McConville, Jean (1935–72), murder victim, was born at Avoniel, east Belfast, in 1935, the daughter of Thomas Murray, shipyard worker, and his wife, May. After a basic education she entered domestic service. In 1952 she married Arthur McConville, a catholic soldier from west Belfast and converted to catholicism. Arthur left the British army in 1964 and became a builder. Despite their religion they made their home in the area where Jean had been born. They had ten surviving children (four others died in infancy), of whom the eldest, Anne, was intellectually disabled. Jean, a slightly built woman 5 feet 2 inches tall, was in poor health: she had a hysterectomy in 1966 and suffered from recurrent thrombosis.
From 1966 the McConville family were subjected to increasing loyalist harassment. In 1969 they were expelled from Avoniel after Jean refused to revert to protestantism. They were eventually rehoused in the Divis Flats, a social housing complex on the edge of the catholic area of west Belfast. In summer 1971 Arthur was diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer; he died on 3 January 1972. On 21 March, Robert, the eldest son, was interned. The area was disrupted by curfews and army searches. Jean made three suicide attempts and spent months in a psychiatric hospital. Although she was apolitical she came under suspicion because of her background and her refusal to hide arms – she feared that if she collaborated with republicans another son might be arrested. An incident in which she tried to comfort a dying soldier outside her door fuelled these suspicions. The family's dogs were killed and they were subjected to further harassment. A dispute with a republican family over a piece of furniture may also have contributed to her fate.
On 6 December 1972 Jean McConville was kidnapped by members of the Provisional IRA while attending her regular bingo session and subjected to an interrogation during which she was severely beaten. (In 2002 republicans interviewed by the journalist Ed Moloney claimed that she confessed to spying for the British army, an allegation strongly denied by her family.) She was released but on the following day was taken from her home by four men and four women, several of whom were known to the family. Then or soon afterwards she was shot dead and her remains secretly buried.
Her death took place at a time when the IRA feared infiltration by informers and was seeking to make an example of those they suspected so as to deter others. (One rumour claims that McConville was confused with a woman involved with an army covert operation.) McConville's position was sufficiently marginal to allow her to be targeted without the fear of serious repercussions within the local community: her husband had been an only child and McConville had quarrelled with his mother, so she had no close family connections in the area. The bad publicity that would have resulted had it been known that the IRA had killed a widow with ten children, however, encouraged the perpetrators to conceal her body and deny her death. Rumours circulated that she had run off with British soldiers or a loyalist. Her children were largely shunned and left isolated.
In January 1973 her eldest surviving daughter, Helen (b. 1958), who had been trying to keep the family together, contacted the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which publicised McConville's disappearance. This caused brief and intense publicity, which died away when local nationalist politicians claimed (on the basis of IRA assurances) that publicity was prejudicing the chances of her return. Soon afterwards the family was taken into care; the children were separated and placed in orphanages. The divisions created by this separation never healed, and the search for Jean McConville was marred by family disputes.
On 7 December 1994, soon after the start of the first IRA ceasefire resulting from the peace process, Helen (still haunted by her mother's loss and believing that she might be alive but incarcerated in a psychiatric institution) spoke about her mother's fate on BBC Radio Ulster. This renewed public interest in the case. Helen McKendry and her husband Seamus (who had been making informal enquiries for some time) founded the Families of the Disappeared group, which brought together families whose relatives were believed to have been killed by republicans, often as alleged informers. The title of the group evoked similar bodies in South America dedicated to tracing victims of totalitarian regimes; the campaign badge was a blue ribbon. The issue was raised in numerous forums and proved a significant embarrassment to the republican movement. In 1997 the IRA privately admitted responsibility for Jean McConville's death, alleging that she had not been intentionally killed but had suffocated when gagged with a plastic bag. On 29 March 1999 the IRA issued a statement about the locations of several graves of the ‘disappeared’. It claimed that Jean McConville was buried at Templetown beach, Carlingford Lough, Co. Louth. An extensive search was carried out between 29 May and 17 July 1999 but nothing was found. After a further statement from the IRA, which suggested that the site of the grave might be at the nearby Shelling Hill beach, the McKendrys undertook further unsuccessful excavations in May 2000.
In August 2003 the body of Jean McConville was discovered by passers-by on Shelling Hill beach; a post-mortem confirmed that she had been shot. Her funeral, at St Paul's Church Belfast in November 2003, was sparsely attended. She was buried in Lisburn. Jean McConville's story encapsulates the impact of the troubles on everyday life, and represents the isolation and destruction of vulnerable individuals in situations of conflict.