Sarah Hamilton – Poster Girls

Sarah Hamilton holds a First-Class Honours in Creative Writing with University College Dublin. She has had pieces published in Pilcrow and Dagger, The Oval, and as a returning writer and Society editor for Cassandra Voices magazine. Today, she is writing a novel and works as a writer for ‘Let’s Help’, an organization that provides supplies to those in Direct Provision centres. In her spare time, she volunteers as a phone counsellor for Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Sarah often explores subject matters that expose society issues, in particular sexual violence. With this essay, ‘Poster Girls’, she hopes to shine a light on the dormant cases of the missing women in Ireland.


Poster Girls

I want to know
what it means to survive
something.

does it just mean

I get to keep my body?[1]

The taxi man that drives me to the Dublin mountains is the second person who tells me a

woman was once murdered here. The first is my mother. She was folding laundry with a little more aggression than usual as I let her know my plans. ‘What would you be doing, heading up there on your own?’

Days later, the taxi man regurgitates my mother’s warning.

‘You know a young girl went missing here about twenty years ago, an American girl.’

His story is fractured.

A woman in her twenties.

Went to visit the mountains.

 Never seen again.

He tells me that Larry Murphy was one of the prime suspects, the bogeyman that haunted every household raising daughters in the nineties. Back then, he says, Larry was known as the Beast of Baltinglass. The murder suspect is given two names in this plot. The girl’s name, along with her body, is missing.

And so I search for hers. Annie McCarrick from Long Island. Studying and living with friends in the leafy suburbs of Sandymount. Annie disappeared in 1993 on March 26th, coincidentally one day before her twenty-sixth birthday. Her mother was due to visit her days later. Instead, she arrived to the beginnings of a search party. Hereafter commenced one of the biggest missing person investigations ever conducted in Ireland.[2]

I think of the preparations Annie and her mother would have done together before she left to travel overseas. Sourcing an expensive raincoat, sturdy shoes suitable for trekking the mountains, cases of her favourite CD’s – Irish artists to get her in the mood – The Cranberries, U2, The Undertones.

I think about the birthday presents in Annie’s mother’s suitcase. Had she still brought them with her when Annie was missing only days and not yet years? Did she wrap neat parcels in Annie’s favourite colour? At what point were the presents discarded? At what point did she give up?

Annie was the first to go. Between the years of 1993-1998, women in Ireland aged seventeen to forty disappear without a trace between an 80 mile radius of each other. The boundaries of Leinster becomes known as The Vanishing Triangle. Online reports list numbers ranging from four to six to seven to nine. None of their bodies have ever been discovered. In their collected absence, these women become sisters.

It is my mention of Johnnie Fox’s that triggers the memory for my mother and the taxi man – the place I have booked all of my meals with. Restaurants are scarce around the area and I am travelling to get an uninterrupted block of writing done, so it makes sense to adopt a temporary watering hole. It is only when I return from the pub later in the evening that I search to understand the connection. On the night of March 26th, a doorman of Johnnie Fox’s claimed he saw Annie and an unknown man together between the hours of 9-11pm. But like so much in this story, nothing could be confirmed.[3]

Four months after Annie McCarrick, Eva Brennan vanishes. Her last sighting was in Rathgar, where she ate lunch at her family home for the last time. Nearly every article referencing her disappearance proceeds the information with the fact that Eva suffered from depression, as if this might explain the reasoning behind Gardaí taking three months to look into the case. By the time they do, all evidence that could have been collected is stagnant. Her age of thirty-nine and her mental unhealth seems to make her a less desirable victim for media outreach, especially in the shadow of Annie. There seems to be room for only one missing girl at a time. And it is Eva’s case that suffers. [4]

Twenty-two year old Imelda Keenan is next. Three days into the new year of 1995, she leaves her apartment that she shares with her boyfriend in Waterford to visit the post office. It is 1:30pm. Her last confirmed sighting is by a secretary in a local doctor’s office, Imelda’s friend, who sees her crossing the road at the corner of the Tower Hotel and Lombard Street. She is never seen again. It is a challenge to make this case any less brief than the information that exists around it.[5]

On November 9th 1995, Josephine (affectionately known as JoJo) Dollard goes missing at the age of twenty-one. She has spent the day with friends and has missed the last bus home to Callan. She gets the bus to Naas and hitch hikes with two separate cars to Moone village. At 11:37pm, she locates a payphone and calls a friend, telling them she is finding it difficult to get another lift.

I think of the blackened streets in winter. How it swallows up the safe paths. I think of the lamppost that is broken in the laneway, twenty meters away from my house. My mother’s words echoing out of habit. Diminutive considerations that exhaust me from October until March.

While still on the phone, a third car pulls up. Jojo would squint in response to the headlights. Light. She assures her friend that she is fine. She’ll make it back after all. Except she doesn’t.

A  taxi man comes forward and says that he witnessed JoJo’s possible attempt at escape. He sees a girl three miles from Waterford at 1:20am, running out of a car barefoot while the driver stops to urinate. Another man runs out from the car and grabs her by the hair, trapping her in a bear hug and shoving her back inside.[6]

For the next six weeks, I am dedicated to finding out all that I can about the missing girls – there has got to be something that was overlooked. Evening walks are consumed, hashing out the details to friends. My reading routine narrows itself down to femicide studies and similar serial killings that dazed police forces – In 1981, The Yorkshire Ripper, responsible for the murders of at least thirteen women, was caught by total chance for a nameplate violation. This was after a £4 million pound investigation of five and a half years, involving 250 detectives.[7]

My research starts to change the way I interact in conversations. A friend comments on the Netflix documentary that details how Chris Watts killed his pregnant wife, Shannan Watts and their daughters, dumping their bodies in a nearby septic tank.

‘She did seem like a head wreck. Controlling, I mean.’

I angry-tap on my phone.

‘Controlling shouldn’t result in death!?!’

‘Yes of course… that’s not what I meant!..’

I want to go on, I want to tell her that most women who are killed are killed by someone known to them. And most often, this takes place in the home – a fact that is not always mentioned. This makes the home the most lethal place for a woman who is living in a nuclear family.[8] But I imagine her eyes glazing over when we get back onto the subject of woman killing. There are only so many times a girl can be told that if we were to be murdered, chances are it’d be by our boyfriends or ex.

Such high-profile cases often distract from the brutality of gender killing. How we view a victim can influence how outraged we are by the crime itself. Tabloid newspapers are notorious for propagating anti-feminist, problematic headlines for clickbait. Take The Sun’s headline about the Chris Watts case for example:

Chris Watts confesses he still loves mistress and BLAMES her for making him so crazy with desire he murdered his whole family.’[9]

This headline, like so many others, perpetrates a deep-rooted myth that sexual violence is caused by an uncontrollable desire that cannot be helped nor satiated by anything other than force. Nicknames for killers also prove problematic in seeking justice for victims: The Yorkshire Ripper, The Night Stalker, The Beast of Baltinglass. It serves in distracting the public from the facts: that these crimes are being committed by men and that four time out of five, their victims are women.[10]

The Vanishing Triangle is a conspiracy theory that attempts to connect the disappearances of the women in the nineties to the same serial killer, or perhaps a couple of serial killers who may have existed around the area at the time.  But many of the parents of the missing girls dismiss this conspiracy and believe that it could have hindered the gathering of information from credible witnesses.

Even for the women in The Vanishing Triangle whose cases had chief suspects, conviction has been impossible without the discovery of a body. In 1997, seventeen-year-old Ciara Breen goes missing after sneaking out of her bedroom window one night and never returning. The chief suspect in her case, a man in his fifties named Liam Mullen, was arrested twice but never charged. He died of a suspected overdose two years ago. Detective Pat Marry, who was involved in Breen’s case, believes they had the right suspect and was confident that Ciara’s body was buried in a bog that stretched seventeen acres wide. However, his team were only financed to search two of the seventeen acres.

 “That’s one that sticks with me because if we had found a bone or even a fingernail we would have had enough to charge him. That’s how close we were to solving it.”[11]

Out of all the women I begin to meet with frequently, it is Deirdre Jacob whom I recognise. Most Irish women born in the last twenty years will remember growing up next to her Missing poster.

I get to know the real Deirdre the same way I get to know the other lost girls. Through crime websites, newspaper articles, and snippets of interviews from the parents who are left somewhere outside of the realms of grief, somewhere much worse. 

Deirdre is home for the summer. It is the 28th of July, 1998. At eighteen, she is studying to be a teacher in London.

There are six people who account for Deirdre on her walk home from Newbridge village, six people who she stops and chats to, waves at, nods hello to. It is a route she has taken since she was a little girl, a route she can do with her eyes closed. Deirdre is one minute from her driveway. A witness sees her at the entrance to the gate. But when her mother returns later, she notices the gate is still bolted. She senses instantly that something is not right.

In the twenty years that Deirdre has been missing, 2,500 – 3,500 different leads have been followed. Twenty years on, her parents have nothing. Their eighteen-year-old daughter, frozen in time, has become a ghost they meet with often.

‘You know the way her hair was? You would glance. The hair from the back…’ her mother says in an interview. ‘Even driving down our road, you see a girl walking that might look like Deirdre and you have to look again.’[12]

As time passes, so too does public interest. A family member of the Missing girls will feature on an episode of Crimecall or in a newspaper on the year of a milestone anniversary. Requests from the family for information comes in with the same urgency and desperation as if it happened yesterday. These victims have been forced into becoming the poster girls for ‘a different time in Ireland’, when there were no mobiles to collect geographical data, when every movement wasn’t captured and recorded. But the low conviction rate on sex crimes in the present day begs the question of how far we have really come in protecting women against sexual violence.

Annie McCarrick, Eva Brennan, JoJo Dollard, Fiona Pender, Fiona Sinnott, Ciara Breen and Deirdre Jacob are Irish women that were mercilessly stolen. They are misplaced somewhere in unmarked graves, the idiosyncrasies they were buried with – an oversized blazer, a CAT shoulder bag, a Sony Walkman, walking shoes suitable for trekking, disintegrated into the earth[13]‘now make sure you pack a raincoat. Just in case.’ Just in case. The repeated words of their mothers entering their minds as they shove off the idea that someone is following them, someone is watching. But who could be watching them? She is outside her driveway. She is buying groceries in a quiet town. There is nothing to be afraid of here. In her own apartment, in the local village, on a brisk country walk. Surely she is safe. I often think of what a crime case would be like if it were run by Irish mothers. For wouldn’t they burn the Dublin mountains to the ground, if it meant getting even one daughter home?

‘But I guess my greatest wish would be to be able to take her home. And have a grave that I could go to.’[14] Annie McCarrick’s mother echoes the same pleas as the other families in these cases, as too much time goes on to wish for anything more hopeful. November of 2020 marked JoJo Dollard’s twenty fifth anniversary. Her surviving sister has these words for us to consider:

‘Twenty-five years ago a young woman disappeared without a trace, a young woman who was starting out on a new adventure in life, a life that was stripped away. Can you see her? A beautiful young lady, dark shoulder-length hair, a beautiful smile and looking forward to her future. Can you picture her? Can you see her? Can you imagine if that was your daughter, your sister, your niece or your best friend? Can you see her now?’[15]


 


[1] Olivia Gatwood – Life of the Party

[2] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/woman-s-appeal-to-find-body-of-daughter-annie-mccarrick-1.2595712

[3] https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/im-pretty-sure-you-know-ill-never-see-her-again-mum-of-missing-annie-mccarrick-just-wants-her-daughter-back-34593114.html

[4] https://www.thejournal.ie/eva-brennan-missing-1000979-Jul2013/

[5] https://kilkennynow.ie/appeal-for-information-about-woman-22-who-disappeared-locally-26-years-ago-today/

[6] https://presspack.rte.ie/2006/07/11/cracking-crime-15/

[7] Femicides and Travesties of Justice, Lucy Bland, pg 234 of Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing by Dianne E.H. Russel and Jill Radford, Open University Press, 1992

[8] Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing Pg 7

[9] https://www.thesun.ie/news/4621478/chris-watts-confesses-he-still-loves-mistress-and-blames-her-for-making-him-so-crazy-with-desire-he-murdered-his-whole-family/

[10] An assumption supported by serial murder expert Jane Caputi, personal communication, 19 December 1989.

[11] https://www.thejournal.ie/ciara-breen-4827600-Sep2019/

[12] https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/you-might-see-a-girl-who-looks-like-deirdre-and-you-have-to-look-again-jacob-family-describe-agony-of-living-life-while-their-daughter-is-missing-37229614.html

[13] Details referenced on Missing posters from 1993-1998

[14] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/woman-s-appeal-to-find-body-of-daughter-annie-mccarrick-1.2595712

[15] https://www.thejournal.ie/jo-jo-dullard-murder-investigation-5237416-Oct2020/

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