The Written Word
This week: The Brooch by Anne McCarry
THERE is no definitive date that we can universally identify or agree upon as the date that marks the beginning of the Northern Ireland conflict, or The Troubles, as they became known.
It was, and remains a complex issue, and like any war with ongoing raw wounds, a delicate one. But I know exactly the day and the moment it began for me. At approximately two or three minutes past one, on the afternoon of Monday, January 31, 1972.
As a clatter of us bailed into the back of Benny Maguire’s Escort Estate, grateful for the one mile dinner-hour lift home, somebody read out the screaming headline from the Independent on the passenger seat, ‘Derry’s Bloody Sunday’.
In my innocent 8-year-old world, ‘bloody’ was a word, a bad word, I had only encountered when, for whatever reason, my poor father was losing the plot with mankind. But here it was legitimately emblazoned across the front page of the national.
But as I was soon to discover, this was ‘bloody’ of a different kind. The real kind. And into my life arrived the almost daily front page with the screaming arguments about legitimacy. An argument soaked and steeped in bitterness, bloodshed and badness. The daily pages and the news headlines.
Day in, day out, year in, year out, for the next quarter century. My world became rich with new terminology, strange accents and menacing abbreviated organisations that were all contributing to, and fuelling this terror. The UVF, the IRA, the RUC. Incendiary devices and suspect devices. Coded phone-calls and warnings, or perhaps none. Rubber bullets and petrol bombs. UDA, LVF and the INLA. And every Sunday dinnertime, us being hushed by our father ‘til he hear the headlines blasting out from the radio. Some Derry mother pleading how her missing son ‘was never involved with none of it, and never done nothing to no one’. Bhleast buma i mBeal Feirste. Aris is aris.
And all those streets and roads with different names in strange cities where we’d never been, arriving in to our kitchen. Sandy Row, the Bogside, the Falls, Shankill. It all entered our lives, but obviously, a million miles away. And on it went.
Armalites and armed struggle. Bombs. Ballygawley, Ballymurphy and Brighton. Bandit country and Crumlin Road jail. Section 31, sectarianism and collusion. Blanket protests, hunger strikes and The Maze. The DUP and the Diplock courts. Dissidents and Drumcree. There was no getting away from it, it never seemed to stop! Trimble, Paisley and Hume. Free State bastards and Orangemen. Informers, internment and kneecapping. The Birmingham six, The Guilford four, The Gibraltar three. And like any dirty war conflict, be it in Argentina, Algeria or Armagh, there were also The Disappeared. Those who were abducted and murdered and their bodies hidden.
This poem by Anne McCarry from Wexford town was shortlisted for our own Anthony Cronin Award in 2017, and actually won the Bray Literary Society Award. It tells the story of the abduction and murder of Jean McConville by paramilitaries – the voice is one of the female abductors. She was accused of spying after (allegedly) putting a cushion under the head of an injured soldier. She was abducted, shot and her body buried on Shelling Beach. One of her sons, Archie, told the story of identifying her when her remains were found in 2003. She had always had a nappy pin in her cardigan, he said, and when the policeman showed the family the scrap of clothing found, there was a rusted nappy pin on the lapel.
for Jean McConville (1935-1972)
Trussed up like an old hen – and sulking
when we pulled the sack off. A touch
of steel under her ear persuaded her.
I’d say it was a fair trial – rigorous maybe –
but we gave her time and more than one chance
to tell the truth and shame the devil.
She said it began with a knock, a thump
like a bag of coal falling and there he was – a boy – dying on her threshold. We heard she had provided a pillow.
‘A wee cushion,’ she said, ‘that’s all it was.’
I recall the crack of my boot to her head.
The Chief was kind, patient as a saint.
‘Tell us all,’ he coaxed,
‘and we’ll have you
back with your weans by Bingo time.’
I held a cigarette to her mouth, pulled
off her wedding-ring.
We left herin her
old cardi, an old nappypin on the lapel.
It’s that pin that torments me still –
warrior-mother’s rustbronzed brooch,
sole relic of the Disappeared.