Mum’s 21-year heartache over missing son

Mum’s 21-year heartache over missing son

7 August 2019

TEARS spring easily into the eyes of Downpatrick woman Patricia Douglas as she talks about her son, Sean Ryan, who has been missing for nearly 21 years.

Her pain is as acute today as it was on August 31, 1998, when she last saw the 17 year-old. 

On what should have been his first day back to Down High School to finish his A-Levels Sean — for whatever reason only known to him — decided to up and leave the family home.

He headed to Co Clare in the west of Ireland where his family once holidayed.

Despite being spotted by several people, including a garda, as he was walking from Lahinch in the direction of the Cliffs of Moher, Sean has never been heard of again.

At the age of 71, the mother-of-five says time is running out for her to find what happened to her son, but says her door is still open for him to return.

Patricia understands that many people believe that Sean is dead.

“I’ll not be here in another 21 years,” says Patricia quietly. “I think he must be still out there. There’s nothing to tell me that he isn’t alive. While that’s the case, I still have hope.”

Each year cuts even deeper for Patricia, who as the grandmother-of-seven, has a grandchild near the age that Sean was when he went missing.

She and her daughter, Orla, went to Co Clare last month on a mission to tell Sean’s story all over again.

They put up posters in public places showing an aged photograph of what Sean would look like now, sent pictures and statements to local newspapers and contacted 38 hotels in the area in the hope that increased awareness would jog memories.

As Sean had worked in the kitchens of Denvir’s Hotel in Downpatrick as a part-time job, Patricia has often wondered if he might be working in the hospitality business.

“People can still work cash in hand without using a National Insurance number so you could still get by,” she said.

Apart from getting newspaper coverage in Clare and in the Irish Times, no useful information has come forward so far.

“No, I’ve heard nothing, not an iota,” says Patricia as each retelling of Sean’s story takes its toll on her.

She urged other parents to make sure that they tell their children they love them “as you just never know what will happen”.

“Sean was due to go back to school on the Tuesday of that week but told me it was the Wednesday instead so I didn’t bother waking him that morning before I left for work,” said the former teacher.

He and his younger sister, Orla, were left to have a lie-in. Everything was normal until later that day when Down High School phoned to ask why Sean wasn’t at school.

“At first we thought he had gone to Belfast to visit some friends, but as the evening went on we realised that none of his friends knew where he was,” she said. “Orla didn’t hear him leaving that morning. When she went to look for him he wasn’t in bed.”

The police were informed and calls made to hospitals, but it wasn’t until two days later that Patricia knew that Sean had travelled across the border.

“My two nephews from Donegal saw him pass by in Galway. He told them he was going to get a bus and was going away for a few days,” said Patricia. “We also found out that he had emptied  £300 out of his savings before he left.”

The search for Sean moved across the border, with radio and TV appeals made to locate him.

Five days after he left home, a fisherman gave Sean a lift along the road from Ennis to Lahinch, leaving him near a hostel. 

Then a garda spotted a young man walking from Lahinch in the direction of the Cliffs of Moher and stopped him.

“He asked his name, his age, where he was from and he told the garda he was 18,” said Patricia. “But he wasn’t, he had only turned 17 that June. Sean told him his right name and that he was going up to some house up a lane. That was the last proper sighting.”

Patricia scoffs when she talks about reports of sightings she has received over the years from some people and knows only too well that the mystery of a missing person can often attract attention seekers.

When Sean left, he was wearing his distinctive rust suede jacket with fur collar, jeans, black Dr Marten boots and a Caterpillar messenger bag. He was about five foot six inches tall, of average build with hazel eyes and brown hair.

“He really didn’t take too much with him so he travelled light,” said Patricia. “Sean was a very gentle person and when he would bring me a sandwich or something, it was always produced with style. I really miss that.”

After the initial flurry of media activity 21 years ago failed to produce any results, Patricia said that the investigation on both sides of the border went cold.

“Police liaison offers have come and gone, some better than others. They pick up the phone every now and then to call me. There was one that I never set eyes on at all. I met one about a year ago but I haven’t seen or heard of them since,” said Patricia.

She has been helped and sustained by the people behind the Irish website, who meet regularly to talk about progress in their own respective cases.

Patricia says that only those parents who are in the same position really understand what she and her family have gone through all these years.

She acknowledges that her family has been forever marked by Sean’s disappearance. 

“I keep hoping that someone, who couldn’t say anything at the time, will come forward now with information. 

“I keep hoping that. I just want to know that he’s ok. I always thought that someone did know something but just wouldn’t tell you. In my heart of hearts I still believe he is alive. If I didn’t think that, I would go crazy.”  

If you have any information relating to the whereabouts of Sean Ryan, please contact police either in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, or the website