Antrim woman Claire McGrath tells of nightmare hunt after flying home from Mexico to search for missing dad Kevin
'I've been told I'm putting myself in danger, but he's my father and I'll do all that I can to find him'
The daughter of a Co Antrim man who went missing in the Republic over a month ago is refusing to give up hope of finding him alive.
Six days after arriving back home from central America to search for her missing father, Claire McGrath told this newspaper she had vowed to put her life in Mexico on hold until her dad is discovered.
Kevin McGrath (63), who moved to Rahoon, Galway, from his home town of Lisburn 35 years ago, was last seen in Galway's Eyre Square in early October.
Claire, who is originally from Lisburn, said she had been going through an emotional nightmare since his disappearance.
"Since I knew he was missing I've basically been working as a private investigator," the 39-year-old explained yesterday.
Her search initially took her to Galway, where she tracked down his former landlord, who revealed Kevin had suffered a fall and what could have been a serious head injury just before he went missing.
"Walking around Galway was so difficult," she said.
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"Everywhere I went, I saw my dad staring back at me. But that was from posters. I visited his home, tracked down his landlord and found out that he'd suffered a fall just before he'd left his accommodation.
"He had gone to a hospital, but he checked himself out of the accident and emergency department before being properly seen.
"His landlord told me I'd better prepare for the worst. Other people have said the same - that his body could well be found floating in a river or lying in a ditch - but I'm refusing to believe that.
You hold on to the belief he's wandering around somewhere, not knowing where he is or who he is. Claire McGrath
"I've walked through homeless shelters, searched in derelict buildings.
"I've been told I'm putting myself in danger by doing it, but he's my father and I'm going to do everything I can to try to find him.
"If he's not around Galway, the only other connection he has is with Lisburn, but if he started to head north he could still be anywhere between the two cities.
"It's difficult to comprehend how someone you love can just disappear the way he has.
"I'm booked to go back to Mexico on December 5, but if my dad hasn't been found by then there's no way I'm leaving."
For the past eight years Claire has been working as a self-employed teacher in Valle de Bravo, helping children to grow their own food.
"I had just moved in to a new house in Mexico with my partner and our three cats. We should be celebrating that, but when I knew my father was missing I had to come back to Ireland," she said.
"It's difficult to keep going at times. You get exhausted, you worry, you fret. You often feel you're fighting a lonely battle. But your mind is constantly thinking: 'What if he went there? What if he did this?'.
"I know I won't rest properly until he's found. I've been home for six days now, but it feels like a lifetime."
Originally a tool maker, Kevin moved to Galway 35 years ago and is a very familiar face around the city, having worked in various pubs.
"I spoke to him on September 11 for his birthday and again on October 2 for over two hours. We catch up once a month and usually speak for around that amount of time," said Claire.
"I explained I would be moving house to another part of Mexico in October and might take longer than usual to call. In fact, I tried to call him earlier, on October 30, but all I could get was a message telling me the person could not be reached.
"I found this strange as his phone is always on, but the next morning I got the same message. I emailed his ex-partner Marie and then called his local library as he would read two or three books a month. They were able to tell me they last saw him on October 1, but that he had not returned books due on October 30, which was completely out of character for him.
"Marie got back to me to say he had left three bags of belongings in Kennedys Bar on Eyre Square in Galway and asked them to mind them as he would be back for them, but he hadn't come back. That's when I alerted the gardai.
"After speaking to staff at Kennedy's, they believed my father had last called in around October 27.
"The search then focused around finding him on CCTV around this date, but they haven't able to see my father on it.
"Once I found out he had not collected his weekly disability allowance since October 10, I knew it was highly unlikely he had been in Kennedy's around October 27, but the search still focused on obtaining these CCTV images from around that date and that was the date released to the Press."
Once the news broke that Kevin was missing, dozens of reported sightings started to come in over social media.
"I followed them all up myself," said Claire. "Rather than phone police immediately, people comment under posts on social media. It has been extremely overwhelming to contact each person individually, take details and ask them to contact the relevant police service.
"I'm also passing all this information on to the police in case the person doesn't actually do it themselves.
"I can't emphasise enough how important it is to report any sightings to the police immediately and not on social media or to the family of missing people.
"I was co-ordinating as much as I could from my home in Mexico, but I made the decision to fly home last week and went straight to Galway.
"A cousin who lives there had already covered the city in missing posters and everyone in Galway was aware of the situation."
She also learned from her father's landlord that he had left the accommodation on October 11.
"His landlord believed he may have headed towards Lisburn as he knew he has a brother here," Claire said.
"He told me my father had been in a very vulnerable state.
"Dad had given no indication to me that he was having to look for somewhere else to live. He never would have wanted to worry me.
"I checked all the homeless hostels and walked through homeless camps searching for him.
"I was contacted by Galway Dog Search And Rescue, a voluntary organisation who have been absolutely wonderful and have carried out numerous searches.
"Another voluntary organisation, the Oranmore Maree Coastal Search Unit, have since carried out searches and have also assigned me a family liaison officer. I cannot thank these two groups enough."
So far, though, every potential lead uncovered has ended in devastating disappointment.
"That's what it's like," said Claire, who is currently staying in Lisburn with her mother.
"You get a message and it's so easy to get excited, but so far those raised hopes have been quickly dashed and you're back to square one again. It drains you mentally and physically.
"A woman contacted Lisburn PSNI about seeing a man (matching) my father's description in Leenane in Connemara last week.
"Leenane is a special place to my father. We walked along Killary Fjord with him last time my partner and I were in Ireland and it is somewhere my father and Marie, his-ex partner, would have visited frequently.
"Marie and I drove out to Leenane from Galway and, just as we were arriving, we got a call from gardai to say they had identified that man as another man from Northern Ireland who looked very like my father.
"On Monday night I got a call from a lady who had picked up a man walking in the rain in Kildare who also looked extremely like my father.
"Some of the things this man mentioned to her were uncannily true to my father's life too.
"The gardai were extremely fast to act and in just a few hours were able to confirm that this man was another missing man from Northern Ireland who has now been picked up and given the necessary assistance.
"There is not yet an official search for my father in Galway as they are still focused on finding CCTV of his last known location to know what he was wearing.
"I have been contacted by a number of people who know my father and did indeed see him during the first few weeks of October but did not report it.
"Reports said he had been seen on October 27 - something we later learned not to be true.
"My father had brain surgery a few years ago and I have learned he had suffered a number of falls recently.
"He kept it all from me so as not to worry me, but I am now desperately concerned."
Anyone with information can contact Galway garda station on 091-538000, the Garda confidential line on 1800 666 111 or the PSNI via 101.