On a dark shore, police comb the sands where a mother's bones are said to lie mother's bones are said to lie On a bleak shore, police dig for the bones of a mother `taken' by the IRA a family waits for their mother's bones to be found

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The Independent Online
TEMPLETOWN BEACH, where the IRA says Jean McConville lies buried, is not really much of a beach. It is rocky and pebbly and both sand and sea are dark and uninviting. Even when bathed in evening sunlight it's not particularly attractive or appealing.

There are a couple of mobile homes dug into little hills near by, but they seem to be local residences rather than holiday quarters. There are prettier spots not far away but Templetown beach itself has little obvious to merit a journey.

It's thus slightly surprising that the authorities thought it worthwhile building a car park on the site, between the beach and the sand-dunes. According to the IRA they built it exactly over the spot where Jean McConville was deposited in an unmarked sandy grave 27 years ago.

The beach must have been cold and bleak in 1972, for it was in the month of December that she was taken away from her family and "executed" and buried. Now the place has a foreboding aspect, though it's difficult to know whether that comes purely from the unprepossessing scenery or from the present search for the body.

By evening most of the Gardai and the media and other onlookers had gone, only a dozen or so people remaining in the sunset. The spot is only 40 miles or so from Belfast, and perhaps a dozen from the town of Newry and the south Armagh border, but it feels a long way from Northern Ireland. It feels completely remote from the Troubles and indeed from the rest of the world.

When the IRA killed Jean McConville it made orphans of her 10 children, for her husband had died a year earlier. As she lay beneath the sands of Templetown beach her 10 children spent Christmas of 1972 together, but eventually they were taken into care. The family was broken up and placed in various homes. One of the 10 has since died, while others have led disturbed lives.

The beach where the IRA says Jean McConville has spent the last 27 years lies at the tip of the Cooley peninsula, which is tucked away just south of the County Down shoreline. Getting there provides some reminders of other violence, for the road passes the scene of the 1979 IRA attack in which 18 soldiers were killed near Warrenpoint.

But all traces of that have gone and at Narrow Water, where it happened, all is picturesque and tranquil. The little village of Carlingford, farther along the road, is pretty, and popular with watersport enthusiasts and boasts a couple of highly photogenic ruined castles.

The nearby port of Greenore also has a little bit of history, a plaque proclaiming that it was opened by Earl Spencer, lord lieutenant of Ireland, in 1873. A golf course, and then the peninsula peters out, meandering down a lane towards Templetown beach.

It is a pleasant drive on a late spring evening, but always the thought recurs: was this the route they brought Jean McConville? Did the IRA bring her, dead already, trussed up in a carpet or whatever, in the boot of a car or the back of a van?

A solitary young policeman stood sentinel in the pot-holed lane to the beach, just past a house where a man studiously tended his garden hedge, not lifting his eyes to see who was walking past. The lane led down to the beach and its car park.

One of Mrs McConville's daughters came walking through the car park, eyes fixed on the ground, eyes rimmed with sleeplessness and anguish, her whole bearing radiating pain and distress. She walked to a car where other family members sat, staring out over the Irish Sea.

They were particularly upset because there had been a false alarm earlier when the searchers had happened upon the bones of a dog. Digging had finished for the day and it seemed to make little sense to linger; but the family sat on, maintaining their ceaseless vigil for reasons deeper than logic. Blue plastic sheeting had been put in place over the far end of the car park, and was flapping in the breeze from the Irish Sea. It was reminiscent of screens drawn around a hospital bed.

On the other side of the screen stood four policemen, fluorescent yellow jackets over their blue Garda uniforms, talking quietly as they gazed at the pit. The pit was large and L-shaped, and looked as though it had been dug out in readiness for the construction of a swimming pool. It was six feet deep.

A little way away from it stood mounds of earth and other material, arranged in a neat row. First there was the broken Tarmac which had been removed from the surface, then heaps of builders' rubble, then sand and then soil and sub-soil.

The officers who had been digging had gone for the day, having worked from the early morning into the evening. The strain of digging in a pit for a corpse must have been heavy for them. The fact that family members were looking on, watching literally over their shoulders for the first sight of their mother's remains, must have been heavier still.

In a sheltered corner of the sealed-off area the diggers had left their tea things: a little stove, a yellow Kosangas canister, a kettle, a carton of milk. They would be returning in the morning to continue a task which will probably haunt them for years.

The tools of their trade were stacked in another corner: a pneumatic drill, pickaxes, wheelbarrows, hoes, rakes, shovels. Two bunches of flowers had been tied to the fence beside them. But always the eye was drawn back to that brown pit, puddles of muddy water lying at the bottom, policemen staring into it and wondering where the excavation should go next and how long it might take. It cannot have been too hard to do the deed in the first place: a 37-year-old widowed mother of 10, terrified and outnumbered on a winter's night, cannot have been much of a challenge for an IRA active- service unit. But finding the body is proving to be a hard and harrowing task, an extended nightmare for all concerned.

Meanwhile, all family members can do is sit huddled in their car, listening to the ceaseless sound of the waves, dwelling on all the stolen and shattered lives. As the sun went down they sat on, waiting for the moment when a grim-faced policeman approaches them to say that the discovery has been made, and that the sands of Templetown beach have given up the woman who has been buried there for 27 lonely years.