28 years on, family hopes to lay mother to rest

Woman was dragged from home, killed in Belfast in terror war

May 30, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEMPLETOWN BEACH, Ireland -- The mystery has lasted 28 years and 200 yards.

It began in 1972 at the height of Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles, when a widowed mother of 10 who aided a wounded British soldier was abducted from a Belfast tenement, never to be seen again.

It continued for eight weeks spread over the past year on a spit of land overlooking the Irish Sea, as diggers and police turned over 200 yards of beach where the Irish Republican Army said the woman's remains lie.

And still, there is no answer to the question emblazoned on a nearby poster that whips in spring wind: "Where Is Jean McConville?"

"The McConville family won't rest until we find our mother's remains," says Jean McConville's oldest son, Robert.

The deaths of Jean McConville and others, known collectively as "The Disappeared," a term coined for those who vanished under Latin American dictatorships, provide perhaps the most wrenching chapter left from Northern Ireland's 30-year terror war.

Most of the 3,600 people killed in this deeply religious land divided by faith, history and national identity have final burial places known to their relatives.

But for a handful of families of "The Disappeared" -- those the IRA abducted and killed, many for allegedly collaborating with British authorities in the 1970s and 1980s -- the wait to retrieve the remains of their loved ones continues.

Last year, after the British and Irish governments granted limited immunity, the IRA identified sites where nine bodies were buried.

There was hope of a quick resolution when the remains of one person were left in a coffin at a graveyard in County Louth last May.

But for weeks in the late spring and early summer, the digging dragged on, with mounting public frustration and anger directed at the IRA. Only the remains of two other people were discovered, buried in County Monaghan.

The remains of six of the missing for whom burial sites have been investigated, including Jean McConville, have not been discovered, and chances are increasingly remote that they will be found.

Despite additional information from the IRA, renewed searches mounted at five Irish sites this spring proved unsuccessful. Next month, the search for the sixth victim is due to begin in France.

"It started as an exercise to physically lay the dead to rest," says Eamon Mulligan, joint secretary of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains. "It is an exercise in getting some families some closure on all of this."

But the McConvilles may never be able to lay their grief aside.

To sit around a dining room table and speak with three of her sons, Robert, 45, Michael, 39, and James, 34, is to meet survivors of a horrific time.

"We've been hardened by it all," James McConville says.

Jean McConville, a dark-haired 37-year-old, and her brood of children became "expendables" in a dirty urban war that turned Belfast into a battle zone. She was killed. They were split apart like so much family silver.

Earlier in 1972, her husband had died of cancer. Her eldest son, Robert, says he was among those rounded up in the since-discredited British policy of locking up anyone suspected of IRA links. He denies being part of the group.

And then, there was a night, no one is quite sure of the date, when a gun battle raged outside the door of the family's home, and a man fell wounded, howling in pain.

"The gun battle was going on, and my mother said she couldn't stand it anymore," Michael McConville says. "We all pleaded with her not to go outside. She went out."

The wounded man was a British soldier, considered an enemy by many in the working-class Roman Catholic neighborhood. But that didn't matter to Jean McConville, who comforted him until ambulances arrived.

For her compassionate act she was apparently judged a collaborator by those who may have already been unsure of her allegiance because she was born into a Protestant family and converted to her husband's Roman Catholic religion.

The next morning, someone painted graffiti on the family's door: "Soldier Lovers Get Out."

On Dec. 6, Jean McConville was abducted by the IRA from a bingo hall and interrogated, returning home with cuts and bruises.

The next night, she wasn't as fortunate.

"I can remember that night. Sometimes, it comes back to haunt me," Michael McConville says. "There was a rap on the door. People stormed in. Twelve, thirteen people. Men and women. It was all chaos. All screaming and yelling."

Then, Jean McConville was gone.

A few weeks later, there was another knock at the door. This time, a lone man showed up, giving the family Jean McConville's rings and purse. The older McConville children say they knew then that their mother was dead.

Within weeks, the family of four girls and six boys was split apart. The older children, barely teen- agers, were forced to fend for themselves; the younger ones were placed in orphanages.

And always, there was the uncertainty over what happened to their mother.

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