Abercorn 50th anniversary: wedding dress search ended in tragedy for inseparable sisters

Jennifer, 21, lost both her legs while Rosaleen, 22, lost both legs, her right arm and an eye when an IRA device exploded in the ground floor cafe on March 4, 1972.

The pair had been shopping for material for Rosaleen’s wedding dress before their usual ritual of going to the Abercorn for coffee.

While in the queue to be served a table became free. They hoped the table might still be free by the time they got served, but two girls appeared, jumped the queue and claimed the it for themselves.

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Jennifer McNern was severely injured when the IRA bombed the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast on March 4, 1972. PA image

The queue jumpers didn’t stay long enough to order anything before getting up and leaving.

Two other girls, in the queue in front of Jennifer and Rosie, took that table, while Jennifer and her sister took the next one available.

They had only been in the cafe for around 20 minutes when the device exploded without warning.

The blast claimed the lives of two young Catholic women and injured 130 other people.

The aftermath of the Abercorn bomb blast on March 4, 1972.

Janet Bereen, 21 and Ann Owens, 22, were seated in the cafe when the bomb, which had been left in a bag under a table, exploded.

It later transpired that the two unknown girls who left earlier had placed a bomb in a bag under the table.

Jennifer worked at the Holy Rosary School in Belfast and had a Saturday job in a launderette. Bride-to-be Rosaleen worked as a secretary for the NI regional secretary of the Confederation of British Industry.

Jennifer spent six months in hospital, Rosaleen more than a year.

Speaking just ahead of the anniversary, Jennifer’s thoughts were with the two victims of the bombing and their families.

“It’s important to remember those two young women and their grieving families,” she said.

“What happened will never leave them. Nor will it leave those severely injured who have to live with the mental trauma and the physical scars.

“I understand the significance of an anniversary but for the families of Ann and Janet and all those maimed this is with us each and every day”.

In 2020, Jennifer said she had no idea where she was when she regained consciousness, and was totally unaware that her sister was fighting for her life in the intensive care unit, on a respirator, at the same hospital.

“I don’t remember anything about the bomb at all. I woke up in the Royal Victoria Hospital days later and I didn’t have a clue where I was or what had happened to me until a nurse told me I was in hospital and had been in a bomb explosion,” she said.

“I had a fractured arm which was in plaster so I remember looking at my arm but I must have fallen asleep again because I was heavily sedated.

“It was some time later my mother was in visiting me and I turned around in the bed to go to sleep and when I lifted the blankets, I saw that my right leg was missing.

“My mother heard me screaming and ran back into the ward along with nurses and a doctor and I was sedated again. The next day a doctor came round and told me the extent of my injuries. I had not only lost my right leg but I had lost my left leg as well,” Jennifer told the Extra.ie website.

The girls’ father had passed away a few years earlier but their mother, Teresa, visited them every day in hospital.

With none of the disability discrimination laws we have now, holding down employment was difficult for Jennifer and she returned to her education at Queen’s University Belfast in the 1980s – eventually gaining a postgraduate degree in criminology and criminal justice.

Jennifer maintained a positive outlook on life as much as possible and went on to have a daughter.

She also welcomed the peace process that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, but soon felt that the victims of violence were being treated as collateral damage and forgotten. Jennifer said the thought of this plunged her into a deep depression.

Speaking to the Truth and Reconciliation Platform, Jennifer said she has vivid memories of watching the then secretary of state Peter Mandelson outline the benefits of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

“I thought ‘they must say something about the people who have been left with a traumatic injury’ … and he said that a memorial fund will be set up.

“I was devastated… devastated.

“ So a memorial fund was set up and I was asked if I needed a washing machine or a fridge. That was it – I was out of my corner. I hadn’t been angry since 1972 (26 years) but that’s when my anger started. I was so angry … especially after what my mother had been through – seeing her two daughters ripped apart. For somebody to ask me if I needed a fridge or a washing machine just did not go down very well.

“And along with that anger I was depressed. For the first time I had gone down emotionally. It was getting to a dangerous stage where I was suicidal. Eventually friends trailed me off to the doctor and thankfully my doctor knew about the WAVE organisation. So I went over to WAVE one day and spoke to Sandra [McPeake],” the chief executive of the WAVE Trauma Centre.

Meeting regularly with others similarly affected by Troubles violence helped Jennifer in a number of ways and she continues to enjoy the friendships forged at WAVE.

“Once I got on the right medication and got talking to the right people I got back on track again.”

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