McConville family’s 30-year wait for first step to closure

Michael McConville - son of Jean McConville whose body was discovered on Shelling Hill beach Co Louth in 2003
Michael McConville - son of Jean McConville whose body was discovered on Shelling Hill beach Co Louth in 2003

The orphaned children of Jean McConville had to wait more than 30 years to make the first step towards some form of closure.

A storm in August 2003 shifted a sand embankment on the edge of Shelling beach, Co Louth, exposing her remains not far from where the Provisional IRA said they dumped her body.

A series of prolonged and extended but ultimately failed searches were carried out along that area of coastline near the Irish border in previous years.

But the chance discovery on the coastal beauty spot was not made until a man out walking his dog saw the animal agitated by the mother-of-10’s exposed grave.

In 1999 after the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains had been set up as a go-between to find the so-called Disappeared, the IRA had passed on information on Mrs McConville’s murder.

Provos identified a stretch of the Co Louth coastline, some of which had been developed in the 30 years since the secret burial with a car park being built on one spot.

The commission’s primary role was to find the bodies of the Disappeared with the promise that any detail given over could not be used by any other authority or used for a prosecution.

But following the chance discovery of Mrs McConville’s remains, a coroner ruled at the inquest into her death that her murder would not be covered by the deal.

Any forensic evidence found at the site and during the examination of her remains can be used in any criminal proceedings against her killers.

Among that material was a flattened .22 calibre lead bullet found embedded in the skull.

The IRA had been given assurances by authorities that the only forensic tests on bodies of the Disappeared would be for identification purposes.

The chance discovery of Mrs McConville’s body put paid to that notion in this case.

Incorrect information from the IRA saw massive excavations by Irish police and the car park dug up in 1999. Later searches removed tonnes of sand on an extended area of Shelling beach, just inside the Irish Republic and 50 miles from Belfast.

All to no avail.

Members of the McConville family kept heart-wrenching vigils overlooking the supposed burial spot as repeated unsuccessful attempts were made to find their mother.

Poignantly, one of Mrs McConville’s daughters Agnes would reveal that while searches along the coastline failed she had a vivid dream that her mother had been buried on a beach.

It would be four years before the remains were uncovered with nature’s help.

After the discovery in late August 2003, near a car park and coastal path, the missing woman’s sons and daughters suffered another anxious two month wait for DNA results to confirm their fears, and hopes.

Irish police confirmed forensic tests had revealed she had been shot in the back of the head.

Mrs McConville’s body was returned to her family in October 2003 and she was finally given a funeral in Belfast and buried next to her husband Arthur in the Holy Trinity cemetery in Lisburn.

The IRA issued a statement apologising for the grief caused to the families of the Disappeared.

The McConville family said the Provos’ words meant nothing to them.

The family’s suffering has not been limited to the trauma of losing their mother and a 30 odd year search for closure.

One of her sons, Michael McConville, has claimed that the IRA tried to silence him in the days after her disappearance, tying him to a chair, beating him and threatening him with a gun, aged just 11.

He said the killers should be treated as war criminals.

“If I lived for 200 years I still don’t think I could describe how I felt when we got my mother’s body back,” he said last year.