Wednesday 21 March 2018

'Every time we met a family we found new material, new facts'

'The Disappeared': Darragh MacIntyre's search for the truth

Documentary maker: Darragh MacIntyre
Documentary maker: Darragh MacIntyre
Executed: Kevin McKee

Kevin McKee had been missing for weeks in 1972, in the hands of the IRA, when he phoned his mother and asked her to bring down clothes to the house he said he was staying at in Monaghan town. The house belonged to the family of a dead IRA volunteer Fergal O'Hanlon, killed in 1957.

The trip was delayed. When the family landed down from Belfast three days later they met Fergal's father who told them Kevin had gone and wouldn't be coming back. He allowed them to search the house, they did, and found no trace of the 17-year-old other than the bag of belongings that Mr O'Hanlon handed them. Kevin is believed to have been buried in a bog in Co Meath.

When Kevin's aunt, Phil Smyth, told me the story, I decided to see if the house was still there. It was. In fact Fergal's sister, who had nothing to do with the disappearance, was living there now.

Forty-one years later Phil wanted to visit again, on the off-chance that there was some information to be gleaned. She wrote a letter requesting to visit and director Alison Millar and I accompanied her to Monaghan. She was welcomed in but learned nothing. Except, she explained later, that she felt that little bit empowered. After years feeling utterly powerless she'd done something.

We're often told that stories about the Troubles are a turn-off. You can imagine the pitch to the television executives: "The story of those disappeared during the Troubles, with archive of the time and the possibility of using a stanza or two of a Seamus Heaney poem."

But BBC Northern Ireland and RTÉ decided this might work. That was 13 months ago. It had been proposed by a small Belfast independent company Erica Starling, which had already invested months in research. The project went full time in April when filming began.

The bare facts of most of the cases were well known but every time we met a family we found new material, new facts. The stories hadn't been told at all.

Take the case of Jean McConville.

Discovering the welfare notes which charted the unsympathetic response of some in the community to her disappearance, and that of the parish priest in particular, explained so much about why her fate was so easily cast aside 41 years ago.

It was clearly important to explore her case with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. I have been asked if I was surprised that he agreed to be interviewed. I wasn't. And he was his usual courteous self. As was the man who challenges Adams to say to his face that he was not in the IRA – veteran republican and founding member of the Provisionals, Billy McKee.

Billy McKee, now in his 90s, doesn't do many interviews. There will be those who find his declaration that he would have executed Jean McConville – but not buried her – particularly chilling but we felt it was important that we did not fudge the context of the times and how it appears to have determined the thinking of some, if not many, supporters of the IRA and other armed groupings.

But secretly killing people, then burying them and lying about it for decades isn't in their war-time rule book. Most of the Republicans we spoke to in the making of the film say the practice was offensive.

For sure no songs will be written about it. No commemorative marches will be held. It is a history that the IRA never wanted told when they buried them – the invisible dead.

Darragh MacIntyre

The Disappeared can be viewed on the RTÉ player.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment