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.

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