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Helen McKendry: Some people ignored us... others didn't give a damn

Mother-of-10 Jean McConville was abducted and murdered by the IRA just before Christmas 1972. Her daughter Helen McKendry tells Joanne Sweeney about her ongoing fight for justice.

Q. What was your reaction to Gerry Adams' recent comments made about your mother's murder in the 60 Minutes programme  "as something that happens in war"?

A. That man just does not shock me anymore. I don't think he stops to think what's coming out of his mouth. I don't know why people would vote for a man like that.

Q. Your brother Michael has said that if Mr Adams classifies your mother's death as a casualty of war, then it was a war crime. Do you agree?

A. Yes, I do and I have said that before. If he says it's a war, then do the right thing and tell the truth. If he was a leader in this war, then he should be done for a war crime. I have spoken with people about taking a civil action against him, but we are still trying to work it out so I can't really speak about that. I can't wait until the day that I can bring him to court.

Q. How difficult is to accept that no one has ever been charged with your mother's murder?

A. Of course it is difficult, but when you take into account the 14 people who came to take my mother - then they passed her onto someone else and they passed her on to other people - how many people were actually involved in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville?

Q. So who are you after?

A. I'm after the one who gave the order and I believe that was Gerry Adams. No one is going to convince me otherwise.

Q. What was your mother's mood like before she was taken away?

A. She wasn't 100% right after my father died as she was living in an area where she didn't really know anybody and she had no family around her. About three months after my father died in January of that year, my mother tried to take her life. That was the third time. I remember she was taken into hospital for psychiatric treatment in Purdysburn (Hospital), but even she came back home she still wasn't 100%.

Q. What happened the night before your mother was taken?

A. Somebody came into the bingo hall to tell her that I had been knocked down by a bus, and this lady was going to take her to the Royal Victoria Hospital to see me. When she got to the car, she was pushed in and they drove her around for a while and took her into an old building. She was tied to a chair and was beaten.

Later, the Army came and told me that they had found her and to come and get her. When I saw her in the interview room, her hair had just been pulled out of her, there was blood on her nose, and her feet were cut and her hands.

She was really distressed, but she just wanted to go home. I asked her who did it and she said it was the IRA but she couldn't tell me why.

Q. And the night that your mother was taken?

A. I wasn't actually in the house when they came for my mother. We got the kids up for school in the morning and tried to have a normal day.

Around tea-time she said to me she was going to have a bath. She asked me to go and get some fish and chips and said that she would be out by the time I came back. Her last words to me were, "Don't be taking too long, and don't be stopping for a sneaky smoke".

As soon as I came back, I knew that something was wrong. My brothers and sisters were screaming and there were lots of people standing about. I went in and heard what the kids had to say and saw their fear. Nobody got any tea as the chips went flying as I ran to see what was going on.

Q. What happened next?

A. We were all still coming to terms with the loss of my father Arthur in January of that year from cancer.

I had to take over the job of my mother, which was very hard because I was only 15 and taking on that role when there was no money coming in.

We were on own for about 14 weeks.

Every day got harder for me because I couldn't get the children to go to school. There was no food for them. I had to rely on friends' homes, where I would go in and steal food from their parents for us behind their backs.

Q. What was your family life like before all of this?

A. It was a tough upbringing because after my father left the Army, he couldn't get any work or housing.

But we were happy kids. We were loved by both our parents, even though at times my father ruled us like he was back in the Army and we were his little soldiers.

With my mother and father, you wouldn't have seen one without the other. They were very close.

Q. Do you think it was harder or easier on you that you weren't there when 14 men and women took your mother?

A. I don't really know, but all I do know is that if I had have been there at the time, I would have put up a fight.

Sometimes, I think that the people who took my mother were waiting on me not being there because I was later told that they were actually in a nearby house watching ours all day.

Q. So within a space of 15-20 minutes your life was turned upside down?

A. Yes, it was, right through to this present day.

Q. Do you remember the night when your mother showed compassion to an injured soldier?

A. That was when we lived at Farset Walk. There was heavy shooting one night and we were all down on the ground as usual as bullets were just whizzing past us. We heard a thud on the door and heard someone crying, "Somebody help me, please help me, don't leave me here". My mother got up and said, "I can't stand this, I'm going to the door". Then, in Divis Flats, every light went out at night, so we were in complete darkness.

She crawled out to the front door, opened it and there was a young soldier lying there. She just put his head onto her knee and talked to him and tried to comfort him. Then the Army came and took him away. My mother came in with blood on her clothes and her hands. My brother, who was 16 at the time, said, "You should never have done that, you're only asking for trouble to come to the door".

Q. How did she react to that?

A. She got really angry with him at the way he was talking and she slapped him. It took a lot for my mother ever to raise a hand to us. She said, "I never, ever want to hear you talk like that again. That was somebody's son there. That could have been you lying there. If it had been you or any of your brothers. I would have wanted somebody to go to your aid."

Q. Was your brother's warning right?

A. Yes, he was right, his words came true.

Q. What was the local community's reaction to your mother's disappearance?

A. The older people ignored us but then there were one or two good people who didn't ignore us and took us in and fed us.

There were others who just didn't give a damn what happened outside their door. I can understand it as they were just afraid. People saw the IRA as their protectors - they were patrolling the streets at night so we could sleep in our beds.

Q. What happened to you and your siblings when you were taken into care?

A. Well, on one hand, I saw it as a relief because I didn't have these kids gurning at me for food that I didn't have to give to them. I didn't have to make sure that they had clothes on their back.

Remember, I was only 15 at the time. I just wanted to be a 15-year-old with no worries and do normal things that any teenager does. But I had two six-year-olds, a seven-year-old and an eight-year-old to look after.

But then when I saw my brothers and sisters in that environment, we weren't allowed to be family any more.

Q Were you separated then or later?

A. No. We were all taken into Nazareth Lodge (in Belfast) and kept together for a few weeks as a family. You are told that you're not a family there - you're a group of people who have to get on with one another. You are just a number, more or less. There was no love there, there was no compassion, there was nothing.

Q. What happened next?

A. We were all split up within a few weeks. I had started to run away, so did my brother and a few others. I felt that if I got back to Divis Flats that maybe my mother would be there but it never happened.

Q. Were you mistreated while in care?

A. I was not abused at the orphanage, but I went to the confession and got slapped in the face because of Father Brendan Smyth. We were taken over to Saturday morning confession by a nun who would have sat outside the confession box. When the doors closed and he started to talk to me and I went, "Hold on, you shouldn't be talking me like that. You're a dirty oul man".

I thought that I had spoken that, but I had actually shouted it. When I went out the nun who had been standing there had overheard . She slapped me and said, "Don't you ever talk to a priest like that".

I've never been back in confession again and I don't attend church.

Q. You are estranged from your siblings. Would you like to see this resolved?

A. My family were unhappy with me starting the campaign in the first place. I can understand why because they lived in west Belfast and had fear for their own children. That was what caused most of the trouble between us. To be quite honest, my family are strangers to me now. I don't really have anything in common with them, only DNA. I really don't what to go into it further and have a public slanging match.

Q. How did you cope with all this trauma in your life?

A. Talking to the media and telling my mother's story has helped, but I've never been offered counselling. But I think you do put a mental block on. There was more stuff that happened. I lost part of my toe in an explosion in Belfast city centre. I'm deaf in one ear and I think it's down to that too.

I saw a soldier and a young man, James Quigley (18-year-old IRA member shot by the Army in 1972). I saw the young soldier, who had got separated from his regiment and was on his own, become surrounded by a crowd of women to try and get him down to the barracks safely. A gunman came up, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out in front of us all.

I'm very happy to say that when we lived in west Belfast, my children never saw that, and I know my grandchildren will never see that.

Q. What do you think your mother's message would be to you in your for fight for truth and justice in her name?

A. My mother was a quiet woman, but she always tried to put it into our head that you never back down if there's something you believe in - you don't let people put words in your mouth and you stand up for what you believe in. That's why I'm campaigning for her. That's what she taught me.

Q. You've been married for 36 years, have five children and 13 grandchildren, with another on the way. Has having a large family helped with your healing?

A. My children have been brilliant, particularly when I first started the campaign to get answers and I was running here and there.

For a long time, I couldn't tell my children that their granny was murdered. Now, we often pack up about four or five cars and go to Shellingham Beach (the spot in Co Louth where Mrs McConville's body was eventually found in 2003) and the grandkids say, "We are going to Granny Jean's beach".

Q. Do you hope you get the whole truth and justice in your lifetime?

A. I'm hoping I will because Gerry Adams is in his 60s and he won't live forever. I would love to see him questioned under oath and have my day in court. But if I don't, my children will fight on. This hasn't just affected Jean's children, it's affected the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Q. Your mother obviously left a huge imprint on you in the 15 years you had with her.

A. She taught me everything that I needed to know as a mother. Losing her has made family all the more important to me. Seamus and I haven't tuppence to our name, but I see every one of my kids every day and all of my grandchildren. I enjoy every minute of that.

Q. Do you feel you see yourself as a victim of the Troubles?

A. I've always said that I'm not a victim and that my mother was a victim. I'm a survivor. I need to tell her story and it's important for the children growing up now to know what happened in this country so that it never happens again.

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