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Finding Northern Ireland's 'Disappeared'

Finding Charlie Armstrong

Charlie Armstrong As far as most of the world is concerned 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland came to an end with the signing of 'The Good Friday Agreement' in 1998.

For many in the Province there continues to be a powerful legacy of loss, pain and grief. It is said that 'time heals all' but for one group in particular, the families of 'The Disappeared' the suffering continues. However, for one of the families there is at least some closure in sight with the return of the remains of Charlie Armstrong thanks to the efforts of the Independent Commission of the Location of Victims' Remains (ICLVR) assisted by Archaeologists from the University of Bradford.

On the morning of Sunday 15th August 1981 Charles Armstrong, or 'Charlie' to all who knew him, left his home in Crossmaglen to pick up an elderly neighbour and take her to Mass. That was the last time the 54 year old, father of five, was ever seen.

Charlie, described by his family as ' …a very caring person’ and ‘…a very good husband and father.' was well known locally as an outgoing man who loved a bit of 'craic' and animals. He had no known connection to the security forces or any paramilitary group. His disappearance was a complete mystery. His car was found the next day a few miles across the Irish border in Dundalk. It soon became widely believed that Charlie had been murdered by the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional IRA and that he had joined the ranks of those known as 'The Disappeared'.

The Provisional IRA through Gerry Adams denied any involvement.

The 'Disappeared'

'The Disappeared' of Northern Ireland were people abducted, murdered and secretly buried during the 1970s and early 1980s by proscribed organisations, principally the Provisional IRA, although other organisations also participated in the practice.

The families of 'The Disappeared' have had to struggled with not just the trauma of loss and the pain of bereavement, but also to the agony of not knowing how, or why, their loved ones were taken. For them there has been no funeral. There is no grave to mourn at and so for them the grieving process has never properly started. In addition, the community has often been silent concerning these cases, with an underlying fear of the consequences of speaking out, leaving the families feeling isolated and vulnerable.

Since 1997 the victim support organisation WAVE, whose patron is the actor James Nesbitt, has been supporting the families as a group. This supportive network has been fostered through a yearly remembrance Mass held on Palm Sunday which has brought immense comfort to them as they struggle with the pain and grief of their loss exacerbated by the uncertainty of where their love ones lie.

Kathleen Armstrong

Kathleen Armstrong carrying a wreath at Stormont.

Each year on All Souls Day the families undertake a silent walk at Stormont Castle in Belfast (the seat of devolved government) to symbolise their ongoing plight. A black wreath, which includes white lilies to symbolise those still missing, is carried by a family member to the steps of Stormont.

Independent Commission

Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains

In 1999 as part of 'The Good Friday Agreement' a unique organisation, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, (ICLVR) was established by Treaty between the British and Irish Governments.

The sole purpose of the ICLVR (usually referred to as 'The Commission for the Disappeared/the Commission') is to obtain information, in the strict confidence, which may lead to the location and recovery of those listed among 'The Disappeared'.

Whilst it is supported by both governments, the Commission acts in complete independence with a remit that means that any information gleaned by it can not be passed to any other agency and can not be used in any court of law. This model has attracted a lot of international interest from places where similar tragic events have taken place.

In 1999 & 2000 on the basis of information received by the Commission were a number of sites were investigated and several bodies recovered.

Outstanding cases

There are still a number of outstanding cases and the Commission asked independent forensic expert Geoff Knupfer to conduct a review of these cases and suggest a new way forward. Geoff was selected for his expertise having been the Director of the Centre for Applied Socio-legal Studies at the University of Teesside and previously being a Chief Superintendent with Greater Manchester Police.

During his time with GMP Geoff played a pivotal role in the 1980s investigations of the Moors Murders which saw the recovery of Pauline Reid's body. His review recommended that a team be established that should included specialists in investigation, geophysics, imagery, forensic science and forensic archaeology.

The Investigation Process

The Commission accepted his report and asked him to put the team together and lead it.  When he needed expertise in forensic archaeology Geoff turned to the University of Bradford. He explains:

“Bradford is where Forensic Archaeology began in the UK.  It is unique in having internationally acknowledged expertise in science and forensic archaeologists that are highly regarded by UK and foreign Police Forces.

Rob Janaway played an important role in the development of Forensic Archaeology in the UK. He is internationally respected for his work on forensic taphonomy and textiles. He has worked on more than 25 criminal cases for a number of UK Police forces in a variety of roles including excavator and taphonomy consultant and been as an expert witness in court.

Dr Andrew Wilson has also considerable criminal case experience and his research, which is cutting edge, focuses on recovering trace information from human remains and associated materials, particularly from hair and fibres.

John McIlwaine is the lead field archaeologist, he has a vast amount of forensic knowledge and three decades of archaeological experience on every period and type of terrain in the UK. His field team has been the epitome of professionalism in what can only be described as the toughest of environments and most difficult of weather conditions.”


Wicklow mountainside

Excavations have been conducted in extremely difficult terrain from exposed mountains sides in County Wicklow (left) to areas of extensive peat bog in Counties Monaghan, Louth and Meath. The precise location of these clandestine graves is never possible to identify as these areas were specifically selected, by the persons responsible, for their remoteness and to make any recovery of the bodies as difficult as possible.

McIlhone memorial This has lead to large areas having to be investigated and substantial amounts of material being excavated. The largest search so far undertaken was in County Wicklow, from which the remains of Danny McIlhone were recovered in late 2008. The search area was just over 10 hectares (20 football pitches) with peat that varied in depth between 1.5 to 2 metres. To make matters worse on this very exposed mountain side the weather conditions that ranged from unpleasant to truly grim, but through persistence and patience Danny was located and recovered.

The whole aim of this project is to locate and recover the remains and then return them so that they can be given a proper Christian burial and that their families can have peace. It is a long process as it is an intelligence led operation.

The lead field archaeologist, John McIlwaine, explains that the actual process of digging comes at the very end of a long process.

“What people see is the forensic archaeology team excavating an area but before that a vast amount of work has to be undertaken. Geoff has done an immense job out of the public eye in canvassing support for the work of Commission from the Republican Movement and other interested parties. This has led to the acquisition of vital information as to the whereabouts of the remains and but this, together with information provided via the confidential telephone line, (00800 55585500) has to be checked and verified."

"Jon Hill, a former Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad, has been invaluable in sifting and collating this material. He also liaises with various agencies and with the families to keep them up to date with the work on their specific case. Once the Commission feels that they have confidence in the information further background research is undertaken, old maps, imagery, specially trained body detection dogs, geophysics and landscape reconstruction all have to be undertaken before any excavation work begins.”

The Search for Charlie Armstrong

Armstrong Aerial Location The search for Charlie Armstrong is an example of this (left: Armstrong aerial location).

In 1999 an anonymous map was received indicating a site in Aughrim More, Co Monaghan.

Searches were conducted in 1999 and 2000 by the Garda Síochána (the Irish Police) which proved unsuccessful.

Recently the Commission received further information that indicated another potential location approximately 500 metres from the first. After due consideration a further phase of excavation was undertaken by the Bradford team on behalf of the Commission in 2009 but this also proved unsuccessful. Subsequently further information, once again anonymous, became available and an area to the south of the second search area was targeted for excavation.

Armstrong Phase I On 29th July 2010 human remains were located and the Garda Síochána and State Pathologist, Professor Mary Cassidy, were informed.

The Garda Síochána and Professor Cassidy were satisfied, that given the information the search was based upon, the remains were those of Charlie and asked the Bradford team to recover the remains and send them to Dublin for post-mortem.

The personal effects supported the idea that the remains were those of Charlie but for certainty DNA samples had be taken and sent to the UK to the Forensic Science Service Laboratory in Wetherby.

This is a far from simple process as, after nearly three decades buried in acidic bog conditions, a considerable amount of degradation had taken place and a battery of tests had to be run. This process is now complete and the remains are without doubt those of Charlie and he and his family can finally have peace.

There are still mysteries which surround this case. No one knows who drew the map, or why they chose to remain anonymous. No one knows why Charlie was murdered. Many believe that he was probably just in the wrong place and at the wrong time, with tragic results. One thing is certain, without the map and subsequent information the team would never have an area to search.

As John points out "“…this is an intelligence led operation, without it we don’t have a search area.”

The Forensic Field Team


There are other cases and the work continues but as John points out it takes a special type of individual to do this work:

"There is a lot of pressure associated with forensic work. You need to be not just a highly skilled archaeologist but someone capable of dealing with the psychological issues.  These are real bodies and you see some pretty unpleasant things.  It is very different from excavating human remains on a standard archaeological site."

"Normal field archaeology requires a fair amount of patience and determination but forensic work takes that to a whole new level. You are concentrating all the time, if you miss a piece of pottery or a flint on a normal archaeological excavation then it is unfortunate."

"You have lost an artefact from our past but, in the forensic environment it could be a vital piece of evidence that could lead to a murderer being arrested.  Miss that item and they may not even be arrested much less convicted, potentially killing again."

The Commission

The work for Commission is different in a number of respects. Firstly, we aren't there to gather evidence, just to recover the remains for the families. Secondly, the work itself is far from easy. The remains are stained brown by tannins in the peat, so basically you are looking for something brown against a brown background with bits of tree in places that look just like bone would in this deposit. But added to that you need a special degree of toughness to undertake this work given the terrain and extremely adverse weather condition often in the rain, sometimes in a howling gale but occasionally snow for a bit of light relief.

It is all very different from CSI on TV.


Fortunately I have an excellent team available and the members have been specially selected for their experience, knowledge and skills.

Bobby Friel is one of our most experienced archaeologists and well used to working in hostile environments having worked in Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes Islands. He brings a great deal to the team as he has a detailed understanding of landscapes and a vast amount of excavation experience.

Antony Mustchin, one of our researchers at Bradford, a specialist in animal bone, is also highly experienced in excavation and he too has worked extensively in the far north in Shetland, the Faroes and Greenland. Another of our specialists, Dr Zoe Outram, who is also well used to working in Northern climbs, has also recently joined the team.

A massive asset has been Niamh McCullagh, a highly experienced Irish archaeologist, who undertook an MSc degree in Forensic Archaeology & Crimes Scene Investigation at Bradford in 2006/7. She has played a vital role in the project since then. She has undertaken some of the most arduous work and deserves a medal for her efforts. She is not the only graduate of the FACSI programme as we also have Christine Forrestal, again with experience of Irish archaeology, who joined the team more recently.

Rob Janaway has contributed to the field work as much as his busy schedule has allowed and helped shape the overall search strategy.

We have also brought in folk who we know that we can rely upon. We have our own forensic anthropologist in Andy Holland, who also has many years experience as an archaeologist, undertook his BSc degree and a postgraduate MSc in Forensic Anthropology at Bradford, he has worked in mass disasters in Peru, Haiti and Libya.

John Buglass also has a Bradford connection having done his MA in Scientific Archaeology with us a number of years ago. Both John and Andy run their consultancies now but were happy to contribute to our work. The only member of the team without a direct Bradford connection, although he has spent a lot of time digging Yorkshire, is Aidan Harte of Munster Archaeology and he has been a valuable asset to the project.

We always knew that this work was going to be very difficult but the terrible summers we have had in Ireland over the past three years have made it truly grim. The team has been simply outstanding through it all.

'Making Knowledge Work'

The work is important to the University as it really embodies its philosophy of 'Making knowledge work' by taking its skills and research and applying them to the real world.

To certain members of the team it has an added human dimension since both John McIlwaine and Bobby Friel grew up in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles' and have witnessed at first hand the destruction and suffering that those days brought. John says feels that it was a privilege to be asked to lead the team but on occasions it has proved very hard and not just due to the constraints of weather and terrain.

We have had successes which are wonderful but not every search has been fruitful. When things don't pan out the way you would like, it is really tough when you have to tell a family that we can't bring them their loved one home.

The worst was a search we did in France. Geoff and Jon spent a lot of time getting things sorted. There were tripartite negotiations between the British, Irish and French government to allow the work to take place. We were led to believe that the intelligence was reliable, however, this proved not to be the case. The team was very down afterwards, personally I was absolutely gutted. The family were very understanding and appreciated that everything that could be done for their loved one had been done. Still doesn't make you feel any better. Bobby and Rob constantly remind me that 'our job is to search for remains and once located, recover them. No matter how good you are, you can't find what isn't there'. They are right, but still, it doesn't sit well.

The Commission

The Commission hold regular meetings with the families of 'The Disappeared' to keep them apprised of the progress of the programme.  

At the next meeting the families will be briefed on this case. There are additional sites to be searched and the detailed background research is under way with those.

“Through persistence and patience we have recovered Charlie's remains and that is immensely gratifying to all involved in the work. We will continue with the other cases as long as the Commission want us to and we have intelligence to go," said John.

For the Armstrong family this painful, tragic chapter is ending. Hopefully it will also end soon for the other families. Of 'The Disappeared' not yet recovered, if they could speak their words would most likely be – forget me not.