AS Easter Sunday drew to a close on April 7, 1996, the evening sun cast a shadow over Inis Mór as the Atlantic tide carried Denis Walsh’s unidentified body on to the rocky shoreline.
The unclothed remains were recovered by Gardaí near the townland of Kileaney, on the largest of the three Aran Islands, at around 5.15pm, after a female tourist out walking had spotted the body.
Parts of the body were missing including the legs and teeth; and part of the skull was damaged.
Without clothes or any tattoos, there was little to assist Gardaí with identification.
Apart from two brief newspaper reports on the grim discovery of a man with “neatly cut brown hair”, in the Tuam Herald (April 13, 1996), and Evening Herald (April 9, 1996), there was very little publicity.
In a poignant twist, Denis Walsh’s parents travelled to Galway the day before his body was discovered off Galway Bay.
For all the false leads they had pursued around Ireland and England, it is this journey to Galway on April 6, 1996 that pains them most.
“We had been travelling around again with flyers and we decided we’d pull into Gort Garda station, so I’d dropped in a flyer. They asked me for a few extra because they were covering four other outlying stations,” Denis Snr recalls
“We were so near, and the body could have washed up the day we were in Gort,” he continued, choking up in tears.
The couple returned with more flyers to Galway on May 12, the day before a Garda appeal on RTÉ’s Crimeline seeking information about their son’s whereabouts.
By then, his body had been in the mortuary at University Hospital Galway (UHG) for weeks.
“There was no connection made, as far as we can see,” said Denis’s brother, Paul.
Reiterating the family’s frustration at how events have turned out, Denis Snr asked: “How come the Gardaí at the time did not join up the dots sooner? Did no Garda in Galway check what people were reported missing around that time? Was no Garda in Limerick aware of a body being found in Galway? I’m not satisfied.”
A recent letter from Gardaí to the family explained that Denis Jnr’s unidentified remains were “taken by boat to the mainland” on April 8, 1996 and brought to UHG for a post mortem examination.
This letter, seen by the Limerick Post, states “the Coroner gave permission for the burial of the remains in a communal grave in Bohermore Cemetery in Galway in 2014.
Separately, a Garda spokeswoman said the burial “was arranged by University Hospital Galway following consultation with the Coroner”.
Galway West Coroner Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin declined to answer some questions but stated that, “there will be an inquest and relevant information will be available then”.
He added that he was awaiting a file from Gardaí.
The Walsh family have asked if Limerick Gardaí were aware at the time that Galway Gardaí had recovered a body and if the Gardaí in Galway were aware that a Limerick man was missing?
Last week the Walsh family asked to see Denis’s missing person file and the file on the investigation into the discovery of his body.
Gardaí told them they would check for the files but added that some files, but perhaps not the file relating to the Galway investigation, had been destroyed in a fire at Salthill Garda Station in recent years.
A signed letter, given to the family by Gardaí acknowledged that they have been left “with lots of justifiable questions on how it took so long to identify Denis”.
The first Garda on the scene at Inis Mór on the day the body was found has passed on his contact details to the Walsh family should they wish to speak with him.
Gardaí have assured the family that Denis’s body was “treated with dignity. The body was blessed, and a doctor attended the scene”.
They said foul play was not suspected and that, “as is the case with all sudden or unexplained deaths, a coroner’s inquest must take place”.
Denis’s family described him as a “sensitive, kind and caring boy who always saw the bright side of life”.
A skilled sportsman, he was called up to the Munster U-19s rugby squad, and had also lined out for Shannon RFC, Na Piarsaigh GAA, and Caherdavin Celtic.
However, sport and college ambitions fell away after he returned “a completely changed person” from a post-Leaving Certificate working holiday in Holland.
It is understood that he suffered a psychotic reaction after experimenting with drugs for the first time.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after suffering another similar episode at a music concert.
“It was like talking to someone else. Before he went away, he had a very calm personality, but when he got very ill it was hard. We were always wondering ‘what was Denis going to do’. We had no control over it,” said Denis’s 82-year-old mother, Mary.
“We were very close, and he would come into the house at night and look for me to have a chat. He would tell me he was struggling. He tried so hard, he really did try hard, but he would end up crying when he was not on his medication. He was looking for help.”
The family did their best to cope and, despite the chaos in Denis’s mind, there were brief periods when calm was restored and traces of the old Denis returned. These moments, usually when he took his medication, were unfortunately short lived.
Denis expressed his feelings in poetry and his poem ‘The Butterfly’ was published in ‘Voices On The Wind’ by the International Society of Poets.
In it, he wrote, “I now have a taste for life…love cured the ill / And us together have the will”.
The family recall a day in 1995 when he had to be pulled back from the sea at Salthill.
More psychiatric hospital admittances followed.
“It was a constant strain,” Denis Snr says, his voice trembling with grief.
The loss has broken their parents, yet despite their trauma, Mike and Paul Walsh remember happier times with their younger brother.
Before Denis went missing, their father had gone to every Limerick hurling match, but afterwards, he stopped.
“I used to go to all the matches, but then I was going into town five nights a week scouting around looking for Denis, and we struggled away,” Denis Snr explained.
Holidays were put on hold in case Denis Jnr “came walking back in the door” while they were away.
“I think most of us in the family have had dreams where he comes back home. Now we know that’s not to be,” said Paul.
Mary, who found solace in her Catholic faith, said they hadn’t been able to put up their Christmas decorations since Denis left “because he used to love doing that and dressing up the tree”.
Remembering that there was “something strange” in her son on the day he went missing, she says he “went out and then he came back in and he just said, ‘Goodbye’.
“He never said it like that before. It was very final”.
“I told him I was making his favourite dinner, bacon and cabbage.
“I haven’t made it since.”