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One man and his dog: The strange disappearance of Paddy Moriarty

Just over two months ago a pensioner, originally from the Republic, went missing from a tiny Australian outback town where feuds and hostility seem to abound. Simon Caterson investigates

It is not unusual for someone to go missing in a large city on any given day of the week. It certainly doesn't go unnoticed when a colourful local identity - popular with some neighbours and detested by others - simply vanishes from an isolated Australian outback town with less than a dozen permanent residents.

The sudden disappearance at dusk on December 16 of Paddy Moriarty, a 70-year-old pensioner originally from Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, has attracted international attention, not least due to the strange goings-on in Larrimah that preceded it. More than two months on and the police appear far from solving the case, while declining to rule out foul play.

Situated in the midst of a harsh landscape where the flies are incessant and the temperature frequently rises above 40°C, Larrimah is a town whose population has halved over the past decade. By all accounts, the tiny community is riven by an apparently intractable feud involving two factions.

Located 80km from the nearest police station and more than 400km from the closest city, Darwin, the tropical capital of the Northern Territory, Larrimah straddles the Stuart Highway, a mostly straight road that stretches nearly 3,000km through central Australia, bisecting the continent from north to south. At the point where it passes through Larrimah, there can be an interval of half an hour or more between vehicles.

According to Kylie Stevenson, a journalist and writer from Darwin who got to know Moriarty and the other locals in the year before he disappeared, this is a place of rural eccentricity where people dress human-sized termite mounds in T-shirts. Yet this type of behaviour can obscure dark currents of hostility.

Ms Stevenson, one of the few outsiders to spend any length of time in Larrimah, said that the Paddy Moriarty she remembers "stood out as he was always friendly and up for a chat at the bar". According to Richard Simpson, one of Paddy's drinking buddies interviewed by Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Anna Henderson, Paddy's daily ration was approximately 10 cans of mid-strength lager taken every afternoon at The Pink Panther, the only pub in Larrimah.

Mr Simpson believes that although Paddy left the pub wearing "a slight wobbly boot", he would have no trouble finding his way home on the day he disappeared.

"Paddy told me his life in Ireland was one of freezing cold and poverty", recalls Stevenson. "He said he came to Australia on the Fairstar as a young man to work on cattle stations across northern Australia". She doesn't know if Paddy had ever gone back to Ireland, and did not detect an accent.

In Notes from a Dying Town, the award-winning non-fiction account of her stay in Larrimah during late 2016, Stevenson writes: "Everybody seems friendly, but a lot of things about this town put me on edge: signs of imminent death and decay are all around. This place and its people are falling apart". Elsewhere, she observes that the remaining residents are "people who mostly hate each other".

Alleged instances of unneighbourly behaviour in Larrimah include kidnapping two pet peacocks and feeding them to a crocodile - also a pet - and leaving a dead kangaroo to rot under someone's house.

Not all bizarre incidents involving animals are the result of human intervention, but may just be a fact of life in a landscape teeming with wildlife and full of dangers. One Larrimah resident told Stevenson of waking up one morning to discover a death adder - an extremely poisonous snake - crawling across his chest.

The specific allegation involving the dead kangaroo was made against Moriarty by Fran Hodgetts, the owner of Fran's Devonshire Tea House. It is one of the very few businesses left in Larrimah, which in its heyday during the Second World War had a population in the thousands and was the largest army staging camp in Australia.

Fran, whom Stevenson discovered is referred to by her enemies among the townsfolk as 'The Bush Pig', had been involved in a long-running dispute with Paddy over her homemade "assorted pies", one variety of which is made with buffalo meat. According to Fran, Paddy had tried to sabotage her business by spreading false rumours about the edibleness of the pies and warning tourists not to go near her establishment.

When asked by Henderson if she knew anything about Paddy's disappearance, Fran responded: "I don't know where he is and I am not sad he is gone. But I hope they find him because I've had so much trouble with him."

Less forthcoming, reportedly, is Fran's lodger, a gardener known as Owen, who looms as a somewhat enigmatic figure in all this. Of Owen, Fran has been quoted as saying: "He don't like people, he don't like media."

According to the ABC, Owen, whom Fran says she provided with a place to stay in exchange for work on her garden, was described by her in terms that might apply to any one of the countless number of itinerant workers roaming the outback: "He's just a loner, he's a bushie."

Unwelcome as Paddy was at Fran's tea house, he embraced the company of his mates at The Pink Panther, a pub which competes with Fran's place for the infrequent passing trade. Just near the shack-like pub is an associated business trading as Critterz Wildlife Park, home to three adult crocodiles, one of which is named Sneaky Sam, and a wide variety of birds and animals including parrots, emus and wallabies. Kylie Stevenson estimates that in Larrimah "domesticated animals outnumber humans by about 50 to one".

Especially baffling for investigators working to solve the mystery of Paddy's disappearance is the Mary Celeste-like absence of clues. After his friends at the pub raised the alarm, Paddy's home was found eerily undisturbed, with everything in its usual place and no sign of anything untoward.

A man of tidy habits who was a stickler for routine, Paddy apparently left behind his wallet and, significant in that part of the world, his signature bush hat. He had even, it seems, crossed off that day's date on his calendar, suggesting that he was ready to retire for the evening. The quad-bike Paddy used to drive around town was parked under the car shelter alongside his pick-up truck. His bank and social security accounts have not been accessed.

Despite extensive searching, no trace of Paddy has been seen. Paddy's dog Kellie, a constant companion who rode around with her owner on the quad-bike, has vanished with him. With no physical evidence to work with and no known witnesses, the case remains open. According to the guarded statements issued by detectives at the Northern Territory major crimes unit, there are no suspects, though there are several persons of interest.

The mystery surrounding Paddy Moriarty - who left Ireland as a teenager in the 1960s - sounds like an ideal subject for a true crime podcast along the lines of S-Town and West Cork. Indeed, Kylie Stevenson confirms that she is collaborating with co-writer Caroline Graham and the respected Irish-Australian producer Siobhan McHugh on such a project.

Stevenson believes the uncertain fate of Paddy will make for a compelling podcast, for the same reason the story has attracted widespread attention in the media: "I think people find the Australian outback fascinating, and when a person goes missing from a town of less than a dozen people who don't always get along, who wouldn't be fascinated?"

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