Mother and son found dead in wood: Search for missing priest, artist and three-year-old son ends in triple murder inquiry. Alan Murdoch reports

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A MASSIVE search in the Irish Republic for three missing people - a Roman Catholic priest and an artist and her young son - ended yesterday when the mother and child were found in a shallow woodland grave near where the body of the priest had earlier been found with a gunshot wound to the head.

The bodies of Imelda Riney, 29, and her three-year-old son, Liam, who had been missing for more than a week, were found together near the village of Whitegate, Co Clare, where they lived. The hooded body of Father Joseph Walsh, 37, a curate from Eyrecourt, Co Galway, had been found near by on Saturday.

The murders of a mother, her child and a respected priest have left one of the most peaceful parts of Ireland in a state of shock: the normally quiet waterway communities of the river Shannon that for years have provided an idyllic refuge for artists, writers and Irish and overseas tourists.

A local man, 20-year-old Brendan O'Donnell, arrested near the scene on Saturday after the abduction of a teenage girl, was last night still being questioned by police at Loughrea, Co Galway.

Detectives had hoped he would help them track down Fr Walsh and Ms Riney and Liam, but Mr O'Donnell - known as 'the Fox' - was thought to have refused to say anything about the trio's disappearance.

The grim discovery of the bodies of mother and son yesterday came as no surprise to the residents of Whitegate, but that did nothing to lessen the trauma. Foresters and farmers helping gardai search for the missing pair wept openly.

The child was found buried beneath his barefoot and partially clothed mother in a shallow grave in Cregg Wood two miles from the village. Fr Walsh's body had been left in a forest drain near by in the same wood.

Ms Riney's estranged husband, Val Ballance, 38, was later taken to the scene to identify his wife and child.

Born in Dublin, Ms Riney had worked for five years in Manchester, where Mr Ballance still lives. She specialised in mosaic and glass work and taught in summer schools. Friends described her as friendly, enthusiastic and devoted to her two children.

Her body was found at the end of one of the biggest searches ever mounted in the Irish Republic involving the gardai, soldiers, local residents and Irish Air Corps helicopters with heat-seeking equipment.

Gardai divers had also trawled the waters of Lough Derg where the priest's burning car was found hanging over the edge of Williamstown Pier on Friday.

A post-mortem examination on the priest was carried out yesterday. Initial reports said he had died from a single shot to the back of the head from a low calibre rifle. The cause of the other two deaths has yet to be confirmed pending post-mortem examinations by the assistant state pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster.

Ms Riney had disappeared from the cottage where she lived with Liam and her eldest son, Oisin, six, on Friday 29 April.

She failed to keep an appointment to meet her former husband, a computer analyst, at a nearby community project where he was doing voluntary work.

At first he thought she had gone to call on two of her six sisters who live in Co Clare. Mr Ballance was on good terms with his former wife and would visit the cottage once a month.

A witness saw her driving her Ford Fiesta with a man in the back northwards into an area where she had no known contacts. Her unlocked cottage showed signs of a sudden departure with a kettle boiled dry on the cooker.

In the days after she vanished neighbours distributed photocopied posters appealing for information on her whereabouts. Local residents have also claimed gardai were unnecessarily slow in mounting a full-scale search.

Her car was discovered 25 miles away in woods near Loughrea, Co Galway. Though first spotted the day after her disappearance, it was burned out and its number plates had been removed. It was not positively identified until last Wednesday.

Fr Walsh is believed never to have met Ms Riney. He disappeared 20 miles away after dropping a parishioner off home in his car late last Tuesday night, failing to turn up for mass on Wednesday. In his house there was no sign of a bag of duck eggs he was given the previous night by a friend, indicating he may never have reached his home.

In Whitegate and the priest's parish of Eyrecourt, residents were stunned by the senselessness of the murders. Special masses were offered in local churches for the quiet, hard-working curate.

His Bishop, Dr John Kirby, said he was heartbroken at the killing. He described Fr Walsh as 'a sincere, caring person' whose loss was 'a shattering blow to the diocese'. The curate's sister and one his two brothers also lived in Eyrecourt.

Mr O'Donnell is being questioned over the abduction at gunpoint early on Saturday of an 18-year-old student, Fiona Sampson. She was forced to drive to a mountainous area near Woodford, in Co Galway.

The man who abducted her dragged her for three miles through forest, with gardai and the girl's father in pursuit. She was freed, still in her nightclothes and her bare feet cut and bleeding, when the man tried to hijack a second car from a local farmer, Eddie Cleary, at gunpoint. He grabbed the weapon while gardai made their arrest.

The man is being held under the Offences Against the State Act on firearms offences.

(Photographs and map omitted)