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"1980s Ireland was a different world" - the injustice in the search for missing woman Priscilla Clarke

Priscilla disappeared from Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, in May 1988. No trace of her has ever been found.

THE THIRD OF May, 1988, is a day that the Clarke family of Ardee, Louth, will never forget.

It was the day their daughter and sister, 25-year-old Priscilla, disappeared, never to be seen again.

She vanished after going out horse-riding with her employer Lynda Kavanagh near Powerscourt, Co Wicklow.

Lynda’s body was recovered from the Dargle river two days later. Priscilla has never been found.

priscilla Priscilla Clarke Source: An Garda Síochána

27 years later, her family is no closer to piecing together the events of that day, no closer to knowing what happened.

Compounding the anguish is the way that the search for Priscilla was carried out – something that her family say would never happen today the way that it did in 1988.

‘She adored babies’ 

A nursery nurse, Priscilla trained at Temple Hill Hospital in Blackrock and spent several happy years working with the babies there. She adored babies, loved caring for them, her family says.

That passion brought her to work for Mark Kavanagh and his wife Lynda. Kavanagh was a developer, a man of some prominence. With Lynda he set up the Captain America’s restaurant on Dublin’s Grafton Street. He was also, interestingly, the man who gave Chris de Burgh his first break. When Lynda Kavanagh died, de Burgh wrote the song “Carry Me Like a Fire in your Heart” in her memory.

Priscilla worked for the Kavanaghs as a live-in nanny to their three young children Keelin, Michael and Serena. She had been with the family for five years at the time of her disappearance.

“Without doubt she loved those children,” her sister Claire says.

“The loss of Priscilla and their mother at the one time was very difficult for the kids.”

Who was Priscilla Clarke?

In meeting with Priscilla’s sisters Claire and Frieda near the family home at Ardee for this article, the thing that becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is just how like every other family the Clarkes are. The only difference between them and any other family you could think of is the tragedy that marks them apart.

The family is a relatively large one with five children. Priscilla and her twin brother Robert came third and fourth in the order. Their father, Paddy, has since passed away – he died aged 90 in the immediate aftermath of the Garda cold case probe into Priscilla’s case in 2008. Their mother, now in her late 80s, still lives in the family home.

temple hill Priscilla, pictured during her time as a nurse at Temple Hill Hospital in Blackrock, Co Dublin

“She was just lovely, really lovely,” Claire’s eldest daughter Aishling says of Priscilla at the end of our meeting. She was just a child when her aunt disappeared.

She was the kind of person who filled a room, you know? Always wanting the TV louder, to have a big conversation. She was so loved.

“She was that type of person that you couldn’t help but feel better for having spent time with her,” says Claire.

One of the things that occurred to me when reading previous reports on Priscilla’s disappearance is that you might be led to believe that she was an inexperienced horsewoman who perhaps was caught in a situation she wasn’t prepared for.

In fact, Priscilla had years of experience – thanks to her time on the family farm. She was also a strong swimmer and a certified lifesaver.

“Children and animals, they were her two passions,” says Claire.

If you were to describe Priscilla – she was just a strong, able person.

In going through boxes of memorabilia with her two sisters, a clearer picture of Priscilla emerges. Above all, she was a fun person, it’s written all over her – always smiling in the countless photo albums she kept (heartbreakingly, photos of Priscilla on holiday with the Kavanaghs in Aspen, Colorado, were delivered to her family in Ardee after her disappearance).

family Priscilla (second left) with Lynda Kavanagh (second right), Lynda's mother (far right), and the three Kavanagh children, on a skiing holiday

In the 1989 book Out On Their Own Mark Kavanagh describes Priscilla as “a lovely girl… she was like my eldest daughter”.

She was a great friend to Lynda and the children all adored her.

“She was just a dote,” Claire says. “It’s just the best way to describe her.” Frieda nods in agreement.

The Disappearance

The two women who went horseriding on 3 May 1988 were from markedly different backgrounds. Then, as now, the Wicklow town of Enniskerry was one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

The Enniskerry that the Clarkes encountered was a world away from Ardee; a “gated community” is how Claire describes it. The media attention that the disappearance of the two women brought to bear was somewhat alien to the well-to-do Wicklow village.

sheiladee Priscilla, astride Sheila Dee, the horse she was riding the day she disappeared

Claire says that although Lynda was Priscilla’s employer, a friendship existed between the two women.

Lynda was 39 when she died. An only child from Chicago, she met Mark Kavanagh in her 20s when studying at Trinity College in Dublin.

The Kavanaghs had only lived at Ballyorney, a Georgian mansion in Enniskerry, since November 1987, six months prior to the tragedy – having previously lived in Dalkey and Ballybrack in Dublin.

It had been raining heavily for some days prior to the day the women disappeared – a Tuesday. When the rain finally eased off in the afternoon Lynda rang Mark at work in Dublin at about 4pm to say that she and Priscilla were going horse-riding.

Four hours later it became apparent that the women were missing when the Kavanaghs’ eight-year-old son Michael was dropped home by a neighbour. It was 8.15pm. When Michael realised no one was in the house he called his father.

Another neighbour brought home the youngest child, Serena, just as Mark Kavanagh returned from Dublin.

He contacted the gardaí and a full-scale search was initiated. The horses were subsequently found, soaked through, wandering the nearby roads.

The Clarke family was not alerted to the fact Priscilla was missing until 2.30am the following morning.

dargle 2 The Dargle river, at Charleville Lodge Source: Google Maps

Crossing point

From the evidence gathered at the time it appeared that the two women somehow came off their horses at the river Dargle near a crossing point at the nearby Powerscourt Estate. It is believed that the two horses continued across the water, to where they were later found.

The water had risen after the days of heavy rain. As Mark Kavanagh describes it in Out On Their Own: “This little tiny stream, a tributary of the Dargle, was in full spate. It was a swollen, angry thing flooding down the mountain”.

In the late 1980s Kavanagh was an influential man, heavily affiliated with political heavyweights of the time, including then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

At the time of the women’s disappearance IRA kidnappings of rich and powerful people for ransom in Ireland were prevalent. When the Kavanaghs had lived in Ballybrack two gardaí had resided in the gate-house of their mansion as a safeguard against just that. Understandably, the natural assumption initially was that the family had been targeted.

The search and aftermath

When the Clarke family heard about Priscilla’s disappearance, they immediately set out for Enniskerry to join the search. It was a journey their father would continue to make for years afterwards, always searching for his daughter.

As the family describe it, he soon found himself knocking on brick walls. A woman from a prestigious family had disappeared. In such delicate circumstances the gardaí played their cards very close to their chest in the investigation.

“It’s very hard to describe quite how different a place Ireland was in 1988 to how it is now,” says Claire.

Things were just done differently. That’s something the cold case unit in the gardaí freely admit. The search was a poor one, and it was taken away from us completely. And initially, yes, there was a lot of manpower, the army, helicopters, Charlie Haughey’s influence was brought to bear. But it wasn’t co-ordinated. And when Lynda’s body was found the search was stood down almost immediately. Then it was left to us.
dargleThe Dargle river, with Bray, Co Wicklow, in the backgroundSource: William Murphy

Lynda’s body was recovered from the Dargle on the following Thursday 5 May. She had been caught on a branch close to where the N11 crosses over the Dargle near Bray. It was the slimmest chance that had stopped her body from being washed into the sea, a fact not lost on Claire and Frieda.

“We were actually coming from Bray Garda Station when they found Lynda,” says Frieda, who was just 15 at the time.

We were turning off the N11 towards Enniskerry which is close to the river. We were there. And at the time I prayed and I prayed that it wasn’t Priscilla. Now, in all honesty I wish that it had been.

Without a trace 

Two families suffered a tragedy that day in May 1988. But only one family had the opportunity to grieve.

The search itself officially ended the following Monday, 9 May. At the time families were routinely told that the diving unit was needed elsewhere when no body could be found. The Clarkes for their part believe funds for the search were exhausted once Lynda’s body had been recovered.

The unfairness of that situation still rankles with the family. Almost 30 years later, it would be unthinkable that an official search for a missing person could be ended so quickly.

In the days and months that followed, the Clarke family continued searching, often with the help of diving clubs both from Louth and other areas. The family found great support and comfort in their own local community. They still feel deep appreciation for the efforts of those locals in the search.

No trace of Priscilla was ever found. Six weeks after the tragedy her father and mother told their children that it was time for them to resume their lives, that their father would continue the search in their stead. “It was very distressing when we stopped, it felt like we were abandoning her forever,” says Claire.

At the same time, an inquest into the death of Lynda Kavanagh was held by the Dublin County Coroner. No one told Priscilla Clarke’s family that such an inquest was to be held. They first read about it in the following day’s newspapers.

The family say they had a right to know that the inquest into Lynda’s death was taking place. The fact that no one in authority saw fit to inform them left them deeply upset and feeling “very isolated”.

“Once Lynda was found the search became moot as far as the media were concerned,” says Claire.

We searched so many beaches. We travelled from Co Louth right down to Wexford distributing posters. Eight days after Priscilla went missing we tried to get the national broadcaster (RTÉ) to put out an appeal. We went to the office. No journalist would come down to the reception to meet us.

Unanswered questions

The disappearance of Priscilla left an indelible mark on the Clarke family.

“You never quite recover from something like that,” says Claire.

“You move on and life goes back to normal but it’s always there. The grieving process with a missing person is that rather than having your loved one’s body to take care of and the ritual of a funeral, you’re left with this,” – she gestures to an enormous file of Garda correspondence and associated paperwork she keeps regarding Priscilla’s case.

“We never got to grieve for her, not properly, because we were too busy trying to find her. And that is something you can never quite get over,” says Frieda.

She deserved to have a funeral, to have her life celebrated. She was a really good person.

While the Clarkes continued to press her case with the gardaí, no sign of Priscilla was ever found.

“The worst is when you hear of another missing person,” says Claire. “Because you know what that poor family is going through.”

Even now, she wants to remind builders and contractors carrying out development works on the Dargle river at Bray to be mindful what they are doing. There is still a woman missing.

No closure

The Kavanagh family moved on. Mark, who was 43 at the time of Lynda’s death, remarried 18 months later, and eventually left Ireland. In Out On Their Own he describes how the death of Lynda “changed his values”.

“Before her death I did not value my wife or my children as much as I do today. That’s the basic change. I took them for granted. They were part of my life to fit in when it suited me. Now that’s rather reversed. I want to be there for the children’s needs.”

What I put on it (Lynda’s gravestone) was, ‘a free spirit’. That’s what she was: free, pretty, amusing. People adored her.
People have said how awful it must be, but my abiding feeling is how lucky I was to have known her. We did more living in those 20 years together than any six other people I’ve ever met.

For the Clarkes there has never really been any such closure.

In December 1995, a woman’s remains washed up on a beach at Kilmuckridge, Gorey,  in Wexford. Without a coroner’s inquest, the unidentified woman was buried at Crosstown cemetery in the county without fanfare.

That woman had been wearing Lee jeans, a brand that Priscilla had often worn. The Clarke family, who did not learn of the woman’s existence until 2007, campaigned extensively to have her body exhumed for DNA testing, something they finally achieved in 2008. Unfortunately there was no DNA match and the agony continued. The woman has never been identified.

leejeans Lee jeans and shoes worn by a woman who washed up on a beach at Gorey, Co Wexford, in December 1995

“Our mother said, that woman may not be my daughter, but she’s someone’s daughter. That she was never identified was also a tragedy,” say Claire.

It will be 20 years since she washed ashore on 12 December, and there won’t be a single word about it.
Maybe the gardaí will take the opportunity to post a public appeal for information as to her identity, but either way it’s truly sad that the case was never solved. There’s a family somewhere that has been left without a loved one, people forget that.

The family has never fully given up hope of finding Priscilla.

You do keep hoping. Even though you know it’s unlikely, even impossible, you just keep holding on. The kind of woman Priscilla was, she wouldn’t have just disappeared.

Claire and Frieda believe that it’s most probable that Priscilla washed away and was drowned. The case remains open however, and they still have many unanswered questions.

“We still don’t know definitively who was at the Kavanagh home at Ballyorney that day,” says Claire.

We don’t have full accounts of what measures were put in place as regards the younger children who were at school, and we know beyond doubt that Priscilla wouldn’t have left the house that day unless the children were taken care of. She was too responsible and loyal a person.

“We know that the Kavanagh’s gardener left the house at 4pm. The women hadn’t mentioned to him that they were going horse-riding. Yet the main house was unlocked, which would have gone against Priscilla’s instincts – she was very security conscious. So does that mean that someone was still at the house?”

Frieda mentions that there is no anger in the family, but a niggling irritation at the “inequity” of Priscilla’s case still grates with them.

“I’ve no issue with the gardaí, they did what they could at the time. On the likes of having a better system to find missing people and identify remains they would agree with us – the new DNA database is a start. Certainly they would agree with us that the current Coroner’s Act is obsolete,” says Frieda.

The problem is with politicians; missing people just aren’t high on their agenda. Contrast that with the likes of the Disappeared, those families at least have the comfort of knowing that the search will continue, the will is there, the money is there. We have never been able to count on that.

In 2008 the newly formed Garda Cold Case unit (known as the Serious Crime Review Team) reopened Priscilla’s case, something the Clarkes warmly welcomed.

The unit re-interviewed all those who were first spoken to in 1988, and came up with a list of 87 recommendations as regards how the case should be approached. The Clarkes have never seen those recommendations despite repeated entreaties.

20151130_210653 Priscilla Clarke

“There’s no statute of limitations for an open missing persons case such as this,” says Claire.

While the case is considered open we will probably learn nothing more unfortunately. Unless the case is closed, and that may never happen.”

For the purposes of this article, TheJournal.ie contacted the gardaí regarding Priscilla’s case.

“The disappearance of Priscilla Clarke on 3 May, 1988  is the subject of a live and ongoing Garda investigation,” a spokesperson for the force said.

Aside from acknowledging that a superintendent in Bray is handling the investigation, no further information has been forthcoming. Priscilla’s online file, which attests that she is presumed drowned, can be found here.

I ask Claire and Frieda whether they believe there are people alive in Ireland who know more about their sister’s case than her own family do. “Without doubt that is the case,” they reply. This is not meant as accusation they say. The Clarke family would simply like to know more about what happened to their sister.

The Future

Claire and Frieda both have families of their own. Claire is involved with the National Missing Persons Helpline, a support network for those who live with the burden of having lost a loved one in such a fashion.

She has strong opinions on certain things that could be improved when it comes to missing and unidentified persons in Ireland.

Well, things are better now. If Priscilla were to have gone missing today, the way in which the gardaí would deal with things is a world away from the late ’80s. It was a different world.”

Still, there are things she would like to see happen. Chief among them are that funding be allocated towards an integrated, public database of Ireland’s unidentified (both current and historical cases on a county-by-county basis) being set up here, and that the Coroner’s Act 1962 be amended without delay. She has lobbied justice minister Frances Fitzgerald to those ends.

Ireland finally instigated a version of a DNA database last month. Within this system, there will be an index for missing and unknown persons. It will hold DNA profiles developed from biological samples taken from missing persons’ belongings as well as profiles from their close blood relatives.

That database is not a public one however, and is more concerned with criminal cases. Claire’s idea is for a system that the relatives of the missing can consult.

“A DNA database is no use to a family searching for their loved ones if they can’t view it,” she says.

“About a year after Priscilla went missing myself and my father were speaking with a Garda at their headquarters in the Phoenix Park about the likelihood of her being found,” says Frieda.

He told us that he had drawers of unidentified body parts, and that there was no hope of identifying them. Quite apart from the fact that that’s a dreadful thing to tell a family, it just makes you think, what if she is there, waiting to be identified.

Similarly, the Clarkes believe that Ireland’s current Coroner’s Act needs to be modernised.

“It’s an old, old act, and not fit for purpose,” says Claire.

The Act needs to be redrafted, and it should require a coroner to hold a mandatory inquest in the case of every unidentified body, regardless of whether the remains are complete or not.

At present such an inquest is entirely at the discretion of the individual coroner concerned, which explains how an unidentified body can be buried with so little fanfare, as was the case with the woman who washed ashore in Wexford in 1995.

Priscilla’s legacy

The esteem with which Priscilla was and is held by her family makes her disappearance especially poignant.

Seeing the possessions she left behind, her notes, her countless photo albums, it’s evident she was someone who lived life to the full.

She was well-travelled – having accompanied the Kavanaghs everywhere they went. A photo exists of her with actor Pierce Brosnan, a friend of Mark’s. There’s another of her with Louis Walsh, yet another with Dallas actor Larry Hagman.

20151130_205043 Priscilla, pictured with actor Pierce Brosnan

“She crammed a lot into 25 years,” says Frieda.

“She lived a full life, even if it was a short one.”
The National Missing Persons Helpline can be reached on 1890 442 552 or through this website.

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

Read: Ireland’s missing people: The numbers behind the heartbreak

Read: The stories behind the people who search for bodies: ‘We started after a young boy died when he slipped into the water’

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

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