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We all sympathise with the McConville children now, but back in 1972 nobody cared

(Suzanne Breen, Daily Mail)

Jean McConville would have celebrated her 80th birthday next week. She should still be here, her family say, basking in their warm embrace, a gaggle of grandchildren and great grandchildren playing at her feet.

Instead, her sons and daughters cling to the few precious memories they have of the mother who was so brutally snatched from them at the time when they needed her most.

To outsiders, the abduction, murder and secret burial of Jean McConville is one of the most shameful acts of the Northern conflict. To her children, it is much more. It is the moment when everything changed in their innocent young lives and they were left to fend for themselves in an unbelievably cruel and hostile world.

Today, we all voice our sympathy for the plight of the ten orphans but back then, when it mattered, nobody gave a damn. There were no small acts of kindness shown to these vulnerable and isolated children. They could be forgiven for being bitter not just at the IRA but at a community that simply didn't care.

"We were robbed of our mother and we were robbed of our futures," says Jean's eldest surviving daughter Helen McKendry. "We were never able to fulfil our true potential. It took all our strength just to survive.

"We want the truth to come out for ourselves and for our children and their sons and daughters – all the grand-children and great grand-children who know the story of Jean McConville but whom she never got to meet."

In the grainy black and white photograph taken in 1965, she stands solemnly beside three of her children. She's pregnant but not showing. By the age of 32, she had carried 14 pregnancies to term. Four children died as babies and one was brain-damaged. "My mother had a very hard time. i don't know how she coped at all," says Helen.

In the photograph, her hair is scraped back and her arms are folded. A woman who doesn't have time to pose for pictures. Her husband Arthur was alive then yet life was still stressful and hard. Little did Jean know, it was going to get an awful lot worse.

Jean was born into a working-class East Belfast family. At 14, she secured employment as a maid to Mary McConville, a Catholic widow. She fell in love with Mary's son Arthur, a British soldier.

Neither family approved of the romance but the young couple were unperturbed. The ran off to England and married. When they returned, they lived with Jean's mother. But as the Troubles flared in the late 1960s, they were unwelcome in a Protestant area. They were threatened and moved out.

They were just rehoused in Divis Flats on the Falls Road when Arthur was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died four months later in January 1972. Before the year was out, the 10 children would lose their mother too.

They find the IRA's claim that she was a significant informer for the British Army preposterous. They remember a woman concerned only with feeding her family, pawning possessions to pay bills and buying food on tick from the local shop.

And the vicious slurs that she was "a whore" who ingratiated herself with British soldiers at army dances is equally nonsense, they say. The only place she went was the bingo hall. They remember "her hair in rollers with a headscarf over it, like Hilda Odgen in Coronation Street".

She was 37 when she died but so tough was her life she looked at least a decade older. She lived on cigarettes and tablets. She was hospitalised after several overdoses. "I remember us hearing her crying herself to sleep at night," says Helen. "It was like she had given up on life. There were times that she didn't even want to get out of bed."

At the time of her disappearance, Jean had eight children at home. Her eldest daughter Anne, who was mentally disabled, was in a care institution. Her eldest son Robert was interned by the British on the prison ship, the Maidstone. Archie (16), Helen (15), Agnes (13), Michael (11), Thomas (8), Suzanne (7), and the six-year-old twins Billy and Jim lived with her in Divis.

The beginning of the end for Jean McConville came on 6 December 1972 when she was playing bingo. Some in the hall told her Helen had been knocked down in a road accident and a car was waiting outside to take her to the hospital.

Jean fell for the ploy and left. She was driven to a derelict house where the IRA held her for four hours. She was blindfolded, tied to a chair, interrogated and beaten.

The Provos claimed she admitted being an informer but promised to stop under the threat of death. Later that night, a British Army patrol found her wandering the streets. She was taken to the barracks where her children later collected her.

"When I got there, I could hear her screaming," Helen recalls. "It was a freezing cold night and she was barefoot. She was trembling and confused. Her face was cut and bleeding."

The next day, Jean sported a black eye and badly bruised lips. Her hair kept falling out in clumps. She was still so sore from the IRA's beating on the evening of 7 December that she decided to take a bath to try to the ease the pain.

She was in the bathroom when four IRA women and eight men burst in. The McConville children recognised some of them as neighbours. Their mother was ordered to get dressed.

"She was taken away at gunpoint," says Helen. "The twins, who were only six, were clinging to her, screaming at the IRA women to let her go, but they took her anyway." Sixteen-year-old Archie McConville said he was going with his mother. The IRA put a gun to his head and told him to "f*** off".

Jean was bundled into a waiting van. Her children were told she'd be coming back. They were terrified. "At first we told no-one what had happened because we thought we could survive on our own until our mother returned. And there was the big fear that the IRA would come back for us if we spoke out," said Helen.

Come bedtime, they'd use furniture to barricade themselves into their flat in case the Provos returned. Every night they'd pray for their mother's to come home.

Soon word was out that Jean had been abducted but the local community didn't rally round. Their mother hadn't been popular. She was seen as an army loving Protestant, an outsider in a clannish area.

Fifteen-year-old Helen took charge of the household as the children waited desperately for Jean to come back. "The boys wouldn't go to school. They were running around the streets wild. Everything fell apart. We had neither money nor food. It was a nightmare," she recalls.

Eleven-year-old Michael and a younger brother were caught stealing food. The McConville children had a long, lonely Christmas that year.

A few weeks after Jean disappeared, a young man came to their door with her purse. Inside was 52 pence and her wedding, engagement and eternity rings. "I probably knew she wasn't coming back but I couldn't accept it," says Helen. "The fella just said 'I was told to give you these' and walked away. That was all we were offered as an explanation."

In January 1973, Helen went to the local civil rights' office for help. The next day, the children lined up on their threadbare sofa for a BBC interview. Comforting each other, they begged for information about their missing mother.

Jean was already dead and it was now time for the IRA to kill the truth too. The Provos briefed journalists that Jean hadn't been abducted at all. But terrified of the growing media interest in her story, she was "refusing to come out of hiding".

Helen struggled on, trying to keep the family together, but eventually it was too much. She rang social services and the children were taken into care. The years that followed were horrendous for the McConvilles. The children were deeply unhappy.

Many of them repeatedly ran away from care. Some would spend the night in derelict houses. They were separated and put in different orphanages. Some were beaten by those meant to be caring for them. They grew apart. They're a fractured family now, the precious closeness of those early years long gone.

"I spent only a year in a children's home but my brothers and sisters spent up to 10 years in care and their lives have been damaged by that," says Helen.

"All we had in the world was each other," says Michael. "But after I was taken into care, I saw my brothers and sisters only about four or five times over the next six years. We became strangers to each other. Each and every one of us had our problems in different ways."

In August 2003, what remained of Jean McConville – a skeleton with a bullet hole in the back of the skull – was found by a man walking his dog in Shelling Hill Beach, Co Louth.

Some of her children take comfort in the fact she was buried somewhere beautiful. When they visit, they imagine a different scenario: Jean sitting on the sand, watching them play in the sea. Helen's granddaughter Tiegan calls it "Granny Jean's beach".

The longing for her missing mother has never left Helen. "I'm a granny myself now but deep inside I'm still a 15-year-old wee girl who wants her mother back." Depression has understandably featured in the McConvilles' lives at various times and some sought escape in alcohol.

"Time doesn't heal. The pain doesn't go away. It destroyed us," says Michael. "There's not a day passes when I don't ask myself why I didn't do more. I know I was just a wee boy but I still wonder if I could have saved her.

"For the IRA to take her from her home and bring her to a beach with her hands tied behind her back and put a gun to the back of her head and shoot her – that was a war crime and the people responsible should be brought to the Hague."

We now know through the revelations of various Provisionals that after she was abducted, Jean was held in various Belfast safe houses for several days. IRA woman Dolours Price then drove her over the Border to her death.

Jean was told Price was a Legion of Mary member driving her to safety. "It wasn't my decision to disappear her. All I had to do was drive her from Belfast to Dundalk. I even got her fish and chips and cigarettes," Price said.

In the moments before the IRA ended Jean's life, she will have realised the awful reality. Those last final minutes torment Helen: "I've never been able to come to terms with the fact that she was frightened and knew she was going to die and leave us orphans.

"It makes me cry to think that seconds before she was killed, she was worrying about what would happen to us when she was dead. She didn't even have the comfort of knowing we would be all right – and we weren't."

May 6, 2014

This article appeared in the May 3, 2014 edition of the Daily Mail.

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