Scannal: The Disappearance of Mary Boyle - ‘It pulled the family apart’

Television: Documentary is portal to a different Ireland where helicopter parenting had yet to be invented

Ireland has no lack of unsolved mysteries, but the disappearance in March 1977 of six-year-old Donegal schoolgirl Mary Boyle is especially haunting. She vanished seemingly into thin air near her grandparents’ home close to the Fermanagh border. In the decades since, her family has struggled to make sense of a terrible event that struck like lightning from the clear-blue sky.

There have been other documentaries about Mary, as her now elderly mother, Ann, explains towards the end of Scannal: The Disappearance Of Mary Boyle (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 7pm). And many conspiracy theories – including speculation local politicians intervened to prevent gardaí questioning a potential suspect.

The case has also caused a rift within the family. Ann and her daughter Ann Jnr, Mary’s twin, fell out for several years over a difference of views as to whether Mary should be declared legally dead.

“It pulled the family apart, for want of a better word,” says Ann Jr, who wanted Mary to be declared deceased in a coroner’s inquest. “We were going in different directions.”


This short documentary is a portal to a different Ireland. This part of Donegal in the late 1970s looked as if it had been scooped out of the moon: the landscape was grey, grim and pockmarked.

‘Donegal is a big county. People there would know places where a body could be hidden’

—  Gerard Lovett

It was also an Ireland where helicopter parenting had yet to be invented, and children were free to play outdoors without supervision. That freedom ended for Mary when the family visited her grandparents’ farmhouse at Cashelard, and she vanished while accompanying her uncle to a neighbour’s. They were halfway there when she had turned back – never to be seen again.

The producers of Scannal are to be commended for speaking with the relevant parties – particularly Mary’s mother and sister. There are also interviews with journalists and retired gardaí, who paint a bleak picture of the child’s possible fate. “Donegal is a big county,” says garda-turned-author Gerard Lovett. “People there would know places where a body could be hidden.”

There have been many theories. One is that she was a victim of the child killer Robert Black, who murdered three children in the UK and one in Northern Ireland and is believed to have been in the vicinity of Donegal in 1977. Garda later questioned convicted paedophile Brian McMahon. McMahon, who had served with the Defence Forces at Finner Camp in Donegal, denied involvement, and the DPP decided not to prosecute.

Then there were the rumours that politicians had interfered when gardaí brought in a local person for questioning in the weeks following Mary’s disappearance. Certainly, police on the ground felt they were on to something. “If I had another hour with him he may have broken,” said one.

But in the end, there are no answers, just questions – and a family torn apart. “In my head, I always talk to Mary, and if I’m in trouble, I’m kind of asking her for help,” says her twin. “I always feel she’s looking out for me.”