Eoin Brennan is a journalist and radio producer in Dublin, Ireland.
Dublin, Ireland – Anne Morgan trails her small suitcase behind her as she makes her way in the rain to the train station in the northern French town of Rouen. She is going home to Northern Ireland and hoping against hope for some news.
Not too far away, Jon Hill watches his team work in a forest outside Pont-de-l’Arche. They are a mixture of civil engineers, forensic archaeologists, and, in Hill’s case, a former London detective. In their orange vests they give the forest the air of a construction site rather than a murder scene. They are in the 18th year of their mission.
Officers from the French Gendarmerie stand guard as the mechanical diggers slowly excavate the flinty earth. The scrape and rumble of machinery fills the damp morning air.
They are five days into their search. Years of work have led them here but doubts prey on Jon’s mind.
One of the forensic archaeologists’ approaches. “I think we’ve found something significant here,” he says. Jon’s doubt turns to elation and relief.
It is a little after 9 am in the northeast of England when Geoff Knupfer receives Jon’s call. The daily check-in, he presumes.
Jon asks what the weather is like in England. “It’s pissing down here,” Jon says. Then he speaks the words Geoff has waited 13 years to hear.
“Well, we found him.”
Anne is sitting on the train with her husband, waiting for it to leave the platform when her phone rings. It’s Jon. He tells her to get off. “We found remains,” he says.
They disembark and the shock soon gives way to emotion. “I cried and cried and my husband cried and I cried and the two of us stood crying and holding each other,” Anne recalls.
Geoff, Jon and their team had found the remains of Anne’s brother, Seamus Ruddy, 32 years after he was abducted.
Seamus was one of The Disappeared, 16 people who were separately abducted, murdered and secretly buried by Irish Republican paramilitaries during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. He is the 13th of The Disappeared to be found.
Geoff and Jon are chief investigator and senior investigator, respectively, for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains (ICLVR), set up in 1999 by the Irish and British governments to recover the bodies of The Disappeared.
At its heart is a pioneering approach to post-conflict resolution – in order to shine a light into the shadows of Northern Ireland’s past the commission works in confidence, they tell nobody of the information they receive and nothing they uncover will find its way into a courtroom.
How it all began
Seamus Ruddy was 33 when in 1985 the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an Irish Republican socialist paramilitary group, abducted him in Paris and murdered him in the forest near Rouen.
He grew up in Newry, a small town near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. One of nine children living in a three-bedroom home, he is remembered by his family as intelligent, witty and kind.
He studied high-level mathematics at school before moving to Dublin to study English at the most prestigious university in the Republic of Ireland, Trinity College.
Seamus later joined the IRSP, the political wing of the INLA. In 1979 he was arrested on the Greece/Turkey border after he was stopped in a van loaded with weapons intended for the INLA. He stood trial and was acquitted.
By 1983 he had left the organisation, disillusioned with the direction it was taking. He moved to France, where he taught English to French adults.
But in May 1985 he became a victim of a dispute between opposing factions of the INLA. His killers believed he knew the location of INLA arms dumps in the forest near Rouen – weapons they sought to strengthen their position. They took Seamus to the forest before killing him there.
Anne visited her brother in Paris a fortnight before his disappearance, while on a trip with the high-school class she taught.
Seamus gave the class a tour of the city. That evening he and Anne sat at a cafe on Rue Saint-Denis. Anne ate frogs’ legs and Seamus poked fun at her for it. That evening in Seamus’ apartment they talked for hours.
After that trip, Anne never saw her brother again.
Cecilia Moore was Seamus’ girlfriend at the time of his disappearance. She lived with him in Paris but had briefly gone to Ireland for work. Friends in Paris called and said they were worried; Seamus hadn’t been seen in days.
Two bullet holes in the hood
Cecilia returned and heard that a friend of theirs, a member of the IRSP living in Paris, had been seen leaving their apartment. Somehow he had a key. Things were missing from the apartment. She contacted him and arranged to meet an INLA member in the library at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
“He said Seamus’ disappearance had nothing to do with the INLA and, if I kept making crazy accusations, I’d get them all arrested,” Cecilia told the Sunday Tribune in 2008. “He was heartless. He said Seamus was back in Ireland. I said his passport was still in our Paris apartment. ‘Maybe he swam home,’ he replied.”
Meanwhile, French officials contacted the Ruddy family in Northern Ireland. Children had found a bag with clothes in the River Seine. Anne and her brother Sean said they would go to France to identify them.
“But before we went to Paris we went to a meeting with the INLA leadership of the time and we said, ‘We’re going to Paris, just want to let you know.’ We thought we were doing good by telling them,” Anne says.
“At that meeting, this guy just pointed at me and said ‘If you go to Paris you’re dead’. And then pointed to my brother and said ‘You’re dead.’ And he said ‘All of your family circle are under threat.’”
“I just said, ‘Well I’m going to Paris to see my brother’s clothes. I will be going. He’s my brother and I’m searching for him, I’m not searching for an ex-member of your group or anything else. We will be going to Paris.’ And just like that, me and my brother stood up and left the room,” she recalls.
Until that point, the Ruddy family had suspicions that the INLA might have been involved in Seamus’ disappearance. After the meeting, they were certain of it.
Anne and her brother travelled to Paris to identify the clothes – a jacket with two bullet holes in the hood and blood-stained jeans. They were the same clothes Seamus had been wearing the last time Anne saw him.
Waiting to die
The threats from the INLA continued.
“That was a very scary time because there were a lot of bombs under cars and things,” Anne recalls. “When I would be taking the children to school I would look under the car.”
One night Anne was at home alone with her two boys when she received a call from a neighbour. “Anne, there’s a guy on a motorcycle outside your house,” the neighbour told her.
“I turned the lights out, peeked through the blinds and sure enough, a guy was sitting just at the top of the garden.
“That particular night I really thought I was going to die … I sat the whole night at the bottom of the stairs, I didn’t go to bed. If they were going to come in they’d do something to me on the stairs, not to the two boys up the stairs,” she says.
‘If his name is in stone people won’t forget him’
For almost 15 years, the Ruddy family lived with the threat of death.
“We just stopped asking questions,” Anne says.
Other families of The Disappeared faced a similar enforced silence. The killers often came from within their own communities, from groups that purported to represent them – the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has acknowledged responsibility for 13 of the 16 deaths. INLA has admitted to one, Seamus’s. Two remain unclaimed.Many knew the identity of their loved one’s killers. Some lived very near to them.
“Imagine you going down to the local school and you see people you know were involved in your son’s disappearance? Or going up to mass and sitting a few rows away from people, knowing that people are looking at you, or your neighbours don’t speak to you about it because there’s that taboo around it?” says Sandra Peake, the CEO of WAVE, a charity that works with families of The Disappeared.
The Ruddy family received confirmation that Seamus had been murdered in 1995, through press reports.
After that Seamus’ mother said she wanted to put his name on the headstone on his father’s grave. When Anne asked her why, she replied: “If his name is in stone people won’t forget him.”
Coming out of the shadows
It was in 1998 that the journey out of the shadows formally began for the families of The Disappeared.
The IRA had abducted and murdered Brian McKinney in 1978.
At the age of 15 Brian had been diagnosed with a mental age of six. At age 22, he and a friend, John McClory, had stolen 50 GBP ($64) from a clubhouse run by the IRA. Brian’s mother, Margaret, repaid the money but days later both Brian and John went missing. The IRA said they had left the country, but Margaret didn’t believe them.
In 1980, somebody sent Margaret a Christmas card, pertaining to be from her son.
In 1998, Margaret was in the US with Sandra Peake. Seeking political support, Sandra wrote to then first lady Hillary Clinton asking for a meeting. Margaret and Sandra were invited to meet President Bill Clinton. Margaret told him her story. “I will help you find your son,” he told her.
“It needed that international push. If it hadn’t had that I think we would still be potentially sitting in a no man’s land,” Sandra says.
In 1999, following the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, 10 victims were placed on an official list of The Disappeared. Within weeks legislation for the ICLVR was confirmed. The initial list of 10 would grow to 16.
Any information supplied to the commission would be confidential and no evidence would be collected from the searches. The families accepted that no criminal cases would be brought about as a result of the investigations. Time and circumstance had eroded their wishes to just one.
“Some people said ‘I don’t know how you do it. You don’t want a prosecution?’ That’s easier said than done and when your loved one is disappeared you don’t want to know how they died or anything about the circumstance,” says Anne. “The justice we have always said we want is to bring our loved ones home and give them a Christian burial.”
In the initial months after the announcement of the list of The Disappeared, three bodies were recovered. One of them was Brian McKinney, Margaret’s son.
A map with an X marked on it
In 1999, the Ruddy family met with a member of the IRSP in Dublin.
The IRSP member handed over a black and white map of a forest in France with an X marked on it. They were told that it had come from a prisoner in a jail in the Republic of Ireland.
Anne and her family believed the ensuing search at the site would bring them the answers they were waiting for.
“I was getting ready for a funeral here, but that’s not what happened,” she recalls. The dig lasted just six hours. They didn’t find anything.
In 2002, Seamus’s family and friends gathered at the forest for what would have been his 50th birthday, close to the spot where he would one day be found.
“A neighbour of mine made an oak cross and we put the oak cross in [the ground] and then I put in my mother’s soil from her grave. Then I took the soil from there and took it back and put it into her grave,” Anne says.
In 2003, a fourth person from The Disappeared, Jean McConville, was discovered by a man walking on a beach in the Republic of Ireland.
But progress in the ICLVR’s work had slowed and families had begun to lose hope.
During a trip to the US in 2004, Anne and Anna McShane, whose father Charlie Armstrong was one of The Disappeared, met with Mitchell Reiss, George W Bush’s envoy to Northern Ireland. They told him of their fading hope.
“He just said You are going about this the wrong way … it’s forensics you need’,” Anne recalls.
Outside expertise was required so the Irish Department of Justice called Geoff Knupfer.
Geoff was a detective in the Greater Manchester Police until 1997. In the 1980s he had searched for the bodies of victims of two of the most notorious serial killers in British history, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. His investigation had led to the discovery of the body of 16-year-old Pauline Reade on Saddleworth Moor.
The relationship between memory and landscape
Geoff understood the emotional and psychological trauma many of the relatives of The Disappeared had endured because he’d encountered something similar with Pauline Reade’s mother. He’d also seen the power of answers.
“Mrs Reade was in a psychiatric hospital. She’d had a nervous breakdown. We found her daughter and she recovered. That speaks absolute volumes to me. That happens time and time again,” he says.
It was a remark from Hindley about the visibility of mountains in the distance at dusk that unlocked the case for Geoff. He learned the relationship between memory and landscape, a skill that would become crucial when his work took him to Ireland.
He also saw the potential of archaeological investigation and would become a pioneer in the investigation of historic crime scenes.
“I realised it had potential and was really trying to develop it with others to make it another tool in the police toolbox,” he says.
The original plan was for Geoff to spend three months reviewing the work of the ICLVR. But he ended up leading the operation and “three months has grown into 13 years,” he says.
Jon joined Geoff and the ICLVR in 2006. “My specialisation was intelligence and organised crime,” he says.
Like Geoff, he was only supposed to be with the ICLVR for three months.
Geoff and Jon discuss their work in ambiguous language. Their words are necessarily bereft of specifics. This secrecy has been key to earning the trust of the Republican movement, in allowing past actors to come forward without fear of betrayal. Information passed on “is absolutely sacrosanct,” says Geoff.
The work of the ICLVR has been examined closely by the International Red Cross and the United Nations.
“It’s worked brilliantly,” Geoff says. He speculates that the model could prove effective in other jurisdictions.
Searches come only after methodical testing of the confidential information the ICLVR has garnered. Investigators trawl resources – historic records, maps and photos. They return to potential burial sites to examine whether the memories match the landscape.
Jon estimates that he made close to 10 trips to the forest before the most recent search for Seamus began. The need to be exact is paramount. “If you’re a metre out you might as well be a mile out,” he says.
The fallibility of human memory means that much of the information received must be refined over years.
“People’s memories of what happened become clouded,” Jon says. “I would suggest they probably would have been quite nervous when it happened. Distances get blurred then, you think you’re 10 feet from the road when actually you’re 50 feet away.”
Even if the memories remain unaltered, the environment may not. In some cases what were saplings at the time of the burial may have grown into imposing forestry 40 years later.
“I remember saying to one potential witness years ago, ‘Well, where was the grave in relation to the tree line?’,” says Geoff. “And he retorted, ‘What tree line?’”
‘It feels like he has died all over again’
As the ICLVR recovered the bodies of other Disappeared, the Ruddy family continued to wait. Following a second failed dig in France in 2008, Anne quit her teaching job to focus on finding her brother.
When the ICLVR team arrived in Rouen in 2017, for the third search, they had received “refined information”, Geoff explains.
The civil engineers set about scraping the soil away inch by inch to expose it for examination by the forensic archaeologists.
It was the morning of Saturday, May 6, when one of those archaeologists peered into the freshly exposed soil and made the discovery. They were roughly 40 yards from the site of the 2008 dig.
With the discovery of Seamus Ruddy there are now three of the 16 Disappeared left to find – Joe Lynskey, Columba McVeigh and Captain Robert Nairac.
As Jon made the calls that followed he was familiar with the inherent contradiction for the Ruddy family: certainty of the most terrible thing, but certainty at last.
“You’re bringing them the very worst news possible but it’s also the news that they want,” he reflects.
Seamus’s girlfriend Cecilia has visited the forest on many of his birthdays. She says the discovery “feels like he has died all over again, but this time people are acknowledging his death, when in 1985 people wouldn’t believe it or didn’t want to know”.
“I hope it will bring some kind of closure but for the moment I am grieving his loss.”
For Anne, her world has shifted. Now she must let go of the search and grieve fully for her brother.
“During my life I’ve been to a lot of funerals … and at times I used to wish, even when other Disappeared were found, I used to wish it was our Seamus. But now I will be, now I will bury him. That will be a sad day for me.”
“I just thought this grief would always be with me. But hopefully now the circle will be sealed and I will get peace.”
Seamus Ruddy’s funeral was held on June 17 in his hometown of Newry, Northern Ireland.