Who dug the graves, and what do they know?

I often think about the men who dug the graves of the Disappeared. Who were they and what do they remember? Chances are, according to Seamus Ruddy’s sister Anne Morgan when she once spoke about it on television, they were probably the youngest in the units when called on to do the digging. Surely they know something. They are still alive.

Most people like to retain a few mementos after someone has died. The more pragmatic clear out wardrobes and chests, book-cases and cupboards, and hold on to one or two small artefacts that signified the life of the dead person. Others hang onto everything, and clothes hang untouched for decades. But the difference between these effects of the dead and the things left behind by those who were vanished by the IRA, is that there is a body. Even in sudden death, even in death by car accident, where there have been horrendous injuries, there are bodies. People can play some part in how the dead person is presented in death. There is the mortician’s work with all its wizardry, not to mention (as often happens) the careful selection of an outfit in which the person is dressed as he goes to the grave.

For people whose husbands, brothers or sons have disappeared at the hands of the IRA, this simply can’t happen. A major part of the process of grief is denied them, because with no body to hand, remembrance becomes a pitiable, hopeless sort of longing – or so I imagine – in which no true peace can be found. One of the side-effects of ignorance of the facts, can be that people’s minds play imaginative tricks. It’s hard to know who or what to believe, and who to trust, especially if someone comes along and whispers or hints that they might know something that would lead to the recovery of a body. People play psychological games with one another. Meanwhile the mind carries on with its own work, and in private, families imagine and recreate unthinkable violence as part of their daily life.

This is what I wanted to explore in my last novel “Where They Lie”. I wanted to imagine for myself what it might be like to live with the knowledge of the total annihilation of someone you love. The novel is a fictional account of a Protestant family’s attempts to recover two men’s bodies, the twins Sam and Harry Jebb. It is about the people left behind and how they ‘cope’, if that’s the right word. Because coping is a very flexible concept, isn’t it? We all do it in our way, but how do we do it if the body of a loved one has vanished in the cruellest way, been destroyed from a hate-filled agenda? With those questions in mind, I knew my characters, living their lives awkwardly but individually, had to kick back at the gross injustice, that their anger and hurt had to be visible in sometimes the strangest of ways, in extremes and in inconsistencies, in truths and half-truths and sometimes in no truth at all.

A journalist once described the violence of Jean McConville’s death to me, and how finger digits were discovered, suggesting that her hands were broken. So this is what people are left with: moments of pain-filled reflection which must imbue most days with a shockingly dark quality, a hollow vacuum which simply will not be filled due to lack of knowledge. In the case of McConville and others, some kind of awkward closure is possible since the
bodies were recovered, although of course the ‘closure’ is a complete cop-out, because we never truly find closure about anything, no matter how neatly we like to categorise reaction to death.

In my own novel, I can’t say I was intent on any ‘closure’ as the book progressed in its early draft form, because very quickly I realised that my focus had to be on the still living, forced to deal as best they can with the monstrous injustice that had befallen them. My characters are angry and hurt on the one hand, lost in dreams in the case of another character, but still driven by the need to recover, recover, recover those bodies at all and any insane cost.

The minds of the people whose family member has not yet been recovered are being manipulated by master puppeteers. We can speculate that some of those involved in the actual disappearances may now be dead themselves, or it may be the case that with the passage of time, they have forgotten the precise location of this or that body. But surely some of the once young men – the strong, new recruits whose commitment might have been tested by their willingness to dig the grave for the disposal of a freshly murdered body – must still be alive and remembering quite exactly where these bodies lie today.

If they wait much longer, so many things will have changed. Because even the earth does not easily reveal its secrets, and the soil – literally – shifts. Trees grow. Valleys deepen. Everything is in movement and the earth holds on to its secrets over time.

It’s time the grave-diggers spoke up about the remaining unrecovered bodies.


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