By Jack Holland
As the ghoulish search continues in Ireland for the bodies of IRA victims secretly buried in the 1970s, the fate of one of them, Jean McConville, the mother of 10 children, has received the most attention — deservedly, given the nature of her case. In the current context of relative peace, it stands out as an example of frightening brutality. At the time it happened, however, while people were shocked, Jean McConville’s disappearance was not especially noticed, except by her family. To understand why, one only has to realize the nature and extent of the wave of violence that was sweeping across Northern Ireland in December 1972, when she was abducted. This helps explain how such a ghastly crime could have been submerged and then forgotten for decades.
The year 1972 was the single worst in the history of the conflict. According to published figures, there were 467 murders, 10,628 shootings, and 1,853 bombs planted — all this in a population less than half that of Brooklyn.
December 1972 was not the worst month of 1972 — that bloody accolade goes to July, when there were 96 murders. But between Dec. 1-31 38 people were slain, more than in the first six months of 1990, 1989, 1986, and 1983. Of the 38, 23 were victims of sectarian killers, all but three of them murdered by loyalists.
It was a grim end to a grim year. The mood was so black that not even the Christmas season could alleviate it. The roads were blacked out, some 900 men (all Catholics) were locked up without trial in Long Kesh internment camp, the centers of Belfast and Derry were dead after dark, and sectarian murder gangs prowled the streets and laneways, snatching people away to be tortured and shot. The more fortunate ones were gunned down on the spot. The names of most are now remembered only by friends and loved ones.
The month began with the death of a 47-year-old Catholic, Joseph McAuley. He had been shot 10 days earlier by loyalists as he walked along a laneway near his home in Finvoy, outside Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
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In the early morning of Dec. 2, the body of 23-year-old Patrick Benstead was found in an alleyway in East Belfast. He was another sectarian murder victim — their bodies had been turning up on a regular basis on vacant lots and dingy entries since the spring. Some had been tortured — but none as badly as Benstead. He was mentally retarded Catholic, last seen leaving a pub on the Falls Road and heading down the Donegall Road. He was found several hours later, almost naked, his eyes gouged out, and a cross branded on his back with the number 4 next to it. The marks had been made, it was surmised, by someone wielding a hot poker. That same day, a Protestant woman named Sandra Meli, 26, who was married to a Catholic, was shot dead in the kitchen of her home in Flora Street, East Belfast.
On Dec. 5, three men were murdered. William Bell, 30, was a Catholic the army shot as he was mending the roof of his house in the Ardoyne, Belfast. The Official IRA killed Roy Hillis, a 28-year-old British soldier in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. The Provisional IRA shot dead an off-duty UDR man at a post office in the village of Killeter, near Castlederg, Co. Tyrone.
The following day, Dec. 6, the Short Strand Provisional IRA killed a Protestant, 50-year-old Samuel White — the second in three days.
On Dec. 7, the day that Jean McConville was abducted from her flat, a leading member of the UDA was found murdered. Ernie Elliott, 28, had been shot in the head during a brawl in a loyalist club in Sandy Row.
There were two murders on Dec. 8. An 18-year-old British soldier, John Joesbury, died after the IRA shot him on the Whiterock Road in West Belfast. A 47-year-old Catholic called Joe Kelly was sitting on a bus on his way home from work in East Belfast when a UDA gunman shot him in the back of the head.
On Dec. 10, another British soldier, Stewart Middlemass, was killed when an IRA booby-trap bomb exploded in Turf Lodge, West Belfast.
The following day a Catholic, James Ward, aged 53, was shot dead by troops as he walked past a Belfast army base in North Queen Street.
The killing continued on Dec. 13, with the murder of an RUC man, James Nixon, 49, outside the Chester Park Hotel on the Antrim Road in North Belfast.
On Dec. 14, loyalists claimed the life of a Catholic teenager, James Reynolds, 16, also in North Belfast. The same day they murdered a 19-year-old Catholic girl, Kathleen Dolan, when a car bomb exploded in the village of Killeter — almost certainly in revenge for the death of the UDR man nine days in the same place before.
An RUC man, George Chambers, 44, was murdered by the Official IRA in Lurgan the following day as he delivered a Christmas gift to a child.
The worst day of the month came just five days before Christmas. On Dec. 20, eight people were murdered. Five were Catholics shot dead in a UDA attack on a pub in Derry — Michael McGinley, 40, Charles McCafferty, 31, Bernard Kelly, 26, Francis McCarron, 58, and Charles Moore, 25, were shot to death in the Top of the Hill Bar. The leader of the gang that killed them was a former British soldier. Two other Catholics were killed elsewhere — David McAleese, aged 37, and Alphonsus McGeown, 19, as well as a 28-year-old UDR man, George Hamilton.
Death took a Christmas break but was back in action again on Dec. 27 when the British army shot dead Eugene Devlin, 23, a member of the IRA.
On Dec. 28, loyalist bombers crossed the border a second time that month — the first had been on Dec. 1, when they had bombed Dublin, killing two — with a car bomb attack in Belturbet, Co. Cavan. It claimed the lives of 15-year-old Geraldine O’Reilly and 17-year-old Patrick Stanley.
Before the month was out, another two people lost their lives — 30-year-old IRA man James McDaid, shot dead by the British army, and a Catholic, Hugh Martin, aged 56, murdered by the UVF as he left his work in East Belfast on Dec. 30
By that date, concern about the fate of Mrs. McConville and her desolated family had faded from the airwaves and the newspapers.