When you speak to the family or relatives of someone who has been declared missing and then never found, there is a universal characteristic. A burden they carry.
Doubtless some are aware they have it, and others are not. But it is there. A grief that has never been dealt with, not fully at any rate, because to do so was impossible. It is in their faces.
That is the unique aura the families of the missing carry. Because they deal with “the most complicated type of grief that human beings can engage with”, in the words of Sarah Wayland, a lecturer with the University of New England in Australia.
Ms Wayland was addressing the National Missing Person’s Day ceremony at Croke Park.
The event has been held each year since 2013, though this was the first in-person gathering since before Covid-19 raised its head.
A gathering of more than 100 people who have experienced a most singular form of pain, the loss of a loved one and, in most cases, no body to grieve, and no grave to visit.
Many of the most high profile of Ireland’s 897 missing people are represented at the event.
The family of Trevor Deeley, who disappeared on a Christmas night near Baggot Street Bridge in Dublin in 2000. Claire Clarke Keane, the sister of Priscilla Clarke who disappeared in a flood while horseriding in Wicklow in 1988, is here.
Two relatives of Jean McConville, the widowed mother-of-ten murdered by the IRA in 1972 whose remains were not discovered for 30 years, are present.
Ms McConville is one of the most prominent names of the 'Disappeared', the unfortunate souls vanished by the IRA during the Troubles for alleged crimes against the movement.
There were 16 Disappeared, 12 of whose remains have since been discovered. Four remain at large.
Dymphna Kerr is the sister of Columba McVeigh, the 17-year-old Tyrone youngster killed by the IRA in November 1975. His body is one of the four that have never been found.
Yet nevertheless Dymphna says she considers herself “lucky”.
“I feel lucky because there are people in that room today who don’t know where their loved ones are,” she says.
“We don’t know where Columba is, but we know he’s dead, we believe he’s buried in Bragan Bog, we have an independent commission that works to help us, we have a trauma centre there to help us. There are people sat in that room there today that has none of that. So I’d call us lucky.”
She says that the purpose of National Missing Persons Day for her is “it means you’re not in it on your own”.
For Dymphna, the notion that a death is easier to handle than a missing person rings true.
“Someone dies, you get the remains, you bury them and then you start to heal,” she says.
“We never got Columba’s remains. We had a search last October that was suspended because of poor weather. When a search starts it’s like that person has died all over again.
She remembers her brother, missing 47 years, as “the joker of the pack”.
“He played cards, he cheated at school, and got into fights and couldn’t get out of them. I had to throw the odd punch for him myself.”
But she knows he’s dead, “because he needed our mum the most”. “He was tied to her apron strings,” she says.
Anthea Langelaan — mother of Cian Langelaan, a Co Donegal man who disappeared in September 2020 — addresses the conference. She lives in England now. She says she has “had to accept the fact that I can’t do anything about the fact my son disappeared”.
Denis McNally also speaks. He is unique at the ceremony, being the relative of Roderick ‘Bo’ McNally, Ireland’s oldest missing person case. Bo was 13 when he fell from the cliffs at Howth Head in Dublin “on a bright sunny day, 28 November 1936”.
Denis, Bo’s nephew, says that back then, more than 80 years ago, with such a tragedy the grief was kept private, “seldom spoken of”.
He began to dig into Bo’s disappearance on foot of the stories of his maternal grandmother.
Ten years ago, he met John, the only remaining boy still alive of the three that set out on the cliffs that day.
“Over the years we met a number of times. On one occasion we went to Howth for John to recall the events of that tragic day.”
“It is now 86 years since Bo was lost and I know it will be a miracle if he is located. With each passing year the memory of Bo will recede in the memories of his family.
It was a simple hope that perhaps we could bring Bo back to Howth to rest with his parents. But at least we know when and where and how Bo died.
“That in itself provides some consolation.”