Forty years This January 2016
In Memory Of One Of My Best Friends…….JBoy2244
John McConville, a devout Christian and only 20, was working to save up his fees for Bible College when he was gunned down on a cold, dark winter’s day in January 1976, along with 10 other Protestant workmen. Today, in the second extract from ‘A Legacy of Tears’, a new book by David Patterson the McConville family of south Armagh tell how the murder of their son has left them with an open wound.
By David Patterson
06 July 2006
The McConville family Tommy and Esther, with their four children, John, Karen, Mandy and Tania, lived at 30 Moninna Park, Cloughrea, about two miles from the village of Bessbrook.
Bessbrook was a close knit rural community and a model industrial village, initiated by Quakers in the 18th century. The McConville children enjoyed a happy childhood playing in the countryside and spending time with their grandmother and her sister. The family attended the local Presbyterian church, where the children were involved in Sunday school, the Boys’ Brigade and Girl Guides also played an important role in their lives during their formative years.
Village life was most harmonious and although two diverse denominations lived side by side, the McConville children grew up in an environment in which they were not aware of any tensions or divisions between the two communities.
Mrs McConville and her eldest daughter, Karen, described John as, “a gentle, caring considerate and fun loving young boy.” They recalled his sense of humour and the constant flow of laughter with his sisters through childhood and teenage years.
They bantered and played pranks on each other continually, much to the dismay of their mother.
John became a Christian at the age of 16 and sometime following his conversion became a member of Newry Baptist Church. John’s only desire was to go to Bible College to prepare for missionary work in South Africa, to which he believed God was calling him.
He enrolled and completed various Bible correspondence courses in which he gained distinctions. He also sought to be a faithful and inspiring advocate for Christ.
John would faithfully, in the most practical and unassuming way, seek to share God’s Word with all whom he met. His faith in God and subsequent witness was a great inspiration to all who knew him. He touched many lives across the community divide by his honest and humble ministry.
At the age of 20, John was accepted at a Bible College in Scotland where he was to commence full time study in the autumn of 1976. He was delighted and shared with the family how he felt so sure that this was God’s plan for his life.
To save up for the college fees, John had taken a job at Compton’s Spinning Mill at Glenanne, about four miles from Bessbrook, where he had been working for about two years.
On the January 5, 1976, the ‘Mill’s’ minibus set off to return 12 workers to their homes. John McConville was among the passengers on that minibus. As the vehicle wended its way along the dark, lonely country roads of South Armagh, its happy occupants were having a very normal conversation about a recent football match.
The conversation also turned to the tragic events of the previous night when two Roman Catholic brothers had been shot and killed at their home in nearby Whitecross.
As the minibus approached the brow of a hill near the Kingsmill crossroads, a red torchlight was spotted by the driver, who slowed down and stopped, believing this to be a routine Army check. Men wearing combat jackets, with their faces blackened, immediately joined the man waving the torch.
The occupants were ordered out of the minibus and were asked to state their religion. Initially, the one Roman Catholic passenger was thought to be the intended target, but when the gang ordered him to run, it was quickly realised by the Protestant passengers that only his life was to be spared.
The remaining 11 workmen were then lined up at gunpoint along the side of the minibus, and 10 of them were slain in a hail of gunfire. One man, though badly wounded, survived the attack and was able later to relate the horrific event that saw his colleagues murdered.
That evening, Mrs McConville had returned from work and had made the tea when she heard on the television news that there had been an incident involving a minibus. Mrs McConville immediately said to her husband Tommy: “John’s on that minibus.” Tommy told her to phone the police and enquire, but when she phoned Bessbrook RUC station they couldn’t tell her anything and asked her to ring back later.
Mrs McConville then asked her husband to take her out to Kingsmill, though at this time she did not think about death, she simply thought that maybe it was some kind of an accident.
Her husband agreed to take her to the house of a neighbour, a Mrs McWhirter, whose husband would also have been on the minibus.
Said Mrs McConville: “Mrs McWhirter came to the door and related that she had also heard about the minibus incident. She asked me to make her a wee cup of tea and Tommy went up to the police station. When Tommy returned some time later he had no further information about the incident and I insisted that he take me out to Kingsmill.
“We went out to the scene where a policeman, Constable Billy Turbitt, who was also to be abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1978, stopped us. We told him who we were, and explained to him that our son was on the minibus and could he tell us what had happened.
“Constable Turbitt told us that he couldn’t, but to pull our car in to the side of the road. At that point, three ambulances arrived at the scene and Constable Turbitt told us that the best thing to do was to follow the ambulances into Daisy Hill hospital in Newry.”
Tommy and Esther followed the ambulances to the hospital, where they met one of the ambulance drivers, Stuart Roland, and asked him: “What about John?” He said that he couldn’t tell them, but that their daughter Karen was also at the hospital.
Mrs McConville had left the three girls at home and told them not to move, but they had heard further news on the radio about the incident and Karen had gone up to her uncle’s and asked him to take her to the hospital.
As soon as Mrs McConville entered the hospital, she met their local minister, the Rev Nixon. With tears, Mrs McConville recalled how he just caught her by the two arms and said: “John’s gone.”
They waited in a room and Mr Nixon gave Mrs McConville a tablet as a doctor and a policewoman arrived to offer help. The family then headed home to find it overflowing with neighbours – many of them Roman Catholics.
Overcome by grief
Tommy went over to break the news to Esther’s mother, then brought her over to the house where, overcome by grief, she took a ‘turn’. The intensity of the family’s grief was at times uncontrollable. Karen at times screamed, such was her anguish.
Mrs McConville was in such shock that she did not know the details of how her son had been killed and thought that it had been a road accident involving the mini bus. She later had to be told of how her son had actually died.
A policeman who arrived first at the scene described it as an, “indescribable scene of carnage.” The survivor had been shot 18 times.
More than 3,000 people attended the funeral services of the 10 murder victims.
The funeral service for John McConville was held jointly with five other massacre victims in Bessbrook Presbyterian Church on January 8 amid driving rain, and his body laid to rest in the adjoining graveyard.
Mrs McConville treasures the hundreds of sympathy cards the family received on her son’s death. She has a beautifully inscribed Bible which was presented in John’s memory, while a hymn written especially for children in Northern Ireland was published by the John McConville Memorial Trust.
Mrs McConville became a Christian at the time of the murder and believes that only by God’s grace and her faith in Christ was she able to cope and to keep going.
After the tragedy, Mandy and Tania, the younger children, experienced nervous reactions as a result of their grief and had to attend the hospital.
The following June, the McConvilles moved house to Riverside Crescent in Bessbrook, as they felt it impossible to stay in their home at Moninna Park. But Karen felt she had to move to Belfast to live and work.
Mrs McConville returned to work just two weeks after the murder, but was on anti-depressants.
“It was a terrible time, it was awful, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” she said. “I just had to go on. Only by God’s help did I get through it.”
The McConvilles have found the strength to go on, but still keenly feel a great sense of pain and loss. Yet they bear no bitterness or resentment to the evil perpetrators of this most atrocious crime.
Like dozens of murders in Co Armagh, no one has been brought to the courts or convicted of the Kingsmill Massacre.
Karen said: “Evil men had in the most brutal and inhuman way extinguished the life of John in his prime and I am going to miss him for the rest of my life.
“The loss of John has taught me many things, not least the sanctity and preciousness of life. I had been forced into a position where I was confronted with the effects of the hatred, courage and intolerance of certain members of society that had claimed the lives of innocent people.
“If John and his companions were murdered in order to create further hatred within society then for that reason I would not allow myself to be so influenced.
“I have learned to leave justice, retribution and revenge in the hands of the Lord. This is a great comfort to me, as I know that God will have the final say as far as the perpetrators of this evil deed are concerned.
“More so, considering that no one has been charged with the Kingsmill murders. Although these men walk free, they are tethered to this dreadful event for the remainder of their lives.
“I, on the other hand, can remember my dear brother with pride, happiness and admiration for his devotion, tolerance and love. He is in a much better place and for this I am happy. No one can take him or these memories away from me ever again.”
David Patterson is a baptist pastor who has previously worked in banking and as a political researcher.
To obtain a copy of A Legacy of Tears (£5.99) email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: (028) 3755 2808. Also available in bookshops