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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019
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20 years ago, a woman's body washed up in Wexford - we still don't know who she is

If ever there was a case that clearly shows how Ireland needs to dramatically improve its approach to missing persons, it is the one where the Irish State has lost the skull of an unidentified woman, writes Barry Cummins.

SHE WORE A pair of Lee jeans. Some of the material was still attached to her body when it was washed up on the Wexford coast.

It was the 12 December 1995 at Ballinamona Strand, Kilmuckridge, just a few kilometres south of Gorey.

The woman had been in the water for some time, her upper half was skeletal, the lower half of her remains more intact. She was washed ashore among pieces of wood and seaweed brought in by the currents.

The denim jeans, by their nature a durable material, contained clues. The jeans were unusual, there was a diamond shaped motif on the back pocket of a woman wearing sunglasses.

Gardaí would later establish the jeans were manufactured in Belgium in the late 1980s under the fashion name ‘Rumour’. The jeans were never officially sold in Ireland.

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In the pocket of the jeans were two Volkswagen keys with a ball shaped keyring. The car to fit the keys would never be found.

She wore laced-up, brown-coloured flat soled shoes, size 39, and she wore white socks. On the insole of the shoes was a four star symbol and the wording ‘Made in France’. Could she be French or might she be Belgian? The clothes may be a wrong steer.

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Do any of us know the origin of the clothes we wear? But two pieces of clothing from mainland Europe, including unique jeans, made for good clues. But garda enquiries through Interpol went nowhere.

There was very little coverage of the case in Irish media. I have been unable to find any major public appeal gardaí may have made about the case at the time. I personally wasn’t aware of the case until many years later when the family of a missing Irish woman – Priscilla Clarke – brought the case into the national public domain.

Priscilla had vanished in 1988, swept away in the river Dargle in county Wicklow during a storm. The family were stunned when in 2007 they discovered there was a body of unidentified woman lying in Crosstown Cemetery, just outside Wexford town.

“We read articles about the unidentified woman written by local reporter Fintan Lambe in the Gorey Guardian, and we started asking questions,” Priscilla’s sister Claire later told me.

We started asking questions of gardaí and we soon found out they had never really considered that it might be Priscilla. We were totally shocked. We would have expected gardaí to have kept us up to date with any such discovery.

Other families of missing women began asking questions too. How come very few people knew about the unidentified woman washed ashore in 1995? Why hadn’t the family of Imelda Keenan been told? Imelda vanished from Waterford in January 1994.

PastedImage-81948 Priscilla Clarke Source: Garda Press Office

Likewise the loved ones of Eva Brennan never knew about the woman in Wexford. Eva was last seen in Dublin in 1993. As families began asking questions, Priscilla Clarke’s family began a concerted campaign to raise awareness about the unidentified woman in Wexford. They asked questions of the Department of Justice and the Garda Commissioner to establish the identity of the unidentified ‘Ballinamona Woman’.

It became clear that the woman had been buried without a DNA sample been taken from her body.

Eventually, in 2007 the then Justice Minister Brian Lenihan signed an order allowing for the woman’s body to be exhumed.

A DNA sample was taken which would eventually show that the body was not Priscilla Clarke or any of the other missing women in Ireland.

The DNA profile was sent internationally too but there was no match with other databases.

The woman was reburied in a communal grave where other people without any known loved ones lie buried. But there was a further indignity. It would soon emerge that when the body was exhumed, the woman’s skull was missing.

Not intentional

I have seen documents which show that in November 2007, as a result of the agitation by the family of missing woman Priscilla Clarke, the Garda Commissioner wrote to the Department of Justice asking that the body of the unidentified woman be exhumed so as to obtain DNA samples.

It emerged that samples had in fact been taken from the body in early 1996 before the woman was buried, but those samples had been lost. But the letter also revealed that the woman’s skull had also been lost.

The two page letter stated that the skull and lower jaw had been removed for further examination, that no written report existed from the relevant medical official in Dublin and that the skull could not now be located.

The loss of samples from the body of the unidentified woman was not intentional, but is most upsetting, and most unfortunate.

It is the clearest example of how the Irish State has failed missing people, not in an intentional way, but it has failed them nonetheless.

The samples had been removed from the unidentified woman with the best of intentions, to try and establish her identity. Their subsequent loss makes it incumbent on the State to make right what has happened.

I believe the Department of Justice is now much more aware of the shortcomings and failings in relation to unidentified bodies. It has not been stated publicly if samples from the bodies of any other unidentified persons have been mislaid.

Changes in garda work

For the last three years I have been proud to be involved with the National Missing Persons Day, which is organised by the Department of Justice, in co­operation with An Garda Síochána and many families of missing people.

There are still many issues that need to be addressed in relation to missing persons, but I do believe that the Department and gardaí are much more open now to working with families of missing people to improve standards.

If someone goes missing tomorrow there is a much better chance of gardaí issuing a prompt public appeal or carrying out prompt and thorough searches. Many families of missing people are finding the Department of Justice much more approachable than previous times.

That is all good, all positive. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than previous times.

PastedImage-45044 St Ibar's Cemetery Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Spare a thought this coming 12 December though for the unidentified woman who rests in St. Ibars Cemetery in Crosstown, county Wexford.

It will be 20 years on that day since she was washed up on the coast. Perhaps she was swept across the Irish Sea having entered the water in Wales or England? Perhaps she might have fallen from a ferry going to or from Rosslare? Perhaps her death was accidental, perhaps she was murdered?

Before her skull was lost it was established that she had a brace on her lower teeth and she had undergone much dental treatment. She was also tall, perhaps 5 foot 10 inches. Her family and friends are out there somewhere. Maybe one day they will be found and take her home.

In the meantime ‘’Ballinamona Woman’ lies in Grave Number 37 in Section A of St. Ibars.

A local undertaker, Bernard Mackin, went to the trouble of putting up a headstone for the woman, which records that the grave marks the resting place of Unidentified Female whose remains were washed ashore at Kilmuckridge 12 December 1995.

‘Ballinamona Woman’ is the only long-term unidentified female body in Ireland, but there are dozens of unidentified men whose bodies lie in graves from county Leitrim to Cork, Louth to Wexford.

PastedImage-66978 Source: RTE.ie

But there is something about the woman in Wexford that strikes at the very heart of missing persons. She needs us all to fight for her, to find her loved ones, to send her home, to make right the enormous wrong this country has done to her.

“My mother always said that she may not be Priscilla but she is someone’s child,” says Priscilla Clarke’s sister Claire.

Her family are out there somewhere. This woman deserves better from the State, all the unidentified people deserve better. We had no idea of the scale of the number of unidentified people until we started investigating this. It is akin to a national disaster.

Barry Cummins is a reporter with RTÉ’s Prime Time. He is the author of Missing, Without Trace and Unsolved. He will host the National Missing Persons Day event at Farmleigh on Wednesday 2 December.

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland’s missing people: The numbers behind the heartbreak

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Barry Cummins

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