern Ireland and in the south of Ireland and in England. We understand from our own contacts that he was in and out of the area, around the time that Annie was enjoying life in Ireland. All the while he relied on his quaint Irishness as a man who wore tweed jackets and just looked like an ordinary man, to encourage people to trust him. They (the sources) would put their life savings on the fact that Robert Howard was involved in these murders. And it’s crippling for them as investigators, as professional men and women, that the clues are there, but the evidence isn’t there to back it up.

Therein lies the problem with these mysterious cases, that there is just not enough to get anyone convicted, leaving all of these leads to languish in a limbo of speculation and circumstantial evidence. The evidence needed to link anyone to the crimes is just so scant that it has consistently left authorities and private investigators totally frustrated and baffled. The Irish Vanishing Triangle cases have been featured in numerous documentaries and books, but for all of the attention they have received there has been little headway made in getting to the bottom of the mystery. It is not known what happened to these women, whether they were killed or not, where they are, or even if their cases are linked in any way. What happened to these women? Why did they all vanish without a trace in this one confined geographical area in such quick succession? Are they linked in any way? These are questions that are likely to remain unresolved in one of Ireland’s most enduring mysteries.