It began to dawn that it will be days, and perhaps even weeks, before all those denied decent burials can be located in their unmarked graves. Gardai are digging at five separate sites around the eastern seaboard of the Irish Republic.
A lot of resources are being devoted to the searches, for everyone wants this painful business over with as quickly as possible. The searchers are working as quickly as they can, while pathologists and other experts stand by to confirm identities and pave the way for proper funerals.
But this grim human archaeology is difficult and cannot be rushed too much. The searchers are relying on information passed on to the new Commission for the Location of Victims, which was set up only last week and instantly pressed into service.
The commission has been given information by two Redemptorist priests who had in turn been in touch with republicans. In recent months the IRA people who did the burying must have been taken back to the scene of the crimes to point out, either to the priests or to other IRA members, exactly where the graves were dug.
They must have been driven, at a quiet time of the day or evening, back to where it happened. Probably they were reluctant to travel back to a scene they had hoped to forget. Perhaps, all those years ago, they had been given a dead body to transport; perhaps they carried out the killing at the spot, shooting the victim and then tipping the body into the ground.
The logistical problem now is that all the killings took place so many years ago: the most recent was in 1981, while threewere 27 years ago. The actual "executions" and burials probably took place in darkness in circumstances of great tension: it is asking a lot, more than a quarter of a century on, to be able to pinpoint the precise spot.
Memories play tricks or fade, especially when a gunman wants to forget; places change; sand dunes shift in storms. Thus it is that the digging may be a protracted affair.
In the meantime people who live or work near to what are now being revealed as unconsecrated graves will be feeling slightly sick at the thought of what lay beneath the ground for so long.
The families watch as the mechanical diggers and the policemen in boilersuits and wellington boots go about their grisly work. For many the pain must be even keener than it has been over the decades, as they now await the opportunity of having a last poignant reunion with their loved ones.
The bodies of nine people abducted and murdered by the IRA are being recovered in the Irish Republic. They are: KEVIN McKEE - The Andersonstown teenager was accused of being an informer when he vanished in 1972 with Seamus Wright. Republicans say British military intelligence recruited Mr McKee and Mr Wright to infiltrate the IRA. The IRA claims both were in a shadowy intelligence unit called the Military Reaction Force. Security sources say they were young delinquents who became embroiled in the dirty war. SEAMUS WRIGHT - The IRA says Mr Wright was "court-martialled" in 1972 and found guilty of being a British agent in the Military Reaction Force which republicans say also worked with loyalist terrorists. The MRF was accused of being involved in several politically motivated killings in the early Troubles. Both men are said to have been taken across the border to Dundalk for interrogation and assassination. JEAN McCONVILLE - The 37-year-old mother of 10 was kidnapped from her home in Divis Flats in West Belfast in 1972. She was a Protestant left to raise the family after her Catholic husband died 10 months before. The IRA murdered her for comforting a dying soldier shot outside her home. Her eldest daughter, Helen, spearheaded the campaign with husband Seamus for the return of the vanished bodies. EAMON MOLLOY - Married and in his 20s, he was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1975 from north Belfast. Republicans said he was an informer. His remains were returned on Friday inFaughart Cemetery in Dundalk, Co Louth. COLUMBA McVEIGH - The teenager from Donaghmore, Co Tyrone disappeared in 1975. The IRA said he was executed after he confessed the Army told him to infiltrate the organisation, and he passed information to intelligence officer Captain Robert Nairac, who disappeared in 1977 in South Armagh. BRENDAN MEGRAW - An IRA gang drugged his girlfriend and took him from his flat in Belfast in 1978. The 22-year-old was killed after he was accused of being a British spy. JOHN McCLORY - The 18-year-old disappeared with a friend, Brian McKinney, 22, in 1978 on their way to work. The IRA claims they were informers, but police suspect they had fallen foul of the organisation for stealing one of its guns. BRIAN McKINNEY - There were reports the friends were victims of a botched IRA "punishment shooting" and buried south of the border. Their families learnt of IRA involvement in 1994 in the Irish News. DANNY McILHONE - He vanished in West Belfast. Believed to have been killed in Dublin in 1981 after being accused of stealing IRA weapons. Authorities were surprised to see him on the IRA's list because he had not been reported missing to RUC.Reuse content