The night they took our mother away

In 1972 Jean McConville, a 37-year-old mother of 10, was abducted from her home in Belfast by the IRA. She was never seen alive again. Three decades later, with the discovery of her probable remains on a beach in Ireland, David McKittrick counts the terrible cost for her family

For decades the IRA refused to admit that it had killed and buried nine people, mostly in the 1970s, or to say where their bodies could be found. In doing so, it created a special category among Troubles killings, inflicting on families a unique form of protracted pain and unremitting grief.

To most, the 1970s are now history, yet for such families those events remain vivid. Although it was in 1972 that an IRA squad burst into a Falls Road flat and bundled his mother away, Archie McConville can still give a detailed description of what she wore that night. Archie, a burly tattooed west Belfast man, now in his late forties, was able to describe to police her shoes, her sleeveless jumper and the fact that she had a large blue safety pin attached to its right-hand side.

The events of December 1972 are burned in his memory. "I'll never forget it," he says. "There were about 18 of them, four of them women. My mother was in hysterics - you should have seen the state of her when she left, the condition she was in."

Most of the McConville family, three sisters and six sons, have examined the clothing found with skeletal remains on an Irish beach last month and believe that their mother's body has finally been found. The discovery was made by a walker, after earlier police searches had proved fruitless. Confirmation will take some weeks while DNA testing is carried out, but the family believe that Jean McConville can soon be given a decent burial after all the years in an unmarked grave.

A slight woman less than five feet tall, Jean knew little ease in her 37 years of life. Born a Protestant, she married a Catholic man and converted to his religion. But they were intimidated out of a Protestant district and moved to Divis Flats, one of Belfast's most violent areas. The couple had 14 children, four of whom died young. A fifth was brain-damaged and died later. Then her husband died of cancer, leaving Jean deeply depressed. She attempted suicide three times before the IRA killed her.

That was the biggest trauma suffered by her sons and daughters, but it was not the last. A terrible litany of adversities followed as they tried to cope with the loss of their mother and the break-up of the family. At least one, Helen, attempted suicide after suffering serious bouts of depression and violent mood swings.

Others in the family struggle heroically to keep going. Of the impact of the murder, Archie says: "It was a close family, then we were left without a mother and without a father. It would have been a good family, but it was a family split and ruined." His brother Michael concurs. "It's really ruined the family. It has ruined brothers and sisters - some of them just can't cope at all with the trauma. It was ripping the stomachs out of all of us, it was ripping us apart."

The IRA put it about that Jean McConville was a British Army informer, but the family does not accept that. They trace her abduction back to an incident in which she helped an injured soldier. Recalling this, Michael says: "Divis Flats was just like a big concrete jungle. That night a gun battle was going on for a long time. You could hear the bullets bouncing off the concrete. I heard somebody crying - it must have been going on for half an hour. I remember my mother saying she was going to help, and we were pleading with her not to. But she says, 'No, there's somebody injured out there,' and she went out. The next day there was writing on the wall - 'BRIT LOVERS GET OUT'."

Archie says that when the IRA gang was taking his mother away, he tried to follow. One of them put a gun to his head and ordered him back. "Everybody was hysterical, all crying. We got the younger ones settled and got them to bed. Some of them were just so frightened they wet the bed. They said she'd be back in a couple of hours. A couple of hours turned out to be 31 years."

A few days after the abduction, a young man appeared at the door and handed over Jean's purse, which contained her rings. "Once they brought the purse and the rings back, I knew then, although I was only a child, that they had killed my mother," Michael says.

The IRA had taken Jean McConville away and shot her with a single bullet in the head. The organisation apparently baulked at openly killing a widowed mother of 10 and so buried her on a beach, denying all knowledge of her fate. It went further, with republicans circulating cover stories and rumours. She was an informer; she had run off with a soldier; she had run off with a loyalist. The IRA first took her life and then took her reputation.

At this point, the nine McConville children who lived in the flat slipped through whatever welfare net existed in the Falls area in those violent times. For weeks they were left without adults - desperate, fearful, hungry. Michael recalls: "There wasn't much food. My brother and I were caught stealing and that was how the welfare got involved. I think we were got in Woolworths, lifting a packet of chocolate biscuits."

Family members claim the authorities assured them they would be kept together, but then proceeded to split them up. Archie was put in a home on his own. "I let on that I was getting ready for bed and jumped out the window. I just stayed on the streets, and then a good friend let me stay in his flat till I got sorted out. I never ever went back. I had to learn to fend for myself the hard way - I had to grow up and learn quick."

The brothers and sisters were placed in several homes. Michael says: "The physical abuse the Christian Brothers gave you was unbelievable, they just belted out with anything they had in their hands." Another brother, Thomas, has similar memories: "If you didn't do things right you got beatings - and it wasn't wee slaps, it was golf clubs, bats, hurley sticks, everything; even their fists with a bunch of keys in them."

Kept in a variety of homes, many of the children became habitual runaways. Thomas remembers, with a tinge of pride, how he and Michael would abscond. "The home was 16 miles away, but every time we managed to run away and get back to Belfast. I was eight and Mickey was 11. They'd take our shoes off us, but we would still run away - we took somebody else's shoes." Why run? "Because it got to you. Why are we here? We shouldn't have been there in the first place. We were missing the rest of the family - you felt you should be with them," Thomas says.

Archie remembers: "It just was sheer hell without your brothers and sisters. You were growing up not knowing them. We had been close, but then we never had time to be together as a family. Brothers would go and take their sisters away from homes. We always made a break for it, we tried to keep them. The longest we got was a week together, in our grandmother's one-bedroom bungalow." Thomas adds: "It was always my granny's we went to; that's where the police and welfare went to get us."

As their grandmother lived in a republican part of west Belfast, the police arrived for the McConvilles with a conspicuous and noisy army escort. Archie says with a smile: "It took maybe two Army jeeps, two police jeeps. You always heard them before you saw them - and then we were away again, out the back."

Separation meant that they inevitably drifted apart. Michael saw the youngest two no more than five times in 10 years. He says: "I had no hope left. The only comfort would have been my brothers and sisters, and to me the welfare was to blame for wrecking our family."

He vividly remembers a member of staff letting him out of a home and telling him he would be in and out of jail all his life. "And I said, 'I'll never be in jail in my life.' And I never was. I could quite easily have wound up being a thug, because that's what you learnt in the homes. The IRA had ruined my life as a child, but I promised myself it wouldn't ruin my life as an adult."

Today, he has a 20-year marriage and three children, and he owns his own house, although it has not been easy. "At the start of my married life I went through hell. I just couldn't cope at all. A year and a half later my son was born, and I couldn't cope with that either. I was starting to panic, going through panic states." Some of the McConvilles were less successful. Two are currently behind bars for non-political offences, and others have had great difficulty with relationships. Thomas, for example, has fathered seven children by four women.

Over the years, attempts to find out what happened to their mother were brushed off by the IRA, sometimes with a hint of menace. When Michael asked a senior republican for information, he was told: "You might be safer not knowing." Archie says: "You were afraid to say anything in case something happened to you or your family. You had to be quiet."

Only after sustained local and international pressure did the IRA finally admit, in 1999, that it had killed Jean McConville and eight other people, known collectively as "the disappeared". Jean was buried, the organisation said, at Templetown beach in Co Louth in the Irish Republic. The family gathered at the site as Irish police carried out a large-scale dig, but after 50 days it was called off. A further search was also fruitless. This was a harrowing experience for the family; instead of the beginning of closure, it turned into further cruelty. According to Archie: "The searches were nerve-racking. When they were called off it just wrecked you. I was gutted, really gutted. It was heartbreaking."

Michael, too, was "unbelievably gutted". He recalls: "I was always hopeful that the next digger-load would have my mother's remains. When they told us the second time that they were going to stop, my heart just hit my feet. I couldn't even think straight for weeks after it."

Some of the family "really just went off the rails" after the unsuccessful digs, but they had an unexpected effect on Michael. "I was lying in bed one night, couldn't get to sleep, and something just came over me about forgiving these people. For 25 years it was tearing me apart. It was ruining my life, hating them. Then I forgave them and that has changed me. I think I'm a far stronger person now, a better person for it."

Archie had similar though more ambivalent feelings. "I have to get on with my life now and forgive them, which is very hard. When I say I forgive them, there's times I don't. I think over the last couple of years the family is coming more to each other, they're getting closer now. They were scared to discuss it, but now we can sit down and have a talk about it."

Many of the McConvilles have had large families. Jean would now have 30 grandchildren. "She would have loved seeing them," Thomas says. "She loved children, that's why she had so many of her own."

The bullet that killed Jean McConville inflicted a lifetime of pain on her children. The family's experience illustrates the tragic truth conveyed by another bereaved person, who once said: "The bullet just travels on for years through time."

The Disappeared

In 1999 the IRA admitted to killing Jean McConville and eight others, giving locations where most of the bodies could be found.

Recovered

The body of Eamon Molloy, who disappeared in 1975, was left in a border graveyard in 1999. He was said by the IRA to have been one of its members who was shot after being "court-martialled" as an informer.

The bodies of Brian McKinney and John McClory, missing since 1978, were found in a remote Co Monaghan bog in 1999. They were said to have used IRA guns to carry out a robbery.

Still Missing

An unsuccessful search was recently carried out for Columba McVeigh, who went missing in Co Tyrone in 1975, aged 17. One theory is that he was pressurised by the security forces to gather information on the IRA.

Brendan Megraw was abducted from his west Belfast home in 1978. His wife said he was not involved with any group. The IRA said he had been buried in a bog in Co Meath. A search was unsuccessful.

Captain Robert Nairac, a Grenadier Guards officer, was abducted by republicans close to the border in 1977. His body has never been found.

Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee went missing in 1972. Reports suggest the IRA thought they were informers. The IRA said they were buried in Co Meath but they have not been found.

Danny McIlhone from west Belfast disappeared in 1981, apparently accused by the IRA of stealing weapons. His body was said to be buried in Co Wicklow.

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