Nightmare returns for McConvilles – but time to speak out

It is important for the family to show that their mother Jean was not an informant

Michael McConville remembers as an 11-year-old going "berserk" at a juvenile court in Belfast in May 1973, six months after his mother Jean was abducted, murdered and disappeared.

The case was about putting his then six-year-old brother Billy into care, and what triggered his fury was the official description to the judge that “his mother has abandoned” Billy.

“I went buck mad when they spoke about my mother abandoning the children. I started effing and blinding all over the place about the IRA taking our mother out. They took me down and put me in a cell. I would not stop.”

Michael is sitting on one of two sofas in the Wave trauma centre in north Belfast, an organisation that has supported the McConvilles for the past 20 years. Also together on the sofas are Jim, twin brother of Billy who died two years ago, Thomas who likes to go by his moniker Tucker, who was eight when his mother was disappeared; Susie, who was seven; and Archie who was 16.


It's close to 47 years since their mother was taken away, and on this day it's less than a week since Mr Justice John O'Hara directed a jury to return a verdict of not guilty against former IRA leader Ivor Bell on charges that he solicited Gerry Adams and the late senior IRA figure Pat McClure to murder Jean McConville.

They were disappointed with the result though still are glad the case was heard because they believe it brought forth greater truth. But there were consequences. “The nightmares are back again – it is just like reliving it over and over,” says Susie, who looks like her mother, a similarity that provides its own consolation.

“It’s bringing it all back for every one of us,” Archie agrees.

They address terrible thoughts that won't go away, primarily the suffering of their mother before she was taken to Shellinghill beach in Co Louth and then shot and secretly buried in a sandy grave. When did she realise what the IRA intended for her. Or did she realise?

“What interrogation did they put my mother through?” Archie wonders quietly.

And Jim: “We think about that. Did she know she was going to be murdered or did they surprise her?”

Ten children

Jean McConville, who was a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, had 14 children, four of them dying not long after birth. At the time of her abduction there were 10 children. Their father Arthur, a Catholic and former British soldier died in January 1972.

Three of the 10 are dead, Agnes, Billy and Anne.

Robert, who was 17 in 1972 and who gets on well with the five who did attend the trial, couldn’t face the ordeal of the court. There is something of an estrangement from Helen, who was 15 at the time of her mother’s murder, which is sad considering that it was she and her husband Seamus McKendry who first brought the plight of the Disappeared to public notice in the 1990s.

That’s what happens sometimes in families, says Michael.

The case against 82-year-old Bell rested on his allegation, as recorded in the Boston tapes, of how he, Adams and McClure effectively decided Jean McConville’s fate at a meeting late at night on the Falls Road late into 1972.

Bell is heard on one of two tapes saying that Adams’s attitude to McConville was that she “was a tout” and “she should be shot”, and furthermore Adams and McClure wanted her disappeared because, said Bell, “they couldn’t take the heat from throwing her on the street”.

Adams denied he was at any such meeting, and “categorically” denied any involvement in McConville’s murder.

The judge ruled the tapes inadmissible, but said that everyone who reads about the tapes “can form their own view, informed or otherwise, on the many issues they raise”.

It goes without saying what view the McConvilles hold. “It was hard listening to him,” says Michael McConville of Adams’s evidence. “I just think he is a devious man.”

Loving woman

The family wants a public inquiry into their mother’s murder. But here mostly they want to talk about their mother, how she was a loving woman, and how she was loved – the same emotion applying to their father.

They all have their recollections of the night up to 20 men and women came to their flat around Christmas 1972.

Susie: “The last memories I have are of when they took her away. Everyone was squealing and holding on to her.”

Archie adds: “They told me I could go with her. I realise now they were only using me to get my mother down the stairs. When I got down to the bottom of the stairs the gun was put to my head and I was told to ‘eff off . . .’ I still remember the voice of that man.”

While some people will say that the murder of a widowed 38-year-old mother of 10 children was sufficiently heinous regardless of any unproven allegations against her, it is hugely important for the McConvilles to demonstrate she was not an informant.

During the case, and from the tapes, the court heard how Jean McConville, according to the IRA, hung out her washing at certain times of day and used her blinds to make certain signals to Hastings Street British army base close to the Divis Flats where the family lived.

Yet as Michael McConville showed on a map from the time there was no such line of vision from the McConville flat to the army base.

The late IRA member Brendan “the Dark” Hughes also claimed that McConville had an army radio transmitter in her flat. It was claimed that when first caught with this transmitter she was warned by the IRA, but that she quickly resumed working for the army, even taking a second transmitter into her flat.

But again many people other than the McConvilles, who insist there were no transmitters, query would a woman who had lost her husband earlier that year and who had spent two weeks in a mental institution also that year suffering from a nervous breakdown, have been capable of carrying out such highly dangerous work.

For many close observers of this tragedy even the idea that the British army would have given such a vulnerable woman a second transmitter also seems fanciful.

Moreover, former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan who investigated the issue in depth found no evidence to substantiate the IRA claims. “Nuala O’Loan was the only person ever to stand up for our mother. She was the only outsider to do that,” says Michael.

Shot dead

He adds: “In 2004 I was having meetings with IRA. It was the first time we heard about the radio. The IRA told us they never raided our flat, never in their lives. They did not know where the claims about the radio transmitters were coming from.

“Any Catholic person from the Falls Road or any area that the IRA controlled knows fine rightly that had there been a radio transmitter found our mother would have been shot dead straight away.”

Susie is in no doubt why her mother was shot. “Some people don’t understand the real reason, and that was because she helped a British soldier. That’s why she was murdered and took away from us.”

The children have a collective memory of the soldier being assisted by their mother, although there is uncertainty about when this happened.

Jim: “There was a gun battle in Divis. Mother was in the kitchen and we were playing in the room. There was a step down into the flat. We were always told to hit the deck when the shooting started. ‘Brit lovers out’ went up on our walls the following day after she helped the soldier.”

Archie thought he wasn’t in the flat at the time which prompts Michael to say “My memory is different, that Archie you were there, and that when she came back in you [Archie] said, ‘you don’t know what you’ve done’.

“I can remember the shooting happening. I can remember hearing cries of a person outside. I did not know whether it was a soldier or an IRA man. I always heard of this soldier who was supposed to be dead, but I think it was a flesh wound. There was definitely somebody shot outside our door.”

Social services

Nearly all of the children were taken into care, although it took months before social services got them into homes. During that period a number of them ended up in various forms of trouble with the police. Even those that were taken into care, every one of them, at one stage or another, and sometimes several times, ran away from those homes. Later some complained of abuse to the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry.

And later when they got out of care and tried to find work for themselves they were confronted by another form of torment.

Archie: “We would not have got a job on the Falls Road, or any building site. We might have got started but then as soon as they found out who you were you were sacked.”

Tucker: “You’d get a week or two and then lose the job.”

Michael: “That happened to all of us.”

And all that time the children were trying to find out what happened to Jean McConville. On one occasion Michael asked a local man about her. “He checked, but he came back saying he was told to shut his mouth, and say no more about it.”

That ostracisation even extended to the funeral Mass for Jean McConville in November 2003 after her remains were found on the beach that August. There was a big congregation at St Paul’s on the Falls Road, but the church was not full, and there was a disappointing local attendance – as if people in the area were acting under particular instructions, still being fed the line she was a “tout” and to stay away.

Michael: “The IRA dehumanised every one of us. All the people that were taken away and secretly buried. They dehumanised every one of them, making out their lives were worthless. They did that all the time on our mother.”

Official records

Bell on the tape said that at the purported meeting with Adams and McClure that Adams said a priest in St Peter’s Cathedral off the Falls Road had been asked to get McConville “out of the town” but the priest refused.

The parish priest of St Peter’s at the time was the late Fr Vincent McKinley, who does feature in official records in respect of the McConvilles – but after their mother’s abduction, not before.

On December 18th, 1972, he was contacted by a representative from social services who was trying to deal with the children. The official reported that the priest “knew the circumstance but was very unsympathetic towards the family and their plight”.

Later on January 12th, 1973, as social services were still engaged in this work it was also reported that McKinley “was of the opinion that all neighbours would support removal of children”.

All this does not mean the allegation was true that it was McKinley who refused to assist McConville when Adams purportedly contacted him. The McConvilles, however, suspect this evidence of Bell’s could be accurate.

When contacted by The Irish Times a diocesan spokesman said: "The Diocese of Down and Connor has not yet been able to locate any records of meetings or discussions between clergy in St Peter's Cathedral, Belfast, and Mr Adams in respect of Jean McConville.

“Consequently, it is not possible to either confirm or refute the account presented in the Boston Tapes. Until further evidence is discovered, the Diocese of Down and Connor would not be in a position to make comment on these allegations.”

Catholic faith

Most of the McConvilles are indifferent to and in some cases antipathetic to religion, particularly considering McKinley and their experience in Catholic care homes. However, religion is important for Michael, and while he found the official records in respect of McKinley disheartening his Catholic faith remains strong.

However, the whole experience of his mother’s murder “tested his faith”.

“One of my friends said to me, ‘why do you go to Mass? Why would you practise your faith?’ And my response was ‘it wasn’t God killed my mother, it was people killed her’.”

Tucker thinks, or wonders, or hopes, that the Bell trial may be changing attitudes among republicans. He recently met a woman whose family were strong republicans and who for years had believed the IRA version of events, that Jean McConville was an informer.

But, says Tucker, the details of the trial made her change her mind. “She said to me, ‘we had that drummed into our heads’, but she said to me she has walked away from it all.”

And they offer those little treasured memories of their mother.

Archie was working as a roof tiler when she was taken away. He remembers his first take-home pay, £8.

“She was a good mother, she looked after us well. When I first started working I came in with a wage packet, and gave it to her. She told me I could put it in my pocket; she told me to keep it. She says ‘you keep your first wage packet but next week you’ll give me the rest’.

“She liked to go to bingo. And if she ever won anything there was always fish and chips brought home, and sweets.”

Some might think that at such a difficult time and with such a large family that even when their parents were alive it must have been a desperate upbringing. But not so, say the siblings.

All the photographs of their parents were lost when the children were put into care. But the one surviving photograph of Jean and Arthur, and Archie, Robert and Helen shows a picture of smiling children.

Very happy family

Susie: “We were all very close. We were a very happy family with mum and dad when they were alive. She was a kind person, she always kept the house clean, and us kids clean, and made sure we had food on the table. It would have been difficult with 10 kids.”

Michael: “She was a kind person. If anybody needed help and if she could’ve helped she would’ve helped them. She was always cooking. She was good at baking, and I used to love her apples tarts. I always loved her lentil soup.”

Some in the family are good cooks, and lentil soup is one of their specialities.

“And she was good at soups and stews,” says Archie. “But with the gang of us you wouldn’t need a pot, it was a bath you’d need.”

Billy’s dying request was, says Archie, “I want the family to stay together, and no fighting or arguing. That’s what he said.”

So were they close now?

Almost in unison Susie and Jim reply: “We are getting there.”

Michael thinks back on Christmas 1972 and the splintering of the family after the abduction, and the official word that she had “abandoned” them, a claim that infuriated him as a child. He looks back too to the previous Christmas when their father was dying.

“We always thought that was the worst time of our lives when our father died. Little did we know that a year later we wouldn’t have our mother either, and the most important thing after that was each other. But we didn’t have anybody.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times