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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 15 November, 2019
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The story of Alice Clifford, a Dublin mother who went missing from a hospital 38 years ago

“I’m not afraid of death, death is a natural part of life. But this isn’t natural.” Alice’s daughter Pat says that there are still many questions around her mother’s death.

THE FORMER UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher was in Dublin the week Alice Clifford, mother of seven, went missing.

Thatcher had just swept to power during a general election in May 1979, and that November, she joined then Taoiseach Charles Haughey and the other EU heads of state for a European Council summit meeting in Dublin Castle.

As gardaí lined the streets of Dublin, providing security for the European dignitaries’ arrival, Patricia O’Reilly and her siblings were searching Dublin city for their mother Alice.

“I remember going across the Ha’penny Bridge, and if there was a homeless person begging or sleeping, I kind of huddled over trying to move the cloth to see if it was her.”

“I remember my sisters going up O’Connell Street and stopping police and asking them if there had been a sighting of her, and they didn’t know what we were talking about. I can understand now but back in the day we thought ‘Does every policeman not know she’s gone?’”

Pat was 18 years old when her mother disappeared from the grounds of St Loman’s Hospital in Lucan. It’s been almost 40 years since her mother disappeared, but she says not knowing what happened to her hasn’t become any easier.

In those 40 years, her and her three brothers and three sisters have had their mother’s disappearance interwoven into their lives.

DSC_1274 Pat O'Reilly holds a photo of her mother and father at her Dublin home. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

In the year after her disappearance, the family took turns each weekend in searching hedges, roadsides, canals and other corners of Dublin in the hope of finding some trace of their mother. They’ve been called in to identify bodies that have washed up on coastlines, some of which have been “gruesome”. They’ve made radio appeals and done newspaper interviews in the hope that they might prompt some new nugget of information that will reveal what happened to their mother.

But each time they talk about what happened, discuss new theories, and revisit that time in their lives when they lost their mother, “it’s like scraping off a scab”, Pat says.

About Alice

DSC_1253

Alice Clifford loved to dance.

An energetic character, her first husband died suddenly from a burst appendix when Alice was in her 40s, the family were under pressure financially, and had to pull together. Two of the eldest daughters left school early to try and get work,  she went back to her job doing part-time administrative work for Cherry Orchard Hospital.

In her 50s, Alice began to become forgetful, and confused. She was given electric shock treatment, but her condition gradually became worse and worse. Later, she was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease.

“There were days where my mother knew who we were, there were days when my mother didn’t know who we were,” Pat says.

Alice Clifford A picture of Alice in her early 20s.

Her second husband John and her daughter Pat looked after her, in what Pat described as a difficult time for the family.

“After the electric shock treatment, my mother had two bald patches, and I remember at 16 or 17 I was taking my mother to the hairdresser’s. I did find it difficult during those years that the roles had been reversed and that I was looking after her.

“There were times when I would’ve got annoyed with that because I was going through the difficulties of being a teenager. I kind of withdrew from school.”

Pat was fifteen when her mother began to exhibit memory issues; all her other siblings had married and had children of their own by then.

“I would have been about 16, and I remember going to work at around eight o’clock in the morning. And at about ten to eight in the morning there was a knock at the door and I was flying around getting ready for work. And my mother was standing at the door in a cardigan and a pair of tights and nothing else.

“Some lady was with her and said ‘I found this lady at the end of the road and she’s disorientated’. We didn’t even know she had gotten up early, there was only one shop in Ballyfermot at the time that would have opened at 8 o’clock and that was up near the Assumption Church. and my mother was trying to find her way to that store.”

“You’d be waking up and dozing off and waking up and dozing off, listening out for her.”

“We were her carers really,” she said.

A foggy Thursday

In 1978 she was offered a week’s respite at St Loman’s, to give her family a rest from what had become round-the-clock care.

She was given another two weeks again in 1979. On the 28 November, two days before she was to return home, she had a craft class at the hospital.

When it finished, the patients returned to their wards – but nobody noticed Alice never made it back.

“She didn’t willingly go in there, as far as I can remember,” Pat said. “I think my stepfather had to sign her in for two weeks. She wanted to come home, so we thought she’s annoyed with the family, any chance she has of getting out of there, she’s going to get out of there.”

When the gardaí came to the Clifford home in Ballyfermot, they asked if Alice was there. When the family explained that she was at the hospital, the gardaí said that she wasn’t, and that she was noticed missing at dinnertime.

“We were stunned,” Pat said.

DSC_1257 Source: Pat O'Reilly

They had to use the neighbour’s phone to let her siblings know that their mother had gone missing, because “not everyone had phones back then”. Two cars drove to the hospital, where they were told the grounds had already been searched. So one car drove up the Lucan way, another drove down the Ballyfermot way.

But then it began to rain, and Pat says she had a feeling of dread.

“I got upset in the back of the car, and my sister said, ‘Why are you crying now?’ because we expected to find her up the road. And I said, ‘It’s raining and she might shelter and we might pass her by’.”

Over 38 years later, and Alice is still missing. Despite the family’s continued search efforts, a number of media interviews and discussions about the different theories that could have caused their mother to vanish, there still have been no sightings of Alice Clifford – and just one testimony offering a possible explanation to what might have happened.

Theories

DSC_1261 An aerial shot of the grounds of St Loman's Hospital. Source: Pat O'Reilly

We were given a date for the inquest, and then I got a call, and the call was that somebody had come forward [with information].

That person was John Fitzpatrick, who said he was working as a construction worker on the hospital grounds at the time that Alice went missing.

He says that he was laying 100m-long electric cables in a large trench, right outside the building where Alice’s craft class was being held that day.

It had then been filled in very early the next morning.

A dig was commissioned on the land in light of this information in 2013, which the gardaí described as “extensive”. But Pat said they were just digging holes across the land in search of cables – and if the cables were found, a more thorough dig would take place.

But they found no evidence of the cables that John had referenced, and no other witness to corroborate his story.

Despite this, Pat maintains that this is the most likely answer to the question of what happened to her mother, and explains why there were no sightings of her outside the hospital grounds – “because she never left”.

“My mother was 5ft 2in, and around 8 stone. If she had found a way outside and fallen in the trench wearing a cardigan and slippers, she’d have had no chance.”

DSC_1254 A newspaper clipping from 1986.

After years of hoping, wondering, and imagining different scenarios, the family are still hoping someone will come forward that will solve the mystery, or lead them to the place where their mother might be.

“I do understand that, there’s different reasons why people go missing,” Pat says.

“One kind of missing is, the IRA killed somebody and dumped the body. Then, there’s my mother, an unwell woman, who would want a woman not well and taking her? So that’s very odd. Then, the children the young teenagers and adults that go missing and might be kidnapped, or sold.

“There’s so many different scenarios, I know everybody misses the person that goes, but there’s always a different reason why, but who would have wanted a woman who wasn’t well?”

In October of this year, Pat’s brother died shortly after being diagnosed with an illness. Another of her brothers is seriously ill now, and she’s adamant to be at his bedside, holding his hand when his time comes.

“I’m not afraid of death. Death is a natural part of life. But this,” Pat says, gesturing to the newspaper clippings of her mother’s disappearance from over the years, “this isn’t natural.”

Read: Alice Clifford went missing in 1979 – now houses are being built where her family think her body could be

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