Coroner says 25 years it took to identify remains of Denis Walsh ‘compounded’ family’s trauma
Inquest hears call for establishment of database of unidentified human remains found in the State
Denis Walsh and his son Michael with a photograph of Denis Walsh Junior at the inquest this week. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Denis Walsh (23) went missing from his home in Caherdavin, Limerick, on March 9th, 1996. Photograph: Family/Eamon Ward
A coroner has called for the establishment of a database of unidentified human remains found in the State, to help assist identify body parts and return remains to their loved ones.
Galway West Coroner, Dr Ciarán MacLoughlin, said this database should be shared across all Garda stations and coroners’ offices in the Republic.
There is currently no official record of how many unidentified bodies or remains are stored in hospital mortuaries or buried in graves.
Dr MacLoughlin was speaking at the inquest this week into the death of Denis Walsh jnr, whose family was informed last February that his partial remains had in fact been discovered 25 years previously, held in a hospital mortuary for 18 years and eventually buried in a communal grave in Co Galway.
Mr Walsh went missing from his home in Caherdavin, Limerick, on March 9th, 1996.
Four weeks later, on April 7th, and unknown to his family, the 23-year old’s partial remains were discovered washed up on Inis Mór, off Galway Bay.
The previous day, Mr Walsh’s parents Denis (81) and Mary (82) delivered flyers with their son’s poster to Garda stations in Galway.
The inquest, held at Galway City Council headquarters, heard that it had not been possible to identify the remains in 1996.
Bodily samples were taken from Mr Walsh’s remains, sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory and examined in July 2008, March 2011 and June 2017, all with negative results for a match.
Mr Walsh’s parents provided gardaí with salvia swabs in February 2011. However, a positive match was not made until February this year through advances in DNA technology.
Mr Walsh’s remains were exhumed from Galway and reinterred in the family’s plot in Limerick last Saturday, April 24th.
Kieran O’Donovan, of Tynan O’Donovan solicitors, representing the Walsh family, highlighted in the inquest file a letter sent in 1998 from Mayorstone Garda station in Limerick to the Walsh family. The letter stated that gardaí had, after Denis went missing, immediately circulated details of the missing person’s case to local and national Garda stations, internal Garda bulletins, the RUC, Interpol, media, search and rescue groups, social welfare offices and neighbouring health boards.
Mr O’Donovan said it was not clear whether Galway gardaí circulated details of the discovery of the 1996 remains to other Garda stations or Interpol.
In 1996, the Tuam Herald and Evening Herald newspapers carried a brief appeal by Salthill gardaí for information about the body.
Dr MacLoughlin said a review of unidentified remains held in Galway in 2011 did not include a “look back at existing DNA profiles” held at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Dublin.
“I’m not sure if they knew in Limerick what we had done in Galway, probably not. We didn’t know it was Denis Walsh’s remains we had in Galway. It was an opportunity missed there to identify the remains,” the coroner said.
Mr Walsh said, in his opinion, there had been “a complete breakdown in communication” within the gardaí in relation to the discovery of his son’s remains.
He told the inquest that, after his son went missing, a senior Garda based at Mayorstone contacted his wife, Mary, telling her he thought that a body had been found in Limerick, when in fact no body had been found.
Dr MacLoughlin said a database “to look for DNA” of 20 unidentified sets of remains in Galway was established in 2015, but he said, “this didn’t include previous living profiles, so you were missed”.
He said that, in 2020, advances in DNA technology, as well as increased resources at the Forensic Science Laboratory, resulted in the compilation a list of historical DNA files “including unidentified remains we had in Galway” and this led to a match for Denis Walsh jnr’s remains.
The 25 years it took to identify the remains “compounded” the Walsh family’s trauma, Dr MacLoughlin said.
“For 18 years we had him in the mortuary and for seven years he was interred in a grave only 60/70 miles away, and I realise you went to huge lengths as a family to try and locate him,” he said.
“I know at the time you came to Galway and issued out flyers, and the match had not been made between the torso in the Aran islands and [Denis].”
Recording an “open verdict”, the coroner recommended a database of unidentified bodies be compiled and shared with the forensic science laboratory, gardaí and coroners, “so that at least we would be all talking to each other, and if anybody contacted me in Galway, then I could say I have X bodies and X DNA profiles”.
“I’m open to any other suggestions which may help prevent your situation occurring again. We have to try and ensure that doesn’t happen again,” Dr MacLoughlin told the family.
Denis Walsh snr said that sometime after his son went missing, Cornwall police contacted Mayorstone gardaí to check if a body found on the UK coastline could be Denis Jnr.
Mr Walsh added: “If the police in Cornwall were able to contact Mayorstone why in the name of god did [Galway] not contact Mayorstone, and, if they did, then there was compete breakdown in communication somewhere along the line.”
Last February, Mayorstone gardaí sent a letter to the family acknowledging they had been left with “lots of justifiable questions on how it took so long to identify Denis”.
Speaking after the inquest, Mr Walsh said he remained “determined to get answers for it”.
A Garda spokeswoman said gardaí had no further comment to make and that a “family liaison officer continues to engage and liaise with the family of Denis Walsh on behalf of gardaí.”