Grim, unrelenting dig for IRA victim's body in the bog

Tuesday, 10 November 2009
The republican history of Crossmaglen in south Armagh is indelible. Large green, white and orange lettering spells ‘IRA’ on telegraph poles and details of a number to text to join Sinn Fein sit below colour drawings of the south Armagh brigade of the IRA.

But cross the border a few miles away and similar reminders of the Troubles are hard to find — unless you happen upon the townland of Carrickrobin near Hackballscross in Co Louth.

The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains yesterday started digging at a bog in Carrickrobin after four months of careful preparation.

They are looking for the remains of Gerard Evans, a 24-year-old Crossmaglen man who went out for the night in Castleblaney in Co Monaghan in 1979 and never came home.

Instead, the painter was abducted by the IRA, murdered and never seen again — thought to have been buried in a secret location.

And for 30 years his family have waited to have his remains returned to them.

The commission’s focus on the bog follows information passed to Mr Evans’ aunt and information given anonymously to a newspaper on the fate suffered by Gerard Evans at the hands of the south Armagh brigade of the IRA.

Since July the commission has searched rigorously for anomalies in the soil which could betray the presence of human remains. There have been cadaver dogs from a special police unit, aerial searches and prolonged work by geophysicists. Two miles of old drains have also been cleared.

A forensic archaeologist from the University of Bradford, who specialises in finding buried bodies, is also involved. He said bogland was “one of the most challenging environments”.

It is the ideal terrain to bury a body in — and by extension the most difficult terrain in which to find it again. Over the coming weeks the commission will dig around 1.2m down in an area of around 1.2 hectares. In theory, most clandestine graves are dug to depths of between 0.5m and 1m.

The survival of bones and tissue depends on the oxygen content of the soil, while any bones are certain to be dyed brown from the peat. The survival of materials also varies — cotton decays first, but wool, leather and synthetic materials are more durable.

Although the IRA have never claimed Gerard as one of ‘their’ Disappeared — nine victims they kidnapped and secretly buried in the 1970s — a former member of the south Armagh brigade of the IRA told the Sunday Tribune they murdered him because he was an informer.

The same commission team was involved in the 18-month long search for the remains of Danny McIlhone. Coincidentally, today marks one year since his remains were found in Ballynultagh, Co Wicklow. One expert said it was “immensely” rewarding to help in a fruitful search. But while the commission works in hope, it is a hope tempered with realism and an unwillingness to inflate the expectations of families waiting to bury a loved one.

Their work is dull and unrelenting. Like any other outdoor workers they break for lunch and open the boots of their cars to access their flasks and sandwiches. Gerry Evan’s brother Noel paid a visit to see the dig in progress yesterday. But he and his female companion did not spend long at the desolate scene and had no comment to make.

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