Priest is third person to vanish in woods: Burnt car suggests similarities with disappearance of artist and her son being sought by gardai. Alan Murdoch reports

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A 37-YEAR-OLD Co Galway priest has become the third person to disappear in suspicious circumstances in five days in wooded country on the border of Clare and Galway in the Irish Republic.

Father Joe Walsh's burning car was found early yesterday hanging over the edge of Williamstown pier on the river Shannon, just two miles away from the home of the artist Imelda Riney, 29, and her son Liam, 3, who disappeared in similar circumstances last Friday.

Ms Riney's Ford Fiesta was found last Saturday burnt out in woods near Loughrea, 25 miles from her home near the village of Whitegate. Gardai said yesterday that they wished to interview a young man seen in Ms Riney's car last Friday in connection with all three disappearances. He was named last night by gardai as Brendan O'Donnell, 20.

Irish Air Corps helicopters were yesterday brought in to assist the search. The area includes thousands of acres of forest and bogland with many abandoned cottages and farm buildings.

The missing priest, originally from Tipperary, has been curate in the village of Eyrecourt near Ballinasloe in Galway for three years. He was last seen at about midnight on Tuesday after giving a parishioner a lift home. Church colleagues, who described him as 'absolutely reliable', became worried when he failed to turn up to conduct mass on Wednesday and Thursday.

Bishop John Kirby, in whose Clonfert diocese the priest worked, said yesterday he feared he had been abducted and was 'very concerned for his safety'. He believed the disappearances were connected.

A third car, belonging to a man who left his keys in the vehicle while he went fishing, was stolen three weeks ago from Eyrecourt. The angler's mother saw a man driving it and recognised him as coming from the area. The car was later found crashed, but not burnt, near Whitegate.

Local sources said the mother of the man now being sought comes from Eyrecourt. He reportedly visited relations in east Galway last Sunday and again on Tuesday.

Local people who had gathered outside the church in Whitegate were discouraged from joining the search by gardai, who preferred to rely on foresters with a detailed knowledge of the woodland. The effort is concentrated on land around Eyrecourt and the Copponagh area, near Loughrea in Galway, where Ms Riney's car was found.

The Eyrecourt parish priest, Fr Chris Glynn, said he was sure Fr Walsh did not know Imelda Riney, as he had no contacts with her area.

She had failed to keep an appointment to meet her ex-husband at lunchtime last Friday. Gardai were alerted on Sunday after he found a kettle boiled dry on the stove and her dog running loose near her unlocked cottage.

The gardai are appealing for news of Fr Walsh's car, a royal blue Opel Astra (registration: 92G 2070), after midnight on Tuesday.

(Photograph omitted)