Abercorn’s 50th birthday: 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 purchased materials 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 becomes available. They were hoping the table would still be free when they were served, but two girls appeared, jumped the queue and claimed it for themselves.

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

Free riders didn’t stay long enough to order anything before getting up and leaving.

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

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

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

The aftermath of a bomb explosion in Abercorn on 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, detonated.

It later turned out that the two unknown girls who had left earlier had planted a bomb in a bag under the table.

Jennifer worked at Holy Rosary School in Belfast and worked Saturdays 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, Rosaleen more than a year.

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

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

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

“I understand the importance of a birthday, but for the families of Ann and Janet and all the disabled, it 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 the intensive care unit, on a ventilator, in the same hospital.

“I don’t remember anything at all about the bomb. I woke up in the Royal Victoria Hospital a few days later and had no idea where I was or what had happened to me until a nurse told me I was in the hospital and that I had been the victim of a bomb explosion,” she said.

“I had a fractured arm which was in a cast so I remember looking at my arm but had to go back to sleep because I was heavily sedated.

“It was some time later my mum had come to visit and I rolled 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 into the ward with nurses and a doctor and I was sedated again. The next day a doctor came and told me the extent of my injuries. J I had not only lost my right leg, but I had also lost my left leg,” Jennifer told website Extra.ie.

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

With no disability discrimination laws that we currently have, it was difficult for Jennifer to hold down a job and she resumed her studies at Queen’s University Belfast in the 1980s – eventually earning a degree in postgraduate in criminology and criminal justice.

Jennifer maintained a positive outlook on life as much as possible and later had a daughter.

She also hailed the peace process that led to the Belfast Accord in 1998, but quickly felt that the victims of the violence were being treated as collateral damage and forgotten. Jennifer said the thought sent her into a deep depression.

Speaking to the Truth and Reconciliation Platform, Jennifer said she had vivid memories of seeing then-Secretary of State Peter Mandelson describe the benefits of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement .

“I thought ‘they have to say something about people who have had a traumatic injury’…and he said a memorial fund would 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 torn apart. Having someone ask me if I needed a fridge or a washing machine didn’t go over very well.

“And with that anger I was depressed. For the first time I had come down emotionally. It was getting to a dangerous stage where I was suicidal. Eventually some friends took me to the doctor and luckily my doctor knew about the WAVE organization so I went to see WAVE one day and talked to Sandra [McPeake]», the general manager of the WAVE Trauma Center.

Regularly meeting others similarly affected by the violence of Troubles has helped Jennifer in many ways, and she continues to enjoy the friendships forged at WAVE.

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

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