A Monasterevin mum has erected a memorial at a local GAA club in honour of her son, who went missing from his home in Florida 10 years ago.
John Rowan, a married dad of two, disappeared in February 2001. No trace of the former Ballykelly player has ever been found.
The extended Rowan family, including mum Peg, her husband John, and younger siblings Lynda, Gerald, Michael and Fintan, still live in Jacksonville, as do his wife Caroline - his childhood sweetheart - and their two children Alicia, now 18, and Robert, 16. His sister Suzanne is based London.
Mum Peg, who has become a noted campaigner Stateside for justice for missing people and their families, arranged and paid for a granite seat as a permanent memorial. It was unveiled at a family gathering at Ballykelly’s Stephen O’Rourke Memorial Park on Sunday, August 17.
John, who was 34 when he disappeared, had been a member of the team in his younger years. He emigrated to the US after he finished school in St Paul’s, and was followed by his father and then other family members as their land-clearing business grew.
Two of Mr Rowan’s former business partners have refused to assist Jacksonville police in their inquiries into his disappearance, but the case is still open.
The Ballykelly gathering was attended by several members of the Rowan clan, including John’s wife and children, who are home for a summer holiday. The service was presided over by Fr Denis O’Sullivan. John Rowan Sr sang a song called ‘My Son’ in memory of the missing man, and his sister Suzanne and cousin Lesley read poems written by family members. One of the poems, written by his uncle Joe Dowling, is inscribed on the granite seat. Flautist Eugene Nolan and tenor Des Willoughby provided the music.
Ballykelly GAA chairman John Behan recalled the family’s involvement with the club before they moved to the US, and remembered John Jr as “an enthusiastic young man, who trained diligently and gave his all for the team”. Sr Angela, who taught John in St Paul’s, also said a few words. His closest school friends from Monasterevin, Richard Shaw, John Fitzpatrick and Eamon Cullen, were also at the service.
Neighbour and friend Ned Cullen recounted stories of a young John coming over to his farm to work the machinery, which was to be a large part of is future life and career. He also remembered John’s involvement in Rosglas Hurling Club.
The Rowan family released 100 yellow balloons - a symbol used by them in their decade-long search for John - to end the service.
Mrs Rowan thanked Ballykelly for accommodating the memorial, saying they had “picked a beautiful place” for her son to be remembered.
“I felt because we could not have a funeral, I wanted something in Monasterevin for him, to know John is remembered in his home town,” she said, adding that the family wanted the service to be uplifting after ten years of sorrow and grief as they searched for their missing son and brother.
Mrs Rowan paid tribute to John’s wife, formerly Caroline Eustace from St Evin’s Park, who teaches in Florida and lives close to her mother-in-law. “She has been an amazing mother to those two children, acting as a mother and father for all their activities.”
Michael Rowan, John’s younger brother, has said that he would give up everything “just to give my parents and my family what we want, a funeral for their son, my brother, a father, uncle and friend”.
Mrs Rowan, with other members of the Florida-based Justice Coalition, succeeded in getting Governor Jeb Bush to declare March 4 as ‘Missing Adult Day’ in the state. She runs the fund-raising John Rowan Golf Tournament at her son’s favourite golf course, Hidden Hills, every year, an event which is supported by Irish golfer Padraig Harrington. The funds raised go to help crime victims. She also runs support groups for families and vigils for the missing. The group has had some successes in finding runaways through their awareness-raising activities.
Next, Mrs Rowan plans to start a foundation in her son’s name to raise money for scholarships for the children of missing people. Her grand-daughter Alicia will start college this September.
Poignantly, speaking of losing family members in tragedies such as September 11 or the Oslo massacre, Mrs Rowan said: “I wish John was there. You’d know where he was. It’s the not knowing.”
The mother says she regularly remembers other missing children, such as Newbridge girl Deirdre Jacob and missing tot Madeline McCann, in her prayers.