Photography by Brian Moody
On May 25, 1978, 22-year-old Brian McKinney was abducted by the IRA in retaliation for a £70 robbery on an IRA-run social club. It made no difference that, a few days earlier, Brian’s mother, Margaret McKinney, had repaid Brian’s share of the money to the IRA. Not until 21 years later did the IRA admit to Brian’s murder and reveal the exact location of his grave across the border in County Monaghan. In 1999 Margaret McKinney re-buried her son in Milltown cemetery, close to her home in republican west Belfast.
Brian did the robbery to show off and try and pretend he was like a big fellow. He’d had chronic asthma all his life, and at 14 was diagnosed as having the mental abilities of a six-year-old, so we all felt very protective towards him. He had a lovely nature, was a great singer and mimic.
When he didn’t come home that night we were out of our minds with worry. The next day we were told by a middleman that he’d been abducted by the IRA and sent out of the country by boat. We thought he’d ring and waited by the phone all day. And the next. But the phone never rang. Days turned into weeks and eventually we were told that the IRA didn’t have Brian, and that we should go to the police. But we lived in an IRA stronghold and there was nothing the police could do. After a few weeks we just knew he was dead.
By the end of that year I’d had my first heart attack, and both my husband and I had left work because of ill health. Our youngest child, Sandra, was 13. I don’t know who looked after her. Linda, my eldest daughter, left for England two years later. I’d have run away myself if I could. Instead I took Tomazipan to dull the pain.
The family couldn’t talk about Brian, each one of us was hurting too much. I kept a photograph on top of the wardrobe. When no one was home I’d get it down and cry my eyes out. The depression in the house was unbearable.
By then I’d lost faith in God. I was mad with rage and wanted only revenge. I asked the police to give me a gun. They said, “Mrs. McKinney, we know what you’d do with it.” They were right. If I’d known who Brian’s killers were I would have gone out and killed their children. I wanted them to know how it felt.
This intense hatred only lifted when, four years after Brian’s abduction, Sandra became pregnant. My granddaughter Laura was the first thing that gave me a reason to live. She brought life back to the house.
In 1994, at the time of the first cease-fire, I met John Major and told him my story. Soon afterwards, WAVE (Widows Against Violence Empower) contacted me to offer support, but I told them no one could help. “The only thing that could make it better would be getting my son back”, I said.
One evening, Gerry Adams came up to the house and told me he was going to help get Brian back. He put his arms round me and I cried. The very next day a statement came out from the IRA saying they would soon release information about where the disappeared of 1978 were buried.
Brian was located in June 1999. The coroner told me he had been taken to his grave with his hands behind his back and a bullet through his skull. That vision of his last moments will never leave me.
It might sound crazy, but I was grateful to the IRA just to be able to bury my son after 21 years. On 1st September we got him home. His remains were placed in a lovely coffin and the house was suddenly so busy and full of life as people came to pay their last respects. After that we had a beautiful service for him.
It’s helped being part of WAVE, meeting with people who have gone through what I’ve gone through. Religion doesn’t matter there. Whether it’s the mother of an IRA son, or the wife of a Loyalist paramilitary, there’s no difference.
I’ve got no hatred against those who killed Brian anymore. In fact I’d like to meet the person who took Brian’s life. Since I’ve finally found my peace, I think maybe it’s time he found his too. I often think about his killer coming to the door. I’d like to sit him down and talk to him, ask if he’s sorry for what he did, and why no one ever told me what had happened. Until that happens I can’t say I forgive, because I don’t know who to forgive.