Some child killers still have not been caught

  • 28 January 2005
  • test

Diarmaid Ferriter recalls the case of a schoolboy killed in Dublin 44 years ago with similarities to this month's tragic events in Middleton. The 1961 case was never solved

During the extensive media coverage of the tragic death of Robert Holohan, there were numerous references to other Irish children who have been abducted and murdered, particularly in the past 40 years. In April 1970, 10-year-old Bernadette Connolly was abducted near her home in Sligo; four months later her body was found; she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. In 1977, six-year-old Mary Boyle disappeared in Donegal. Her body was never recovered.

A photograph many of us are familiar with appeared frequently – that of Philip Cairns, the Rathfarnham boy who disappeared on his way back to school after lunch in October 1986. The case was never solved.

On a few occasions during the coverage of Robert's case, it was erroneously asserted that the four children mentioned above have been the only children abducted and killed in the history of the State. Despite a brief mention by Jennifer O'Connell on one of the RTÉ news bulletins, scant attention was given to the case of five-year-old Tommy Powell, of 44 Cuffe Street in Dublin, who disappeared on 20 June 1961, after he had left his house to visit his aunt nearby. Two local teenagers from Ross Road, Christopher Ellis and Michael Gavin, found his fully-clothed body the next day in a graveyard at Liberty Lane, at the back of Kevin Street Library, just a few hundred yards from his home. Local children often used the old graveyard for recreation (it is now a small park).

Twenty-five yards away from his body, two large bloodstained stones were found; there were also bloodstains on the walls and grass, and he had extensive head injuries. He had, it seemed, been battered to death. He was taken to the city morgue, where the State pathologist, Dr Maurice Hickey, carried out a post mortem. His sixth birthday was just a month away; he was a quiet child and not in the habit of straying far from his home, according to his parents, Mr and Mrs James Powell. They had one other child, James, aged two.

Initially, the Gardai explored the possibility that he may have been struck by a motorcar and carried into the graveyard, or that he may have fallen from the top of the wall near where his body was found. It was from this wall that Irish Press photographer, Seán Larkin, fell and broke both his arms while taking photographs of the crime scene after the body had been found.

Many people born in the 1940s and 1950s will remember that week in June 1961 in Dublin for other reasons. The sun shone as the city was host to the Congress of the Patrician Year, to commemorate the fifteenth centenary of the death of St Patrick, which ran from 17 to 25 June. It was overseen amidst much pomp and ceremony by guest of honour, Cardinal Agagianian, an Armenian prelate, and Papal Legate. It culminated in a pontifical High Mass at Croke Park, attended by an estimated 90,000 people, making it the largest religious hosting Ireland had witnessed since the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. At the same time, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco were on a four-day official state visit and holiday in Ireland, and were mobbed wherever they went, so much so that a number of people were injured in a crush outside the Gresham Hotel where the royal couple attended a function.

Far removed from such splendour, the Gardaí, working flat out, went about the business of catching Tommy's killer. Extensive house-to-house inquiries were conducted in the Cuffe St, Camden St, Francis St area, and thousands of questionnaires were distributed. It was inconceivable, they surmised, that nobody had noticed anything unusual. Ten days later, Gardai were still pleading for information from the public, "however insignificant it may appear", and still looking for a lead. They also mentioned that "we believe that there are others who can assist and are hesitant to come forward".

One man had been removed to Grangegorman mental hospital on the night Tommy was murdered following a scene in O'Connell Street, in which he appeared disoriented, muttering and unable to recall his name. He was interviewed by the Gardaí, but ruled out as a suspect. Also investigated was the sighting of a boy with a young-looking man who was spotted on Burgh Quay late on the Tuesday night, but he was also ruled out as a suspect. So too was a man reported to be acting strangely in a Dublin pub on the same night. He was interviewed at Kevin St station, but again, a connection with the murder was not established.

Most intriguingly, and perhaps most sickeningly, an anonymous letter was sent to the Gardaí in which the author suggested he/she could help with solving the murder. The letter was initialled 'DC' and was handed into Kevin St station. The letter asked the Gardaí to insert a notice in newspapers saying 'OK DC' if they wanted to make further contact. They duly did this, but there was no response.

By the end of the first week in July it was reported that the Gardaí were co-operating with police in England in order to interview a number of people who left the Cuffe St district after the murder. They also visited all factories and schools in the vicinity of Cuffe St in an effort to trace Tommy's last movements.

Up to the second week in July, the hunt was intensified and Gardaí spent a full day interviewing about 30 boys from the area, after which they were convinced that the murderer had been seen by several of them, and that the killer was still in the area.

But their frustration, and the agony of his family, continued. There were no new developments, which must have been particularly perplexing, given the belief that the murderer was still in the area. The Gardaí also informed the media that "in spite of numerous appeals by the police, very little assistance has been given to them by the public". Why, in Dublin 44 years ago, was this the case? Who handed in the letter to Kevin St Garda Station, who wrote it, and why? Are there people still alive who know who killed Tommy Powell?

Thanks to Peter Mooney of RTÉ for additional information