Silence sometimes speaks eloquently. The haunting, whispery voice of Jean McConville — a widowed mother of 10 assassinated in 1972 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.”
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. 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 due to 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.
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 beach erosion during a storm 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 the involvement of Gerry Adams, the president of the Sinn Fein political party, 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.
Brendan Hughes, a member of the IRA Belfast Brigade, and Dolours Price, who in 1973 bombed the Old Bailey courthouse in London with her sister Marian, both stated that Adams had ordered Jean’s abduction, death and secret burial. Dolours said she had driven the car across the border that delivered Jean to an IRA execution squad.
Adams’s recent arrest and possible prosecution are 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 to the Price sisters. Accused Boston Marathon bomber 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.