On April 8, 1984, magistrate Tom Travers, his wife and their daughter Mary, 22, a primary school teacher, were leaving St Brigid’s Catholic Church in Derryvolgie Avenue, south Belfast, when they were set upon by Provisional IRA gunmen.
Mary was shot in the back and her father was shot six times. One of the gunmen held a gun to Mrs Travers’ head as her daughter lay bleeding in her arms; the gun jammed and she was miraculously unharmed.
Mary died and Tom, after a period in intensive care, survived.
Mary’s sister Ann, then 14, saw her whole world irrevocably altered that day. She lost her “beautiful, kind and gentle” sister Mary, a teacher at Holy Child Primary School in west Belfast, and a fresh-faced, pretty young woman with a whole life still in front of her.
“That Sunday when Mary was murdered I remember people calling to the house to offer condolences and it was all so traumatic and so surreal,” says Ann, now 44, living in Dublin and mother to five children.
“My mum didn’t come home until the small hours of the morning. My father was extremely ill in intensive care.
“I woke in the middle of the night and saw my sister standing at my bedroom door - Mary was dead and yet I saw her, clearly, just her head and shoulders. She was smiling and nodding her head and from that I took it that she was trying to tell me that everything would be alright and that I should not worry.
“And things were better than they could have been because dad did get better and he did come home - even though we delayed Mary’s funeral for some time because we weren’t sure if there was going to be a second funeral.
“Some years later when trials were held for Mary McArdle and a man called Joseph Haughey for their involvement in the murder and the attack on my father, I saw my sister again.
“Haughey was acquitted for shooting my father and I saw Mary at the foot of the bed shaking her head and it was clear she was not happy - that something was very wrong.
“My father took the outcome of this trial so badly. It was a very difficult time.”
Joseph Haughey was acquitted for shooting Tom Travers because of what was described as a lack of forensic evidence even though the Belfast magistrate had correctly identified Haughey in a line-up.
The full horror of what happened that day still haunts Ann:
“To think that these people sat that morning and planned what they were going to do, while across town an unsuspecting family, full of the joys of spring, were brushing their hair, polishing their shoes, getting ready for Mass,” she explains, her pain still palpable.
“And there they were walking home from church, full of love, full of God, actually, having come from Mass, and one of them is shot dead and for what?
“I cannot reconcile the innocence of these people going out to church with the evil of people opening fire on them.
“And so I give up trying to fully understand and I decide to leave it to the Lord to judge.”
Ann Travers is one of many victims of the violence of the Troubles, one among many whose lives have been changed forever by the pulling of a trigger, by an act of evil and the loss of innocent life.
She has become a public figure because of her vocal opposition to the appointment of Mary McArdle as a special adviser to Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin in 2 011.
McArdle served 14 years for her role in the murder of Mary Travers having allegedly been found with two hand guns strapped to her thighs after the incident, aged just 19. McArdle was released under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
After giving many interviews on what she saw as the immorality of someone who had been involved in such a serious crime being promoted to a job that would pay £78, 000 of taxpayer’s money per year, she was assisted by the TUV’s Jim Allister and successfully passed a bill at Stormont in June 2013 to prevent those with serious criminal convictions being appointed to special adviser roles. This, Ann feels, was an important victory for victims of the conflict here.
“I did what I did for my beautiful sister Mary and I hope that it empowers other victims to understand that they do have a voice.
“But people must understand that I am not bitter and I am not saying there is no place for republicans in government. I simply felt that it was wrong for someone who had been involved in my sister’s murder to be appointed to such a position.It was never about vengeance because I leave all that to God.”
Travers was raised in a devoutly religious household. But for a long time after her sister’s murder she felt angry and did not want to attend church.
“We were always brought up to believe in God, but as my dad would have emphasised, what that really translated to was trying to live your life in such a way that every day you did your best; we should live our lives to the fullest, but always in a moral way.
“What being a Christian has always meant to me is, very simply, to treat others as you would like them to treat you.
“I never blamed God for what happened to Mary because I could see clearly that this was the result of the actions of people who had chosen to carry out an evil against innocents.
“I felt bizarrely angry at the church at the time; angry that mum and dad and Mary had gone that day, and angry because apparently the people who shot Mary had been seen at Mass in the same church the week before.
“I stopped going for a while because I was angry,” Ann explains.
Her memories of Mary, and of the time of her death are still vivid, and even today Ann confides that she draws strength from praying to her sister and to her father Tom, who passed away on December 26, 2009.
“The week that Mary was murdered she and I had been arguing because she wanted to help me with my sociology homework and I couldn’t be bothered. I sometimes used to joke that she was a goody two-shoes, you know, she was very together, a teacher in a primary school. And then I was just going out with my friends at that age, being a bit of a teenage rebel.
“We were always taught to pray growing up and that is something I continue to do even if I don’t go to church every single Sunday. Often I pray to my sister Mary because she was such a good person that I feel strongly she is with God.
“I pray every day.”
Travers has had more than her share of life’s sorrows. As well as enduring the loss of Mary, she has fought breast cancer and is now in remission. She is philosophical about the problems she has faced and sounds ebullient, ready for the next challenge.
“Bad things happen in life everyday and it can be hard to find meaning and to continue to believe in all that is good,” says Ann. “But I do believe that everything has its place and there are reasons that maybe we can’t fully see or understand from where we are now.
“When Mary died, how on earth could I have possibly have found a positive reason for that? But perhaps there is now, because it was her death that persuaded me to take a stand.
‘‘When Mary McArdle was appointed I was able to find an inner voice to speak up and say ‘This is wrong’. I hope by doing this I have empowered other victims.”
Ann is reluctant to say that she forgives those who murdered her sister, feeling she would be saying it only to look and sound virtuous rather than being true to what she feels:
“I don’t hold any grievances towards Mary’s murderers - I simply feel nothing. Not that I wouldn’t like justice or to be able to confront the two men who shot Mary and my father and ask them to explain. But I feel that it is not my place to forgive them for what they have done so much as it is God’s place to forgive them for these crimes. I am not bitter, because I believe that it is for God to mete out justice and that all those involved in what happened to Mary will have to meet their Maker and answer for it.”