Eamon Cooke has put a face on our irrational fear of the man in the white van, writes Victoria White.
I am terrified of Cookie Monster. And now I know he is out there, or someone like him.
Before the new evidence linking Eamon Cooke to the murder of Philip Cairns emerged last week I was one of the sceptics. I didn’t believe strangers bundled children into their cars, raped them and killed them.
And the truth is these events are as rare in Ireland as ball lightning. The “Child-catcher” which still freaks me out when I watch Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang is a creature of folklore, just like the fairies with which children “went away” in those old stories.
I have always believed that most of the children who “went away” just fell down drains or over cliffs, or were killed accidentally by a parent or relation and then hidden.
I have always firmly believed little Mary Boyle who disappeared at the age of six in Donegal in 1977 got sucked into a bog by her wellington boots. The disappearance of Philip Cairns has haunted me every time my children have been late back from school in the decade since the eldest’s gone anywhere alone. But I have always believed the 13-year-old was inadvertently killed during a children’s game and ended up in the River Dodder or surroundings. If you’d mentioned a theory involving a character like Cookie Monster I’d have laughed in your face.
Now it turns out I was lucky I wasn’t a victim of Cookie Monster myself. He was convicted of 42 counts of sexual assault on children mostly dating from when I was a child growing up in South Dublin. I was that classic teenager, sun-bathing in my back garden listening endlessly to “The Sound of Dub-lin!” . I loved the DJs which had exotic names, though one of my friends used to call them as “Anthony de Crème de Menthe.” It was the crème de menthe era, alright, the era of new money and new freedom and fast cars. One of my friends had an uncle who drove us all around south Dublin in his open-top sports car while pissed off his mind.
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My father saw me as I flashed by, sitting on the retracted soft-top and waving. He was out of his depth in this new Dublin and didn’t even have the words to warn me about sexual assault. He once found me walking off with a man in a dirty raincoat and he didn’t say a single word as he put me back in his car.
I would very likely have got into Eamon Cooke’s car just as easily if he’d promised to take me to the Radio Dublin studios. Nowadays kids are wise to strangers’ cars. And yet, how wise? My little girl got lost on her way home from the park when she was 10 and asked a man she met to take her home. He was kind enough to want to help but not enough to put himself under suspicion – he flagged down a woman and asked her to oblige.
Which caused a crisis of conscience. Do you tell kids not to trust men? To go up to a woman if they’re in trouble, not a man? Most men are gorgeous, after all. My little daughter will probably make her life with one and she could give birth to a few more.
Then again, child abductors who are strangers are nearly always men. But then there are hardly any child abductors.
There may have been one, Eamon Cooke. There may have been another who abducted and killed little Mary Boyle in Donegal in 1977. Her twin sister Ann is convinced she knows the identity of the killer, who was interviewed by gardaí at the time.
Retired inspector Aidan Murray stated in reporter Gemma O’Doherty’s 2016 documentary Mary Boyle: the untold story that when he questioned this man he “knew in my heart and soul that I was speaking to the man who was responsible for the missing child.” There is an allegation that political interference led to the case going in another direction and so far calls for an inquiry into Mary’s disappearance have not been heard.
In the wake of Sergeant Maurice McCabe’s revelations, not to mention this week’s announcement of an inquiry into the investigation of the death of Shane Tuohey, we deserve to have these allegations fully investigated.
Last year Dubliner Michael Martin was convicted of the attempted abduction of an 11-year-old in Co Laois, an attempt foiled by the girl’s 10-year-old brother. But we still don’t have any confirmed cases of a stranger abducting and killing a child in Ireland in recent times. If Cookie Monster killed Philip Cairns, we would still only have one confirmed case. Even in the US, where there are 800,000 cases of missing children every year only 0.01% of them turns out to involve a stranger.
And yet the stories of the “man in the white van” are everywhere. Oatlands College in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, recently issued a message to parents saying they were “aware of an attempted abduction of a student in the area.” Facebook went into overdrive with thousands of “likes” in the space of a day and people who posted on the site warned of a “near successful abduction” and “heightened alert.” The gardaí didn’t issue an alert which indicates a lack of concrete evidence. The journalist Peter McGuire counted 60 white van-style alerts between 1998 and 1999, none of which turned out to have substance. Some were hoaxes, others were cases of unfortunate drivers asking directions or whose cars had broken down.
The white vans were omnispresent after the abduction and murder of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in the UK in 2002 and they were even spotted in the wake of 11-year-old Robert Holohan’s disappearance in Cork in 2005, a case which ended in the conviction for manslaughter of an older friend.
There just are no white vans. But there are plenty of real dangers for children and teens and many of them are made worse by parents who won’t let their kids out of their sight: obesity, social isolation, screen-addiction, mental illness, suicide. You’d think we parents would concentrate on these issues and let the white vans drive off into the sunset. But because our child’s abduction and murder is the worst horror we can possibly imagine, we can’t.
Now Eamon Cooke has put a face on our irrational fear. The media has been talking of “closure” and I know Philip Cairns’s family wants to know what happened to their beloved boy. But if we find out that Eamon Cooke killed Philip there won’t be closure for the rest of us parents.
As I drove frantically around the streets of Dublin last night looking for my 13-year-old daughter who’d gone out to the shops and wasn’t back an hour later I felt as if Cookie Monster were controlling me from his grave.
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