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Their sons were best friends. In 1978 they were disappeared by the IRA. This is the remarkable story of how 16 years later two mothers found the courage to speak out

When the funeral of Margaret McKinney winds its way to Milltown Cemetery today, she will be reunited with her beloved son Brian. In 1994, Margaret and Mary McClory, whose son John was also missing, finally broke their silence in a deeply moving interview. Suzanne Breen recalls that harrowing encounter

By Suzanne Breen

It was in the tiny living room of her immaculate west Belfast home that I first met her. A white-haired mother clutching an old black-and-white photograph of her beloved boy. It was his First Communion day and he was turned out in his best jacket and shorts, his hands joined in prayer. She wiped away tears as she showed me that picture. He had vanished without trace 16 years ago, and she knew that he was dead.

Margaret McKinney and her friend, Mary McClory, told me how they believed that the IRA had abducted, shot, and secretly buried their sons.

Today, we are all too familiar with such stories. But, back then, in August 1994, Northern Ireland was blissfully unaware of the phenomenon of 'The Disappeared'. These two women, who lived in a republican stronghold, showed spectacular courage in breaking that silence.

The IRA ceasefire was still three weeks away. And it would be another decade before most of the truth seeped out about what the Provisionals had done to these and countless other families.

Margaret was 63 and Mary was 60, but they seemed far older to me, worn down by the torturous years of not knowing what had happened to their sons.

Margaret died on Tuesday aged 85. I can't remember the last time I saw her. But I can still recall every word that she spoke, and every emotion that crossed her face, on that first night in Andersonstown.

Photographs of her four other children lined her living-room walls. But those of her missing son - with Santa, on his birthday, at his brother's wedding - were kept above her wardrobe. "They're too painful for me to look at every day," she confessed.

Brian McKinney was 22 when he disappeared. John McClory was just 18. There was nothing special about them. They spent their short lives in a handful of streets. They grew up in Gartree Place, although the McKinneys later moved around the corner to Knockdhu Park.

Their mothers were cleaners, their fathers were drivers. They went to St Teresa's primary school and then onto the Christian Brothers. Both left there at 16 with no qualifications.

Although they were childhood friends, they couldn't have been more different. Mary McClory produced with pride a photo of her big, handsome son. "The night before he disappeared, he sat up late with a pair of scissors fraying his jeans and denim jacket," she confided.

"I laughed at him for fussing so much about his appearance. He loved clothes. You could see your face in his shoes, he polished them so hard. I'd iron his shirts but it would never be good enough, he'd iron them all over again. You could have cut bread on his trouser creases."

His friends called him Bugsy. "After Bugs Bunny," Mary explained, "because he had prominent teeth but he was too vain to wear a brace."

Margaret's son was nicknamed Bru after Brian Boru, the towering ancient king of Munster. "It was a bit of fun," she smiled, "because my Brian was just five foot tall. He had chronic asthma and a wee learning disability, God love him. He was naive and easily led."

Bugsy went out with more young women than Mary could remember. Margaret couldn't recall Bru ever having a girlfriend.

But, despite their contrasting personalities, the boys were inseparable. They'd sit under the lamp posts at night, playing cards.   

On the morning of May 25, 1978, Bugsy set off for the Mary Peter's Track where he worked as a labourer. He never arrived. Bru headed to the garage where he stored the tools for his gardening job. He was spotted getting into a car with two men.

Mary wasn't worried when Bugsy didn't come home from work. "I thought he was away with some girl. It wasn't unusual for him to stay out all night," she explained. But Margaret was suspicious when Bru didn't return. "It wasn't like him. He was a real home bird," she said.

They reported their sons missing to the RUC, but police appeals for information proved fruitless. Both lads had recently crossed the IRA. They had taken a gun from a Provo dump and robbed a local bar. It was an amateurish affair, and they never fired a shot.

But the week before they disappeared, the IRA had abducted and held them, tied up and blindfolded, for 48 hours. Surprisingly, they were released unharmed.

Bugsy returned from that interrogation without a care in the world. "He walked through the door cool as a cucumber," Mary said.

Bru was in an awful state. "He sat on the bed, really upset," recalled Margaret. "He looked drained and helpless. He hugged me and said he was sorry for causing so much worry. He told me that he'd never make me cry again."

Margaret made Bru return the £50 that he had stolen and apologise to the barman. Now that he'd disappeared again, she was certain that the IRA was responsible. A local Provisional confirmed this.

"Every night, that man would call round after the bars closed. He broke our hearts," she said. "We'd sit waiting for him and he would stagger in drunk and promise that Bru was okay, that he'd been put out of the country and would be ringing or writing from England any day.

"I gathered up the fare and packed my suitcase ready to go over to him. But Bru never phoned or wrote." Then one of the IRA men who had kidnapped her son the first time visited.

"He was very upset," recalled Margaret. "He said he was shocked when the order came to release Bru and Bugsy unharmed that time. He said the plan had been to kneecap them.

"He was a lovely lad, only a teenager himself. He told me he had nothing to do with Bru's second disappearance but he'd try to find out. He came back to me even more distraught. He'd been ordered not to ask any more questions."

Margaret's husband Billy withdrew his £300 life savings from the bank and offered it to a senior local republican in exchange for Bru's life. The Provo said he couldn't help.

Margaret sent a message in 1990 to Gerry Adams - via a relative of the Birmingham Six - requesting his help. She heard nothing back.

Mary claimed that the Sinn Fein president ignored her appeals when he canvassed her home at election time. As a life-long republican, Sinn Fein's indifference hurt her. "It was as if (Bugsy) never existed," she said.

In the first year after Bru's disappearance, Margaret had a heart attack. Neither she nor Billy could work again due to their deteriorating health. Her youngest child, Sandra, was just 13 when Bru disappeared.

"I don't know who looked after her because I wasn't able to," recalled Margaret. "I took Temazepam to dull the pain. My eldest daughter Linda went to England two years later. I'd have run away myself had I been able to.

"I lost my faith in God. I slept in Bru's bed and I never wanted to wake because I was waking up to a nightmare. I was full of rage and hatred. I asked the police for a gun to kill the children of the men who took Bru. I wanted them to know how it felt to lose a child."

But when I met Margaret in 1994, that anger had long subsided. The birth of her first grand-daughter Laura had given her a reason to live. "Laura brought the life back into our home," her grandmother said. "I was no longer interested in revenge."

Now, all Margaret wanted was her son's body back. She lovingly handed me a Claddagh brooch that Bru had bought her on a day trip to Dublin, and the mouth organ that he had played.

After I told Margaret's story in the Irish Times, she phoned. "I've a wee box of biscuits for you waiting in the hall to say thanks," she said. That thoughtfulness was typical of her.

The story of Bugsy and Bru was now in the public arena, and slowly political doors opened for her. A White House visit in 1998 was instrumental. President Clinton was so moved by her testimony that he promised to do everything he could to find her son.

Six weeks later, Gerry Adams visited her and pledged his assistance. In 1999, the IRA admitted abducting, killing, and secretly burying Bru, Bugsy, and seven others.

The rumour in west Belfast was that the two boys were buried in a local housing estate which had been under construction at a time. That was Margaret's greatest fear.

"I'd feel awful if some family's home had to be demolished to find Bru. If he is under a house, I'll go and see the family and apologise," she said.

But the bodies of Bru and Bugsy were discovered in Colgagh bog in Co Monaghan. Margaret finally found peace. But more distress came at the inquest after she learned that Bru had been alive when the IRA walked him into an unmarked grave.

"I can see him there crying out for me," she said, tears streaming down her face. Although her own campaign was over, Margaret selflessly kept on working for families of the other Disappeared whose bodies hadn't yet been found.

In September 1999, when she was making Bru's funeral arrangements, she asked me to do a reading at his Requiem Mass. I declined because journalists belong in the background on such occasions.

But I remember Margaret's plans for her son's grave in Milltown Cemetery. "There will be a photo of him on the headstone and an eternal flame so he never gets lonely.

"I will have nice wee flowers there - bright colours, nothing gloomy," she said.

"And I'll visit him every day. I'll be able to talk to Bru and to scold him for getting into trouble in the first place."

After Requiem Mass at St Matthias' Church today, Margaret will be brought down the road to Milltown.

After almost four decades of waiting, she will at last be united with her beloved boy.

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