What is Ireland's Vanishing Triangle? 8 women who went missing in '90s remain a mystery with no trace of bodies

Irish crime writer Claire McGowan says 'culture of secrecy' and victim blaming in Ireland stopped police from connecting the dots

                            What is Ireland's Vanishing Triangle? 8 women who went missing in '90s remain a mystery with no trace of bodies
Officers made 'assumptions about the women's sexual behavior' during their initial investigations (Getty Images)

The disappearances of eight Irish women in the '90s may never be solved because investigators missed vital chances to investigate their murders, according to a recent audiobook. Claire McGowan, a crime writer who grew up in rural Northern Ireland in the 1990s, was shocked to learn that eight women had disappeared without a trace during her adolescence, just hours away from her home.

The 'Vanishing Triangle' was named after a string of disappearances in Ireland's east, and in her new audiobook, the author examines why these cases remain unresolved, as well as a number of other murders she claims are connected to the eight missing persons.


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Claire McGowan (Twitter)

Speaking to the Daily Mail, McGowan claimed that victim-blaming and a culture of secrecy all played a part in the initial investigations, with former officers revealing to her that there was a "certain amount of judgment" regarding the sexual behavior of the women who went missing. And although a serial murderer is most likely to blame in these cases, McGowan hypothesized that prime suspects from the women's own lives could also have been involved.

What was the Vanishing Triangle?

Annie McCarrick, a New York native, vanished in Dublin in 1993. Hers was the first of many disappearances that became known as the Vanishing Triangle, the Daily Mail reported. In each event, a young or middle-aged woman disappeared unexpectedly from Ireland's east coast, with no sign of her ever being found.

Before the crimes ended, police formally linked six of the disappearances and initiated Operation Trace, a joint investigation. "In some cases there is an obvious suspect. Three of the cases there was a man in their life who became a suspect, nothing was ever proved," said McGowan to the Daily Mail. "What I've tried to do in the book is say - when you look into it, probably not all of those women were killed by the same person."

"But that's also an interesting story," she added. "Why if there is an obvious suspect and a history of domestic violence, why was that person never charged? Why would the police then be like, "Oh she's just disappeared" rather than 'Her violent ex-partner possibly killed her?"


Who were the victims?

Annie McCarrick was last seen on March 26, 1993, taking a bus to Enniskerry after telling a friend she was going to the Wicklow Mountains for the day. She was living in the Dublin area when she vanished. Later, McCarrick was reported to be drinking with an unknown man in a bar in Glencullen and has been missing since. Jo Jo Dullard, 21, went missing while hitchhiking home late at night in Co Kildare in November 1995. She, like McCarrick, lived in the Dublin area. Witnesses said Jo Jo was later seen leaning on the back of a dark-colored Toyota, talking to someone inside, after making a phone call from a payphone in Moone. The vehicle and its driver were never found, and Dullard remains missing.

Fiona Pender, a lifelong resident of Tullamore was seven months pregnant and was last seen leaving home by her boyfriend in 1996. A small cross bearing her name was discovered along The Slieve Bloom Way in 2008, but her body was never identified. Fiona Sinnott went missing in 1998 at the age of 19. She had an 11-month-old baby at the time. Her last reported sighting was at a pub with friends, where she left about midnight with ex-partner Sean Carroll, her daughter's father. 

Ciara Breen, 17, strangely vanished when she went to bed with her mother around midnight. When her mother got up to use the bathroom around 2 am, she found Breen gone. Her window was open and the lock was left on, implying that she intended to return, but she never did. McGowan said Breen would cross the Irish border and go to the same discos as she did as a teen. Deidre Jacob was seen within just yards of her parents' house by several witnesses, but she never made it home. 

'She went to the same discos I went to'

"Because it was across the border I don't think I ever heard about it," said the writer. "But she went to the same discos as I went to, because it's really easy to cross the border, there was no border at that point. I found that quite shocking that nobody ever said, "This is happening"."

Eva Brennan, who went missing shortly after a family lunch in Terenure, Dublin in 1993, is a seventh case that was not included in Operation Trace but is often mentioned alongside the disappearances. Imelda Keenan, who was last seen in Waterford city in 1994, vanished from Waterford city, where she had been studying.

Since no bodies have ever been identified, it's difficult to know for sure if these women were killed, according to the crime researcher. Despite the fact that they all vanished in such a short period of time, McGowan only found the cases ten years ago while doing research for a new crime fiction novel.


Groping was 'completely normal'

"I think partly the news was really dominated by the Troubles", she said. "Growing up in the 90s, I think a lot of what you might call ordinary murders, non-political murders, we didn't hear about them. I think that kind of fed into a perception that they didn't really happen in Ireland, it was a safe place to be as a woman, if you were lucky enough not to get caught in the Troubles. I don't think that was true based on what I've learned from my research," she said.

Claire said she felt comfortable growing up in Northern Ireland, but that there was still a lot of injustice and stigma around sex, with abuse like groping not being taken seriously "at all".  "We did live with a lot of things that seemed normal at the time that don't now," she said, "Groping was incredibly common, I think if I used to go to teenage discos and you would get groped at least ten times in one night, that was seen as quite normal. Most people just put up with it, it was seen as so completely normal. There was definitely very little discussion around sex or consent or anything like that, there was still a lot of oppression, a lot of shame."

Assumptions about sexual behavior

Officers made "assumptions about the women's sexual behavior" during their initial investigations, McGowan said, sometimes assuming the women had "gone off with boyfriends" after they were reported missing. "'There was definitely judgment and a few of the retired officers I spoke to did explicitly say that to me, there was a certain amount of judgment made about, "She's that kind of girl, she's that kind of woman".

She also said a "culture of secrecy and silence" was quite common in Ireland in the 1990s, and that "fostering an atmosphere where people felt they could say things to the police" could have helped. Separate police forces, she suggests, may have also had an effect on the initial investigation. She added that the police didn't think the murders were connected.

Separate police forces, she suggests, may have also had an effect on the initial investigation (Wikimedia Commons)

Police did not connect the dots

"Because the areas sometimes, are so, so close to each other, we're talking about the same little towns and villages and because they were buried in the mountains, it's probably that's the same thing that happened to some of these women," said McGowan. She claims there were "a lot of parallels" between the events, but admits it's difficult to tell why the disappearances were never connected, especially considering the whole population of Ireland was only three and a half million in the '90s.

"I think one big reason was the Irish police just weren't used to working with this kind of crime, sexually motivated, so just really didn't think to consider that might have happened," McGowan opined. When family members asked police about possible connections between Annie McCarrick and Eva Brennan, who went missing in the same year, they were told to not "be ridiculous." "They weren't willing to consider it", said the writer.

A 'sad everyday kind of story'?

She added that actually listening to the families before jumping to conclusions could help instead of victim-blaming. Speaking of the unsolved cases McGowan said: "I think the only thing that could happen would be either some bodies could be found, and they have to be somewhere so that can always happen, or somebody would come forward and talk."

"The conclusion I come to is there probably was an unidentified serial murderer, but in some cases, the story is much closer to home and just really sad everyday kind of story," she said.

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