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29 years on: The unsolved mystery of 13-year-old Philip Cairns

“We’re all getting older and wiser at this stage. Somebody might have a conscience and might want to talk to gardaí about this”.

HE WILL ALWAYS be missed and it will always be painful to think about that time and what happened.

The words of Helen Cairns, whose little brother Philip Cairns disappeared without a trace more than 29 years ago.

He was just 13 years old.


On 23 October 1986, Philip went to the nearby Coláiste Éanna Secondary School in Rathfarnham in Dublin like any other day.

At 12.45pm he returned to his home on the nearby Ballyroan Road for his lunch. He left the house at 1.30pm and was never seen again.

BR - road Ballyroan Road

Helen was 17 when her brother went missing.

“I remember it was very busy with people calling to the house: police, reporters, family and friends,” she told TheJournal.ie. 

Nobody really knew what to do or say. It was very confusing at the time. Our whole lives were turned upside down.

Eoin Cairns was just 11 when his big brother went missing. Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he said, “Relatives, neighbours and the community all rallied around us.

“I would have been closest to Philip in age and we shared a bedroom.

We were the two boys, we were our own pod in the family. We were the two boys and there were the four girls.

download (2) Eoin Cairns, pictured here with his mother.

Almost a week after Philip went missing, his schoolbag was found in a laneway that links Anne Devlin Road and Anne Devlin Drive.

Philip’s geography book and two religion books were missing from the bag.

laneway 2 The laneway from Anne Devlin Road to Anne Devlin Drive.

Eoin explains that it had been raining but the schoolbag was dry and in a spot that was very visible, so it would have been spotted in earlier searches if it was there previously:

“It had been raining that day, it was placed in clear sight in a place where there was a lot of footfall.

In that regard, considering where it was found, we thought it was the big breakthrough.

“We were kind of thinking, this could be it, we could find him.

We were thinking he could be back in his bed that evening. It was a case of waiting – but that hope that he would be found dissipated and weakened over time.

“We were hoping, but at the same time all we could do was wait.

There was a lot of confusion. What to feel? What to think? You felt helpless.

It’s now 29 years later and the case is still being investigated.

Eoin retains hope that his brother could one day return:

Maybe he was abducted and escaped and he was unable to return. It’s a possibility, however remote, that he may actually return home.

At the launch of the Garda’s missing children website, Philip’s mother, Alice Cairns, said his disappearance was very difficult to cope with.

When asked what she believes happened to Philip, his sister Helen said:

I don’t know. I don’t really like to think about that.

Reports of abuse and murder 

In 2002, the Sunday Independent published an article which claimed that Philip was being abused by somebody outside his family and was murdered after he confided in another man about the abuse.

The article claimed that this man was also abusing children and alerted Philip’s abuser.

Speaking about the article, Eoin said, “It distracted people from coming forward or thinking back about connections, maybe something strange they noticed.”

From what I believe, journalists had undertaken the research, not gardaí. The gardaí are open to pursuing any lines of inquiry – I would imagine they investigated these allegations.

The article claimed that Philip was buried in a pond that is now built over with a tennis court and nursing homes. However, Eoin said this was not possible. “That pond was drained and built over before Philip disappeared.

I don’t believe it’s possible that Philip could have been buried there.

download (4) File photo of the parents of Philip Cairns in 2004 when a computer generated image of what their son would look like was released to the public.

Last year, Philip Cairns senior passed away. Eoin said the disappearance of his son was something his father “compartmentalised”.

Speaking about how his Dad was quoted as saying that he believed Philip was probably killed to cover the tracks of a paedophile, Eoin said:

It’s not something he openly discussed with myself or the rest of the family.

“It’s a possibility, but it’s only one of the many theories, and it’s not the one we’re actively pursuing.

“We believe he was abducted, we have nothing to substantiate that opinion. We also believe that it’s a possibility that he could have disappeared of his own accord.

“What we were afraid of was people thinking, ‘Well, now we know, we don’t need to contact the gardaí’ and people feeling they don’t need to come forward.”

Cairns added that the case is open and gardaí are still actively investigating Philip’s disappearance.

Detective Sergeant Tom Doyle has been in charge of the case for almost 20 years.

He told TheJournal.ie that “in terms of recent developments that have happened in our country over the past 20 years, nothing is closed off”.

“If something is printed, people believe that and they sometimes then think that information they have, or something they remember, might be no use to us because they think we are looking at only one option.

We don’t know what happened, it’s a total mystery but I’m satisfied people still have information.
A young boy, even if he goes voluntarily, has to have assistance. It’s my belief those people are still alive and could solve this mystery.

philip This image shows what Philip Cairns may look like as an adult Source: MissingKids.com

Over 400 sightings of Philip were reported after he went missing and all of them were followed up.

In 2009, the entrance to a wooded area on Whitechurch Road in Rathfarnham was sealed off and searched when gardaí received a new lead. However, nothing was discovered.

90145849 Source: James Horan via RollingNews.ie

Discussing how DNA could help to solve the mystery of Philip’s disappearance, Sergeant Doyle said, “We would love to think that DNA will be able to provide us with a profile in the future”.

However, he explained that the schoolbag has been “handled by many, many different people which makes it more difficult”.

He added that the next phase of DNA progress would be to phase out certain known DNAs.

The hope is that as DNA progresses, we’d be able to identify individuals.

Cairns described the gardaí working the case as “very proactive” saying:

“They probably contact us once every few months to touch base. They do keep us informed, as a courtesy.

We are very thankful and grateful for that and that it’s still an active and open case.

Sergeant Doyle also made a direct appeal to people involved in Philip’s disappearance, saying:

“If an accident is the cause of his disappearance, come in and talk to us.

We’re all getting older and wiser at this stage. Somebody might have a conscience and might want to talk about this.


Remembering her brother, Helen said, “Philip was still a child really, he was happy and pretty much care-free. He was very well behaved so he was never in trouble. He was the type of child that got on with everyone, very sweet and innocent.

There are songs that always remind me of him, songs that he liked.

Eoin says he looks back at the time he had with Philip with many fond memories. “Even just the memories of playing on the beaches and walking to school and back.

We used to go fishing with my Dad. The three of us would prepare on the Saturday night and go fishing on the Sunday. That was most weekends really.

“It’s always going to leave a mark, a shadow that he is not there to share the big celebrations – weddings, graduations, christenings – but you do have to try to build and get on with your life.

“In terms of his birthday, Christmas or any anniversaries, we would call around to my mum, just to be around.

We don’t need to formally remember him but just being there and being in the house. We know the reason we are there.

“We’d dearly love Philip to come home but in some ways you have to get on with the business of living, I’ve been very thankful for the life I had.”

The national Missing Persons Helpline can be reached on 1890 442 552 or through this website.


Read: “After 29 years it can still be hard”: When a missing person case turns into a search for a body >

Read: Mystery in Fermoy: The couple who vanished into thin air one day in 1991

Read: ‘I believe he was abducted’: Brother of Philip Cairns says DNA could be key to finding the truth >

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