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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# nameless
The mystery behind the unidentified remains in Ireland's morgues
Some of the remains found in Ireland may never be identified and families of the missing say something needs to be done.
Some of our unidentified dead may have come to Ireland to start or end their life where no one knew them, others may have just been passing through when they ran into trouble and others may have been washed up onto our shores or found in our rivers but each one has left family and friends behind…

IT IS UNCLEAR just how many unidentified bodies are buried in Ireland or located in the country’s morgues.

Those who represent the families of missing persons claim there is a lack of respect for these nameless men and women, some of whom may never be identified. Most of these bodies and body parts washed up on Irish beaches or were found in the nets of fishing trawlers and brought back to shore.

Right now in Ireland, there are remains in a number of counties that no one has ever been able to put a name to.

  • In Clare, one man’s body has been in the morgue since July 2012. A second body found in Fanore in October this year also has yet to be identified.
  • In Louth, the body of a man washed up in Rockmarshall in 2007. DNA was taken and the man’s body was buried.
  • In Sligo, the body of one man remains unidentified, according to the coroner.
  • The Dublin city coroner said there are “a small number of unidentified body parts” at the city morgue.


In December 1995, the body of a woman washed ashore in Kilmuckridge in county Wexford. She was wearing a pair of Lee jeans manufactured in Belgium in 1986 and a pair of flat heeled shoes, size 30. On the insole was a four-star symbol and the wording ‘Made in France’.

Appeals for information brought up nothing but in 2007, the woman’s body, which had been buried at Crosstown cemetery, was exhumed. The family of missing woman Priscilla Clarke, who had disappeared in Wicklow in 1988, had pushed for the remains to be exhumed.

Garda Press Office Priscilla Clarke Garda Press Office

Samples of bone were forwarded to the forensic Science Service in Birmingham for DNA analysis and comparison on 29 November 2007. However, results concluded these were not the remains of Priscilla Clarke.

Three years ago an RTÉ Prime Time programme revealed the woman’s skull and jawbone were lost by the State and have never been found. Her body was re-buried after exhumation and to this day she has never been identified.

Details of her DNA profile have been logged for comparison with existing and future DNA profiles of missing persons or their relatives.

Another case in Wexford had a different ending. In April 2010, a fishing trawler found a skull in their nets off Kilmore Quay. The remains were handed over to Detective Sergeant Gerry Kealy who was a crime scene examiner and forensic anthropologist.

Tests on one of the woman’s teeth ruled her out as any of the missing women in Ireland at the time.

The detective sergeant had a facial reconstruction completed and sent it to Interpol. He also undertook a media campaign in the US.

In September that year, Kealy was contacted by Interpol about a possible candidate and DNA eventually matched the woman’s remains to 45-year-old Patricia Sarah Abbott.

Dyfed Powys Police Patricia Sarah Abbott. Dyfed Powys Police

Just a month beforehand, an inquest in Wales had been opened, despite the absence of a body. At an Irish inquest in 2011, the woman’s death was ruled a suicide. Detective Sergeant Kealy was praised for his “tremendous efforts” which had helped return the woman’s remains to her family.

Abbott was laid to rest in Pembroke, in Wales, with her father.

Efforts in other countries

Retired garda and former member of the garda sub-aqua unit Tosh Lavery has been working with the families of missing people since he left the force and has been calling for the establishment of a national database for unidentified remains for many years.

We have arms and legs and bits of heads in nets and washing up from the sea and they’re given to the coroner and what’s being done about them? Nothing.

A number of other countries already have online databases like this. In the UK, for example, the Missing Persons Bureau contains profiles on unidentified bodies.

Details of their gender, estimated age at time of death, appearance, distinguishing features and clothing are all included as well as facial reconstructions in some cases. There are also images of clothes or items of jewellery the deceased was wearing.

UK Missing Persons Bureau UK Missing Persons Bureau

Lavery said families in Ireland are often in touch with the UK organisation as bodies of missing Irish people have previously turned up across the Irish Sea.

UK Missing Persons Bureau UK Missing Persons Bureau

The Doe Network, which focuses mainly on unidentified remains found in the United States, is run by volunteers. Profiles in this database are even more detailed than the UK website, with details of the possible cause of death of the deceased and whether or not fingerprints or DNA is available.

The Doe Network The Doe Network

The site also includes a case history for the unidentified person based on the police investigation into the discovery of their body in the hope that additional information could trigger recognition.

In the case of the girl pictured above, there had been reports of a woman carrying a child on the interstate in Alabama around the time she is believed to have died.

Police speculate the woman may have thrown the little girl into the water and then jumped herself. The woman’s body was never recovered and she has never been identified.

An Irish case

There is one Irish case listed on The Doe Network’s website. A man’s skull was recovered at sea by the skipper of the ‘Our Treacy’ fishing trawler in February 2006. He is estimated to have been aged between 25 and 45 when he died and was possibly North African.

The skull had been in the water for a year or less. A DNA profile was completed and sent to Interpol to be circulated to police forces worldwide, but he has never been identified.

An Irish database

Just in the last few weeks, a system for collecting and storing DNA samples has been established in Ireland, after legislation passed through the Dáil last year.

The Department of Justice confirmed to that the system became operational on 20 November.

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.

Profiles of persons who have been unable to identify themselves (due to serious injury, for example) and of unidentified bodies will also be included in the index.

The DNA legislation also provides for the exchange of DNA profiles of missing or unknown persons with law enforcement in other jurisdictions. The aim is to develop a database like those in other countries like the UK, which bring together all of the relevant information about people who have gone missing.

Though it has been hailed as a positive step, families of the missing have said they were left waiting too long and it will be years yet to develop the database to the level of our European counterparts.

“This is a very important capability which should serve to provide significant assistance, reassurance and solace for the families of people in these difficult situations,” the department said.

Taking DNA sample from families is particularly important, according to Lavery, as it is vital to bring together as much information about people as possible if they are to be found or identified.

If you look at something like the Graham Dwyer case, it goes a long way to show what a difference cross referencing little bits of information could make when you put it all into a computer.

The main purpose of the new DNA database in Ireland is to keep track of criminals, with gardaí being given new powers to take samples from people who are arrested to keep on file. Lavery has expressed concern that high priority will not be given to missing persons and unidentified remains under the new system.

He said he thinks there is little regard for the missing in this country and that the Missing Persons Bureau is severely under-resourced.

“The cash has a lot to do with it but there has to be the interest there. If the interest in people was there, they’d have this.”

I saw the pain and horror when people were missing I saw what it was like to hand a body back to a family- it makes a difference.

“I think with all that’s going on in the world, when we have the opportunity to be a bit humane, we should take it.”

As part of‘s Missing series, we contacted every coroner in the country asking about unidentified remains in their region. Just over half responded with most of these saying they had none or were not aware of any in their area.

Today is National Missing Persons Day. A special ceremony will be held at Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park later this morning.

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


Read: When missing turns to murder: The precise, difficult work of the garda sub-aqua unit >

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

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

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