June 16, 2021

“Watch the children”: the last wish of a mother kidnapped by the IRA | Babelia

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Jean McConville was thirty-eight years old when she disappeared, and had spent almost half her life pregnant or recovering from childbirth. She gave birth to fourteen children and lost four of them; so she had ten left, ranging in age from the twenty years of Anne, the eldest, to the six years of twins Billy and Jim. Bringing ten children into the world, let alone raising them, may seem like a feat, but we are talking about Belfast in 1972, where ultra-numerous and disorganized families were common, so Jean McConville was not aspiring to win any prizes. And none were given.

Michael, Helen, Billy, Jim, Agnes and Tucker McConville (BBC Northern Ireland news still, January 1973)
Michael, Helen, Billy, Jim, Agnes and Tucker McConville (BBC Northern Ireland news still, January 1973)

On the contrary, life presented her with another ordeal when her husband, Arthur, passed away after a long and painful illness. Suddenly, she was left alone, a widow, with a meager pension, without a paid job and a lot of children in her care. Demoralized by the magnitude of her misadventure, Jean did everything in her power to maintain a certain emotional stability. She hardly left the house, she used the older children to control the younger ones, and in the meantime she tried to keep her balance – like someone who has suffered a vertigo attack – by lighting a cigarette with the previous’s butt. She faced her misery and struggled to plan for the future. But the true tragedy of the McConville clan had only just begun.

The family had just left the flat where Arthur was spending his last days and had moved into a slightly larger one in Divis Flats, a damp and ugly council housing complex in West Belfast. That December was very cold, and by mid-afternoon the city was plunged into darkness. The cooking stove in the new apartment was not on yet, so Jean sent her daughter Helen, who was then fifteen years old, for a large bag of. fish and chips. While the rest of the family waited for Helen, Jean filled the tub with hot water. When you have young children, sometimes the only place where you can have some privacy is the bathroom, with the latch on. Jean was a small, pale woman with delicate features and dark hair, which she used to comb back. She got into the bathtub and stayed there for a long time. Later, when she had just come out of the water, her skin all red, someone knocked on the door of the house. It was about seven o’clock, and the children assumed it was Helen returning with dinner.

Marian and Dolours in jail (Belfast Exposed Archive).
Marian and Dolours in jail (Belfast Exposed Archive).

But upon opening the door, several people broke inside. It was all so abrupt that none of the McConvilles could say exactly how many there were; maybe eight, or maybe ten or even twelve. A band of men and women. Some wore their faces covered with ski masks, others with nylon stockings that gave their features a sinister touch. And at least one of them was holding a firearm.

Jean came out of the bathroom dressing as she went, the frightened children around her, and one of the intruders said rudely, “Put your coat on.” Jean was shaking uncontrollably when they tried to drag her off the floor. But what is it? She asked, terrified. It was then that the children reacted. Michael, who was eleven years old, tried to grab his mother. Billy and Jim, moaning, wanted to hug her. The band members told them to calm down, that they would bring her back; they just wanted to talk to her for a bit; it would only be a couple of hours.

Archie, who at sixteen was the oldest of those at home, asked if he could accompany his mother wherever they went, and the band agreed. Jean McConville donned a tweed coat and head scarf as the little ones were ushered into one of the bedrooms. The intruders tried to calm them with terse guarantees; when addressing them they called them by their first name. Two were not masked, and Michael McConville realized to her horror that the people who were taking her mother were not strangers: they were her neighbors.

Divis Flats was a nightmare straight out of an Escher drawing, a burrow of crowded stairs, passageways, and floors. The elevators were always out of order. The little melee dragged Jean from her apartment, led her into a hallway and down the stairs. Normally, there was always someone hanging around at night, even in winter: kids playing ball or people coming home from work. However, Archie noticed that everything seemed eerily deserted, almost as if the entire area had been cleared. There was no one to alert, and no neighbor who could raise the alarm.

They were walking very close together, mother and son, she clinging to Archie, but when they reached the foot of the stairs there was another group of people waiting for them. It would be like twenty people, casual clothes, ski masks. Several of them armed. With the engine idling, a Volkswagen van waited on the street. Suddenly one of the men spun around. For a moment, the dull glow of the weapon he wielded stood out in the dark. The man rested the tip of the barrel on Archie’s cheek and muttered, “Get out.” Archie stiffened, feeling the cold touch of metal on his skin. He wanted to protect his mother no matter what, but what could he do? He was just a boy, he was not armed, and they were many. Reluctantly, he whirled and headed back up the stairs.

On the second floor, one of the walls was not all concrete but had a series of vertical slats that the McConville children called “lockers.” Peeking through the cracks, Archie could see his mother being put into the van and the vehicle pulling away from Divis Flats out of sight. Later he realized that the gang hadn’t had the slightest intention of allowing him to accompany his mother, that they had only used him to get Jean out of the apartment. Archie stood there in the awful winter silence, trying to take in what had happened. After a while, he returned home. The last words his mother had said to him were, “Watch the children until I get back.”

Do not say anything It is published in Spain on September 10.


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