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Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 05:47 GMT 06:47 UK

'Disappeared' return to haunt Ireland's conscience

Flowers are left at the scene of one of the digs

BBC Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray witnesses a mixture of hope, grief, anger and quiet dignity as one family watch the dig for a 'disappeared' loved one.

More than 3,000 people died in the 30 years of violence known as the Troubles and the overwhelming majority of those victims received what in a religious society is known as a Christian burial.

But there were a few murders which were never acknowledged by the paramilitary groups and in recent years their relatives have run a campaign for information about their missing loved ones so they too can be laid to rest.

The Search for Peace
This is tough emotional stuff, but until the last few days it had all been an issue in the peace process, a concept if you like.

But after one body was returned and digs began at other places, suddenly it was a reality and there has not been an impact on the collective psyche on Northern Ireland like it for years.

The first remains were left in a coffin in a virtually disused ancient graveyard close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA later said this was the one body they could locate accurately and while they tried to pinpoint eight others they couldn't.

[ image: Denis Murray: Grief is tangible]
Denis Murray: Grief is tangible
Imagine: someone, somewhere knew where the remains of a young man, murdered more than 20 years ago lay.

They exhumed those remains, bought a coffin and picked a graveyard to leave it in to be found by the police.

Don't ask me. I can't even begin to explain that mindset.

The Irish police cordoned off locations in four different counties miles apart.

The spotlight fell, though, on one particular dig at a beachside car park.

This was where the IRA had said the remains of Jean McConville, abducted from her West Belfast home and murdered in 1972, lay.

Her crime, in the eyes of the gunmen and women who had taken her away from her 10 children, was that she'd comforted a wounded British soldier.

On a cool but sunny evening, her daughter Helen Mackendry and her husband, Seamus, walked into that carpark.

[ image: Too much to bear for some relatives]
Too much to bear for some relatives
They wanted to be there, just as simple as that.

Helen burst into tears. One couldn't even begin to imagine how she was feeling.

Her eight surviving brothers and sisters came in the following days to join the vigil.

It was only the second time in 27 years that they'd all been together in one place.

The information from the IRA appeared at first to be very specific.

By hand one car space was dug, it looked like a grave.

When that yielded nothing, in came the mechanical diggers.

A week later half the carpark was a huge trench and still nothing was found.

It's quite the most surreal scene I've ever reported from.

Surreal scene

On the grassy bank behind the car park photographers, television crews and reporters lay in the sun.

They wore shades and drank orange juice. Thirty yards away police were digging for a body.

Beside the excavation sat the relatives. They sipped tea and coffee, occasionally touching the flowers they'd twisted into the portable mesh fencing the Irish police had erected.

Sometimes one or two would have a hug and a quiet cry.

At lunch time, sea mist rolled in like something from a movie based on a Stephen King novel.

At around teatime two young fellows roared up and down the beach on dune buggies.

In one corner of the beach was a pile of boulders, on top was a television set. Surreal.

But above anything else was the quiet dignity of Helen Mackendry.

Bitter memories

I told her Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage: Grace under pressure.

That she has in abundance.

There is a huge wave of sympathy from the public, north and south of Ireland's border.

But, just like the early release of paramilitary prisoners under last year's Good Friday agreement on Northern Ireland's political future, that chord was struck and resonated and when we became used to it, it began to fade away.

When a body is found and then identified and the funeral happens, the chord will be struck again.

But few now notice or comment on the prisoners. Once the funerals are over the same will happen.

One of the curses of Ireland is that people have memories that are far too long - the anniversary of a battle in 1690 still celebrated for God's sake - and far too short when what needs to be remembered is the other person's grief.

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