Abercorn: The search for a wedding dress ended in tragedy for inseparable sisters

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

The couple had shopped for fabric for Rosaleen’s wedding dress before going on with their usual ritual of going to Abercorn for coffee.

While we were waiting in line to be served, a table became available. They hoped that the table would still be free when they were served, but two girls appeared, jumped in line and claimed the table for themselves.

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

The queue jumpers didn’t stay long enough to order anything before they got up and left.

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

They had only been in the café about 20 minutes when the device exploded without warning.

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

The aftermath of the Abercorn bombing of March 4, 1972.

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

It later turned out that the two unidentified girls who left earlier 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 laundromat. Bride-to-be Rosaleen worked as a secretary for the NI Regional Secretary of the Confederation of British Industry.

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

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

“It is important to think of these two young women and their grieving families,” she said.

“What happened will never leave her. Even the seriously injured, who have to live with the mental trauma and physical scars, are not left behind.

“I understand the importance of an anniversary, but for Ann and Janet’s families and all those who have been mutilated, this is with us every day.”

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

“I don’t remember the bomb at all. Days later I woke up in the Royal Victoria Hospital and had no idea where I was or what had happened to me until a nurse told me I was in the hospital and had been caught in a bomb blast,” she said.

“I had a broken arm that was in a cast so I remember looking at my arm but I must have gone back to sleep because I was heavily sedated.

“Some time later my mother came to visit me and I turned over in bed to go to sleep and when I lifted the covers I saw that my right leg was missing.

“My mother heard me screaming and ran back to the ward with nurses and a doctor and I was sedated again. The next day a doctor came by and told me the extent of my injuries. Not only had I lost my right leg, I lost my left leg too,” Jennifer told website Extra.ie.

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

With none of the disability discrimination laws we have today, Jennifer found it difficult to maintain employment and returned to her education at Queen’s University Belfast in the 1980s – eventually earning a postgraduate degree in criminology and criminal justice.

Maintaining a positive outlook on life as much as possible, Jennifer gave birth to a daughter.

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

Speaking to the truth and reconciliation platform, Jennifer said she had vivid memories of then-Foreign Secretary Peter Mandelson outlining the benefits of the Belfast (Good Friday) accord.

“I thought, ‘They need to say something about the people who have been left behind with a traumatic injury’ … and he said a memorial fund will be established.

“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 (age 26), but that’s when my anger started. I was so angry…especially after what my mother had been through – seeing her two daughters being torn apart. The fact that someone asked me if I needed a refrigerator or a washing machine just didn’t go down well.

“And along with that anger, I was depressed. For the first time I was emotionally lost. It got to a dangerous stage where I was having suicidal thoughts. Eventually friends took me to the doctor and luckily my doctor knew about the WAVE organization. So one day I went to WAVE and talked to Sandra [McPeake]“, the managing director of the WAVE Trauma Center.

Meeting regularly with others who have been similarly affected by Troubles violence has helped Jennifer in many ways, and she continues to enjoy the friendships forged at WAVE.

“Once I got on the right medication and talked to the right people, I got back on track.”

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