Belfast Telegraph

Home Life

Kevin and the pain that has never disappeared

Kevin McKee's sister Philomena on how her brother's death devastated the entire family circle

When the IRA abducted, murdered and secretly buried my brother Kevin, they didn't just take one life. They took my mother's also. From that moment, there was not a year went by that she didn't end up in Purdysburn [psychiatric unit].

I have been on medication for depression most of my adult life, as a result of not having a normal childhood. From when I was 15-years-old, I was rearing my younger sisters, cooking them meals, handwashing clothes. I missed a lot of school. Mummy might be in hospital for eight months at a stretch but it was nearly easier than when she was at home.

She was very difficult to deal with. She would put some food on a plate and say, "Put that in the hot press to keep it warm for Kevin," and if you so much as raised an eyebrow, all hell would break loose. Or she would go round to the neighbours, banging on their doors and shouting, "Where's my son? What have you done with Kevin?" You didn't want to wake up some mornings for fear of what mood she'd be in.

Our father had never been on the scene. Only for mummy's two sisters, Phil and Bell, us kids would have ended up being taken into care.

While other teenagers were hanging around the streets or doing their homework, I was trying to care for mummy and the rest of the family. I got married at 21 and had four children of my own, but the marriage didn't last.

I can see how my problems have affected my own children and even my 12-year-old grandson, who lives with me rather than his mother [Phil's daughter], who had him when she was 16.

So what the IRA did when they took our Kevin has directly affected our family right down through four generations. I don't know how some people can sleep in their beds at night.

I can't remember all that much about our Kevin as I was still wee when he was growing up. He was the oldest, then there was Michael and Marie, then me, then Michelle and Catriona. But I do remember him as a quiet lad, who was gentle and likeable. Everyone always liked Kevin.

I was born in 1963 so my very early memories were before the Troubles. We lived in Moyard on the Whiterock in west Belfast and we had plenty of Protestant neighbours. There was no problem – everyone just lived happily together.

Kevin was mad into football and supported Glentoran. This might seem strange now – Glentoran is an east Belfast team of mostly Protestant supporters – but it didn't seem strange at all back then.

Everything changed when the Army came. All the Protestants started moving out and the atmosphere became one of fear and tension.

I don't think the Protestants were forced out, I just think they preferred to be with their own now that the atmosphere had changed.

The Army terrified me. They raided the houses in our neighbourhood all the time.

It didn't seem to matter whether you had done anything or not; they showed no mercy.

I remember vividly one raid at our house. It was brutal. They were thrashing at the beds without even seeing who was in them. It was our Kevin and Michael who were in them and they were beaten to a pulp. I had never seen so much blood before. Kevin would have been around 15 or 16.

I guess it was around this time that Kevin got involved [with the IRA], but we really don't know the facts. We have never known. My family was not political nor even particularly republican. Perhaps Kevin did sign up because of all the harassment from the Army and police. My memory of the exact sequence of events is hazy, but about a year later, Kevin was arrested and taken to Springfield Road Army barracks. I think it was around this time that he might have been recruited by Special Branch, but again, this is speculation.

Aunt Phil and Aunt Bell went up to the barracks to see what was happening, but when they got there, they were told Kevin had escaped. We didn't see him for about a year after that. Then, out of the blue, letters started to arrive from Kevin. We think they came from England. Mummy pleaded with him to come home, and he did for a short time in 1972. Aunt Phil took a photograph of him which is the one that's always used in the media and the last image we have of him.

It wasn't long after this that he went missing again. A few weeks later, mummy got a phonecall from him. He said he was staying in Co Monaghan and needed fresh clothes so Aunt Phil and her husband Jim, Aunt Bell and mummy went to the address they had been given. But when when they got to the house, which had originally belonged to the old IRA leader Fergal O'Hanlon, they were simply told that Kevin was not there.

They were allowed to search the house but there was no trace of Kevin; it was as if he'd never been there. And that was to be the last we ever heard of him until the peace process started and it was confirmed – 27 years later – that he'd been murdered. After the Monaghan trip, Aunt Phil and Aunt Bell went to Sinn Fein but they claimed not to know anything. Everywhere it was the same story.

It makes me very angry now to think of Sinn Fein and where the leadership is today. I met with Gerry Adams and he said he'd do everything he could. He's from the same area as me and knew my family well. But his words were hollow.

Mummy's health went downhill rapidly after Monaghan. It's only since I've become a mother myself that I realise what she must have gone through. Kevin was her son – her first-born. She couldn't bear the pain of not knowing what had happened to him. Even if the IRA could have told us at that point that he was dead and returned his body, she at least would have been able to grieve and she might have recovered.

As it was, her mind went to pieces. She received round after round of electric shock therapy until they'd given her so much, they couldn't give her anymore. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, which the doctors said could be brought on by extreme stress.

She died two years ago, from cancer, but in truth she had been dead a long time. From when Kevin disappeared, her life was merely an existence.

We had wee glimmers of hope here and there. In 1999, just after the Good Friday Agreement, a list of people acknowledged as having been 'disappeared' by the IRA and INLA – I believe there were probably more – was published in the media along with assurances that the locations of the bodies would be given. Mummy got her flat done up, in anticipation of a wake. But slowly, all thoughts of a funeral seemed to melt away. Two Garda searches have been carried out for Kevin and for the remains of Seamus Wright, who the IRA say was buried with Kevin in 1972 in a field at Wilkinstown, Navan, in Co Meath.

Nothing has come from either search, but I firmly believe Kevin is there, it's just a question of finding the exact spot. The search site is a massive field – much, much bigger than a football pitch, and it's very difficult to get around.

When I visited the searches, I'd always be thinking, am I walking on top of Kevin right now?

There's only one entrance to the field, so you're walking down it thinking, 'These were the last steps Kevin took'. I used to drive myself crazy thinking things like, 'I wonder was he dead when they put him in the hole?' or 'Did they torture him?'

When our hopes were raised and then dashed by the searches, mummy had a massive nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. One of my worst memories is watching her as she was taken to hospital for the last time. She didn't want to go and was kicking and screaming and wrapping her legs around the railings.

But I refuse to give up hope. There are people out there who know more – I can say that, hand on heart. All we need is the missing piece of information. I can't tell you how important it is that Kevin's body be returned to us for a Christian burial.

Apart from the importance of the religious aspect, it's about bringing him back to his family. We need to put him in the grave with mummy. We need them to be re-united. We need to know he's safe with us, not lonely and abandoned in some godforsaken field, miles away.

Even if someone could tell us the exact date of when he died, it would be something. We have no anniversary to mark, we can't put a notice in the paper.

We don't even know if he ever reached his 17th birthday.

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