from a few months ago:

The Mirror
Sep 15 2003

By Jilly Beattie

HELEN McKendry will be 46 on Saturday. But for the past 30 years it is a day she has not properly celebrated. For Helen is the daughter of Jean McConville, a victim of a brutal IRA execution, one of the Disappeared.

Over the last three decades her birthday has come and gone without a card, a present or a precious hug from the mother she still desperately misses.

"I'm nearly 46," she said, "a mother and a grandmother myself, but deep inside I'm still a 15-year-old wee girl who wants her mummy back."

In less than a month Helen hopes she will finally be able to lay her mother to rest after DNA tests reveal the identity of remains found on a beach in Co Louth a fortnight ago.

In her heart Helen believes the skeleton with a bullet hole in the back of its skull is her mother's.

She prays every night she will soon have a graveside to visit, a headstone to care for.

But a funeral service for a corpse that has laid in scrubland for almost 31 years without the courtesy of a Christian burial, will not be enough to return the fractured McConville family back to normality.

Nothing will do that now.

And Helen firmly lays the blame for the family's break-up and years of misery, grief and loss, at the feet of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who was allegedly a senior member of the IRA in West Belfast when the mother-of-10 was murdered.

Wheezing loudly as she speaks from her home in the rolling Co Down hills, stress and heartache are etched on Helen's face.

But there is anger there too, anger that her mother was murdered, anger she was tortured, anger she was lied about, and seething, spewing anger that her vulnerable, frail mother was terrified in the final hours of her life.

"That's something I've never been able to come to terms with," Helen says, "the fact that Mum was frightened, that she was scared and knew she was going to die and leave us orphans.

"The only comfort I've ever had in all of this is that we were her final thought. But it still makes me cry to think that seconds before she was killed, Mum was worrying about what would happen to us all when she was dead. She didn't even have the comfort to know we'd be all right. And we weren't.

"I don't really blame the person who pulled the trigger and murdered my mother.

"I blame the likes of Gerry Adams, the people who knew what the IRA nutting squads were doing, the people who couldn't not have known what was going on their own doorsteps.

"When Adams came to our house in Poleglass in 1995, I asked him to tell me where my mother's body was buried.

"But he couldn't look me in the eye. He spoke to my husband Seamus and claimed he knew nothing about her whereabouts.

"He tried to look at me but he couldn't, and I knew then why. But there'll come a time when Gerry Adams will have to see my pain and he's just going to have to live with that.

"I'll make sure he'll never forget the name Jean McConville no matter how hard he tries.

"As a family we've lost so much. And even when we get our mother's remains back, we've still lost because no one will ever be charged for her murder, no one will have to pay for what they did to her and to us.

"We had to agree that no one would face prosecution as long as we got the bodies back. We had to give the IRA that and it makes me sick that they bargained even then when they knew we'd nothing left to give."

JEAN McConville was just 37 when she was abducted from her home by a 12-strong IRA gang on December 7, 1972.

A tiny woman, prone to ill-heath and still mourning the death of four children and her beloved husband, Arthur, she committed a "crime" that identified her as a traitor and deserving of a bullet in the head.

During one of the nightly gun battles between the IRA and the Army in West Belfast a British soldier was shot by a sniper.

He slumped against the door of Jean's first-floor flat in Divis, bleeding heavily and crying, "God help me". Jean shooed her frightened children to the back of the flat and slowly opened the door.

For a few brief minutes she gently held the soldier and told him he would be all right before his patrol gathered him up and vanished.

But in that moment of humanity, Jean McConville set in motion a series of events that grew into the most shameful chapter in Northern Ireland's troubled history.

Helen explained: "My brother Archie shouted at mum. He said someone would get her for helping that soldier. He was angry and frightened. Mum was only 5ft 2in, but she slapped Archie hard. She told him, 'Don't you dare talk to me like that. That boy has a mother just like you. He might be a soldier, but he's still a human being and if you were hurt, I'd want someone to help you.'

"She was really cross. We were shocked by her reaction because she rarely raised her voice or hit us."

But Archie had been right. Someone had witnessed Jean's compassion and the family woke the next morning to find their house daubed in graffiti. Neighbours refused to talk to them and rumours spread that Jean McConville, a Protestant who had married a Catholic, was a tout and a whore with an eye for British soldiers.

Helen said: "It said 'Brit lover' and other things about my mother. She didn't seem to be worried.

"She just made us clean it off with scrubbing brushes and soapy water."

The words were washed away but Helen's fear remained and she believed her mother would be tarred and feathered in a public display of humiliation to teach her a lesson.

She said: "I'd seen it done before and I was sure mum would be next, but I never thought for one minute anyone would kill her and I'm sure she didn't either.

"She was upset but I never saw my mother frightened If she was, she kept it from us."

But on December 6, as Jean played bingo in the Cullingtree Road Youth and Social Club, she was told Helen had been knocked down. Panicked, she was bundled into a waiting car thinking she was being taken to hospital. But instead she was driven to a derelict house by the IRA where she was beaten and interrogated before being abandoned.

The following day, still bruised and in pain from her ordeal, she was dragged from her bath in front of four of her screaming children by eight men and four women and was never seen again.

A week later three of her four rings and her purse were returned to Helen in a clear message that said her mother was not coming back.

Helen said: "I probably knew it then but I couldn't accept it. Her purse had a few shillings in it and a couple of receipts. I was given her wedding, engagement and eternity rings, but the wee signet ring one of the kids had got her was missing. It still is.

"The fella just said, 'I was told to give you these,' and walked away, that was all we were offered as way of an explanation. No one deserved to die for helping an other human being. But people had lost their humanity in those days, Northern Ireland had gone mad, everyone seemed to be out of their minds.

"Only my mother seemed to make sense of what was right and wrong and she couldn't have left someone dying on her doorstep, soldier or not, it just wasn't in her.

"She got a bullet in the back of her head for helping that soldier. She deserved a medal.

"I would love to meet that soldier, the man my mother helped, just to tell him it's OK and not to worry. But I don't even know if he's alive.

I'M proud of mum to this day and I miss her terribly. I don't think I'll ever have a day when I don't miss her. When she was taken I was 15 and just getting to know her as a friend, as well as her daughter.

"I still talk to her now and feel her watching over us. I know she wants me to have a life, live a life, get on with living. But I also knows she understands that I couldn't rest until I knew where she was.

"Templetown Beach, near where these remains were found, is the one place I get comfort and feel closest to her.

"It's a beautiful place and I often imagine my mother sitting there watching the children playing on the sand and in the water.

"For me, it's the most peaceful place on earth, lovely and calm and it sounds funny, but a beautiful place to be buried.

"My eldest granddaughter, Tiegan, calls it Granny Jean's beach and she's very confused that her granny has been taken away now. It's difficult to explain to a child.

"I'm determined my children will be the last generation to suffer at the hands of the IRA and what they did to the families of the Disappeared.

"We were robbed of a mother and a friend, a grandmother and great granny.

"And we were robbed of our futures too, our true potential, of a life that we were all meant to have.

"But even when mum is buried this will not be over because I still have questions, I still want to know why.

"I want Gerry Adams to explain to me how he feels about the Disappeared. I want him to tell me why. I want to hear him try to justify it to me.

"Even now, as we wait to hear whether it is her or not, we're being quietly bullied by these people.

"We've been told that it would be inadvisable for us to have a big funeral for my mother. Well, we won't be cowed down by them, they can't hurt us any more than we've already been hurt.

"I want thousands of people at mum's funeral. I want the roads to be black with people, people who knew her, people who didn't, people who never want this sort of thing to happen again.

"I want the world to know what happened to Jean McConville, I want the people responsible to squirm - and I want Gerry Adams to see that I'm not frightened any longer, not of him, not of anyone."

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