Jean McConville was thirty-eight when she disappeared, and she had spent nearly half her life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth. She brought fourteen children to term and lost four of them, leaving her with ten kids who ranged in age from Anne, who was twenty, to Billy and Jim, the sweet-eyed twins, who were six. To bear ten children, much less care for them, would seem like an impossible feat of endurance. But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.
Instead, life dealt her an additional test when her husband, Arthur, died. After a grueling illness, he was suddenly gone and she was left alone, a widow with a meager pension but no paying job of her own and all of those children to look after. Demoralized by the magnitude of her predicament, she struggled to maintain an even emotional keel. She stayed at home mostly, leaning on the older kids to wrangle the younger ones, steadying herself, as if from vertigo, with one cigarette after another. Jean reckoned with her misfortune and endeavored to make plans for the future. But the real tragedy of the McConville clan had just begun.
The family had recently moved out of the apartment where Arthur spent his final days and into a slightly larger dwelling in Divis Flats, a dank and hulking public housing complex in West Belfast. It was a cold December and the city was engulfed in darkness by the end of the afternoon. The stove in the new apartment was not hooked up yet, so Jean sent her daughter Helen, who was fifteen, to a local takeaway restaurant for a bag of fish and chips. While the rest of the family waited for Helen, Jean drew a hot bath. When you have young children, sometimes the only place you can find a moment of privacy is behind a locked bathroom door. Jean was small and pale, with delicate features and dark hair that she wore pulled back from her face. She slipped into the water and stayed there. She had just gotten out of the bath, her skin flushed, when somebody knocked on the front door. It was about 7:00. The children assumed it must be Helen with their dinner.
But when they opened the door, a gang of people burst inside. It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were—it was roughly eight people, but it could have been ten or twelve. There were men and women. Some had balaclavas pulled across their faces; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks. At least one of them was carrying a gun.
As Jean emerged, pulling on her clothes, surrounded by her frightened children, one of the men said, gruffly, “Put your coat on.” She trembled violently as the intruders tried to pull her out of the apartment. “What’s happening?” she asked, her panic rising. That was when the children went berserk. Michael, who was eleven, tried to grab his mother. Billy and Jim threw their arms around her and wailed. The gang tried to calm the children, saying that they would bring Jean back—they just needed to talk to her; she would be gone for only a few hours.
Archie, who, at sixteen, was the oldest child at home, asked if he could accompany his mother wherever she was going, and the members of the gang agreed. Jean McConville put on a tweed overcoat and a head scarf as the younger children were herded into one of the bedrooms. While they were ushering the children away, the intruders spoke to them, offering blunt assurances—and addressing them by name. A couple of the men were not wearing masks, and Michael McConville realized, to his horror, that the people taking his mother away were not strangers. They were his neighbors.
Divis Flats was a nightmare from an Escher drawing, a concrete warren of stairways, passages, and overcrowded apartments. The elevators were perpetually out of order, and Jean McConville was borne by the rough little scrum out of her flat, through a corridor, and down a set of stairs. Normally there were people about at night, even in the wintertime—kids kicking a ball through the hallway or laborers coming home from work. But Archie noticed that the complex seemed eerily vacant, almost as if the area had been cleared. There was nobody to flag down, no neighbor who could sound the alarm.
He kept close to his mother, shuffling along, and she clung to him, not wanting to let go. But at the bottom of the stairs, a larger group was waiting, as many as twenty people, casually dressed and masked with balaclavas. Several of them had guns. A blue Volkswagen van sat idling on the curb, and now suddenly one of the men wheeled on Archie, the dull glint of a pistol arcing through the darkness, and pressed the tip of the barrel into his cheek, hissing, “Fuck off.” Archie froze. He could feel the cold metal pressing into his skin. He was desperate to protect his mother, but what could he do? He was a boy, outnumbered and unarmed. Reluctantly, he turned and ascended the stairs.
On the second level, one of the walls was perforated by a series of vertical slats, which the McConville children called “pigeon holes.” Peering through these openings, Archie watched as his mother was bundled into the van and the van drove out of Divis and disappeared. It would later strike him that the gang never had any intention of allowing him to chaperone his mother—they were simply using him to get Jean out of the flat. He stood there in the awful, wintry silence, trying to comprehend what had just happened and what he should do now. Then he started back toward the flat. The last words that his mother had said to him were “Watch the children until I come back.”