At 15-years-old, she could not believe they would never see each other again. Now, at 54, she has learned to accept it but cannot lay the ghosts of the past to rest until justice is done.
“It’s the last thing on your mind at night and the first thing in the morning,” says Helen, whose story is the subject of new play Our Lady of the Goldfinches, by Edge Hill University creative writing lecturer Jane McNulty, and is touring to The Unity next week.
It was the second time Jean McConville had been accosted by the IRA, who believed her to be an informant. The first was the night before, when they had given her a beating so bad that she had decided to take a bath to ease the pain when Helen left the house.
“I went to the shop and when I came back she was gone,” says her daughter.
A few weeks later, a man turned up with Jean’s purse and her engagement, wedding and eternity rings. That was the last trace of the mother-of-10 until her body was accidentally found on Shelling Hill Beach, in County Louth, 31 years later.
“I asked him where he got them and he said ‘I was just told to bring them here’. Had I been a bit older I would have known she was gone but being 15 you lived in hope that some day she would come back,” says Helen, herself a mother-of-five with 11 grandchildren.
“Me and my brother, who was a year older than me, went searching for her when we’d put the younger children to bed at night. We went to Republican clubs and asked questions there but we were always told the same – ‘get home’.”
Jean’s husband, Arthur McConville, had died a year earlier and her family had disowned her when she converted to Catholicism to marry him. With nobody to look after her children, seven of them, including Helen, were taken into care.
“I have very happy memories of my mother but unfortunately the younger ones don’t,” she says.
“They were told she didn’t give two hoots about them and had gone off with a soldier or that she went up the Shanklin Road in Belfast, which is Loyalist, and was living there with a UDA (Ulster Defence Association) man and had another family.
“It would have been impossible because she’d had a hysterectomy but try telling that to the younger ones – they grew up with disbelief that the IRA had anything to do with it and more or less didn’t want to know their mother even if she did come back home.”
Meanwhile, local politicians questionned Jean’s disappearance and were told the IRA had taken her but had released her. According to their account, she was in England and would be permitted to return to Belfast to collect her children.
“I always had the feeling that one day she would come back,” says Helen.
“I thought she’d been beaten and taken the boat to England, that maybe she’d lost her memory and was in some hospital. We did go searching for her but of course there was no trace.”
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1999, the IRA finally admitted Jean had been killed and released details of the whereabouts of her body. A prolonged police search was eventually abandoned when there was no sign of her remains. When her body was eventually found in 2003, the autopsy revealed she had been killed by a single bullet to the back of the head.
Justice for her death is hard to come by, not least because of the emphasis in the Good Friday Agreement on lenience towards those connected to paramilitary groups provided they maintain a complete ceasefire. Republican party Sinn Fein maintains the killing was not a war crime because, it claims, Jean was a Loyalist spy.
Helen finds it absurd that anyone could mistake her mother, who had met her husband at the age of 14, had given birth to 14 babies (four later died) and whose only luxury was the occasional game of bingo, for an informer.
“I want my mother’s name cleared,” she insists, growing angry.
“Even senior members of the IRA had said to me they think they got the wrong person. If she was the first woman to be killed for being such a big IRA spy why didn’t they leave her body in an alleyway or on the border? The only way to hide their mistake was to bury her away where people couldn’t find her.”
Helen is arguing for the release of interviews with former Republicans and Loyalists recorded by Boston College for an oral history project. Made between 2001 and 2006, their participants agreed to take part on condition the tapes would remain unheard until after their deaths. The US Court of Appeal is currently deciding whether the recordings, which include information about Jean McConville, should be released to Northern Ireland’s police force.
“Politicians in this country say we have to put everything behind us and move on but it’s okay for them to say that when they’ve never been through this kind of thing,” says Helen.
“Sometimes I look back and I think ‘how did I raise my own children? How did they get to be where they are today when I wasn’t really on the planet?’
“We’ve got my mother’s body back but we still haven’t got the truth and I’ll fight for that until the day I die.”