When Mary Boyle went missing from near her grandparents’ home in Cashelard, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal on March 18, 1977 she was one of the country’s youngest ever disappeared.
More than 37 years later the six year-old from Belcruit, Kincasslagh has the dubious title of being Ireland’s longest missing person.
The little girl was on a family visit to her grandparents’ home accompanied by her parents and siblings when she disappeared.
On the day in question, Mary’s twin Ann, her brother Patrick and their two cousins headed towards the lawn at the side of the house to play. Mary opted to stay in to help their Mum with the dishes saying she would be out to play in a few minutes.
At around 3.30pm the little girl decided to follow her uncle Gerry who had gone to a neighbour’s house to return a ladder.
The other house was less than 500m away but the trek was hard for a little girl, who was less than 4ft tall, as it was across a thick swamp.
Near the other house, she decided to go no further and told her uncle she was turning back. She was never seen again There were extensive searches involving thousands of people, including Mary’s father Charlie, over the following weeks.
Divers searched all the main lakes and rivers in the area and vast areas of forest were combed. Mary’s disappearance features in Barry Cummins’ book, “Missing, Ireland’s Disappeared”.
In it he tells how gardaí even staged a reconstruction involving Mary’s twin. Ann — unaware of what was happening — was taken out into the same swamp and, in roughly the same place as Mary left her uncle, was asked to go back to her grandparent’s house, while covertly being watched by officers.
Gardaí hoped she would act in the same way as her twin giving them some clue as to what might have happened. However, all their efforts came to nothing.
In 2007, when British girl Madeleine McCann disappeared, Mary’s mother Ann gave an interview to the Guardian newspaper in which she told how she felt something terrible had happened at the moment that it was reported that Mary had gone missing.
“There was this weird feeling that this was not right,” she said. “She had gone off to a friend’s house, but nobody had seen her on the road, even though it was only a couple of hundred yards away. I can’t explain it, but I felt it.
“When Mary left the house to follow her uncle to a neighbour’s house that day, around half past three in the afternoon, I remember she was wearing these wee ribbons in her hair. I always hoped that the search teams would even find a fragment of those ribbons or even the Wellington boots she was wearing when she went outside that day — anything to indicate where she was last.
But there was nothing found at all.” Various theories emerged over the weeks, months, and eventually years after Mary’s disappearance as to what might have happened to her.
Scottish serial child killer Robert Black, who was working in the north at around the time the little girl vanished, was a suspect at one point. In January 2011 a new dig to find Mary’s remains was commenced.
It was prompted by what was considered to be new information from a Danish psychic hired by country singer Margo O’Donnell, Daniel’s sister, a relative of the Boyle family. Last year a garda sergeant involved in the initial search for the little girl was quoted as saying he believed she died very soon after she went missing.
“Mary was dead within an hour of going missing and never left the Cashelard hillside alive,” Sgt Martin Collins who retired in 1994, told the Sunday World. “That was my view very shortly into the investigation and, 36 years later, that view has not changed. Within 48 hours I was convinced that she had died and my view was cemented when an interested party came to me and said that he knew who had killed Mary.”
In 2011, members of the northern region of the gardaí began a second review of the case which is understood to have led to yesterday’s arrest.
Over the last three years, they have interviewed what a spokesman said was “a wide range of people” as well as undertaking a number of searches with the assistance of forensic and geology experts.