Silence sometimes speaks eloquently. The haunting, whispery voice of Jean McConville — a widowed mother of 10 assassinated by the Irish Republican Army — pleadingly asked only to be found and for justice to be done. After an IRA bullet in the back of her head brutally ended her life, Jean had been secretly buried below the border.
For over three decades, people came and people went, not knowing Jean’s body lay buried nearby. My family — my wife and three young sons — were among those many passersby. But below the beach sands on the Cooley Peninsula of County Louth, Ireland, Jean’s voice kept silently saying, “Please find me. Please find me. Take me home.”
Silence seeks truth.
Jean had been dragged down the steps of her apartment building — the Divis Flats in West Belfast — after being snatched from her children by a dozen abductors one night back in 1972. The IRA had already beaten her up a week earlier for allegedly being a snitch — a charge later rejected by a formal inquiry. Her children had pleaded with her to seek safety at their grandmother’s house. But Jean stayed. She died. She only asked, “Please find me.”
My family and I rented a bungalow on the Cooley Peninsula because of its location just below the border with Northern Ireland. This was 1979, when bombs, bullets and Belfast were nearly synonymous. I had been advised to leave my family below the border and go on to Belfast by myself. I did.
The three weeks I was gone, my wife and boys roamed the peninsula on day-time excursions. A nun they met on a pathway through the woods told them how to make potato bread. But darker things were going on nearby. County Louth was an IRA staging area for terrorist attacks — and secretly burying bodies. The remote-control device that killed Lord Mountbatten was being field-tested in the woods while we were there. Weeks later, and on that same day the queen’s uncle was killed, the IRA also activated two more bombs from the banks of the peninsula that killed 26 British soldiers on the other side of the border.
Jean McConville perched perilously on the sectarian divide that’s so often dealt death and spawned bitterness in Northern Ireland. Born Protestant, she married a Catholic. She was a turncoat no matter which way she turned. Jean’s family was finally forced out of a Protestant housing estate and into a Catholic one — which also turned hostile after her husband died. Then came the nasty run of rumors — Jean a snitch, Jean allegedly aiding a wounded British soldier. Her abduction and murder soon followed.
As part of the 1998 peace process brokered by George Mitchell, the IRA admitted responsibility for nine of “The Disappeared,” including Jean, and provided leads on the location of bodies. The search for Jean’s remains came to Cooley but also came up empty. But then a storm — perhaps the relentless fury of Mother Nature seeking retribution — found Jean’s body. The resultant beach erosion exposed her corpse in 2003. Jean finally came home to Belfast for proper burial.
Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were slowly turning. Rumors rippled through West Belfast of Gerry Adams’ involvement in Jean’s death.
A project at Boston College (where I once taught) recorded interviews with former terrorists — both republican and loyalist— as part of the reconciliation process.
The truth began dribbling out in droplets. Brendan Hughes, a member of the IRA Belfast Brigade, and Dolours Price, who bombed Old Bailey in London with her sister Marian, both stated Adams had ordered Jean’s abduction, death and secret burial. Delours said she had driven the car across the border that delivered Jean to an IRA execution squad.
Adam’s recent arrest and possible prosecution is bringing all this to a climax — and on the eve of elections north and south of the border.
I’ve written and taught on “The Troubles” for years, including a recent article comparing the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston to the Price sisters of Northern Ireland. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be brought to trial this fall. I doubt if Gerry Adams ever is.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.