‘Say Nothing’ Unearths Buried Secrets in Northern Ireland
In “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” Patrick Radden Keefe trains a cold eye on an incendiary subject. Despite having Irish ancestors who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, Keefe, a journalist for The New Yorker, shares little of the “tribal solidarity” with the old country that was ubiquitous in Boston, where he grew up.
“I never felt any particular interest in the conflict in Northern Ireland,” he writes. Whatever feeling he had about the Troubles — the vicious fighting between the mostly Protestant loyalists who wanted to remain British subjects and the mostly Catholic republicans who didn’t — amounted to a “detached concern.”
It’s a somewhat startling admission, coming toward the end of this resolutely humane book, but an outsider’s perspective is what gives “Say Nothing” its exacting and terrifying lucidity. The title comes from a poem by Seamus Heaney that describes “The famous / Northern reticence, the tight gag of place / And times.” Keefe’s book is as much about this “penumbra of silence” as it is about lives lost and blood shed.
The book begins with a longstanding mystery: Who abducted Jean McConville, and why? McConville was a mother of 10, born to Protestants and married to a Catholic, so overwhelmed by the daunting task of caring for her brood after her husband died that she seemed to have no time for anything else, much less sectarian intrigue. Yet in December 1972, at the end of the bloodiest year of the Troubles, a group of masked men and women barged into her Belfast home, dragging the 38-year-old widow away as her frightened children looked on.
For the next three decades, the McConville children wondered what happened to their mother, with some of them electing never to leave Belfast in case she returned. The city was small, suffused with whispers of gossip, but nobody would actually talk. One inquiry by a family member was met with an ominous note that warned, “Get away.” Even after McConville’s remains washed up on a beach in 2003, the code of silence prevailed.
Keefe follows the McConville story, interviewing more than a hundred sources and digging deeper and deeper, to the point where he comes to his own conclusion about who murdered her. But the culpability of any one individual is only part of this meticulously reported book; Keefe is also interested in “collective denial,” how an entire society tries to cope with trauma and brutality through obfuscation and pitiless rationales.
For instance: “We believed that informants were the lowest form of human life. They were less than human. Death was too good for them.”
Those chilling words belong to Dolours Price, another central figure in “Say Nothing.” Price, the daughter of Catholic republican stalwarts, grew up lighting cigarettes for an aunt who lost her eyes and both hands while participating in a bombing operation gone awry. At the time of McConville’s disappearance, Dolours was a vibrant 21-year-old and, like her younger sister, Marian, an enthusiastic member of the Irish Republican Army. You quickly sense that Dolours Price’s story is bound to intersect at some point with McConville’s; the question becomes when — and how.
Keefe’s narrative is an architectural feat, expertly constructed out of complex and contentious material, arranged and balanced just so. He knows better than to hazard an interloper’s interpretation of where an “ancient quarrel” began. Whether you go back to the Protestant settlers of the 17th century or the Tudors of the 16th or the Norman raiders of the 12th, you’re already mired in an endless volley of recriminations and reprisals. “It almost didn’t matter where you started the story,” Keefe writes. “It was always there.”
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought some relief; with the exception of some violent eruptions over the past two decades, a long stretch of relative peace in Northern Ireland has held more or less steady. But the accord didn’t heal all wounds — and, in Keefe’s telling, it opened up some new ones. A number of former I.R.A. foot soldiers felt betrayed by the agreement because it kept the British dominion over Northern Ireland intact. Dolours Price, who spent eight years in prison for a 1973 London bombing, was one of them.
“She had set bombs and robbed banks and seen friends die and nearly died herself,” Keefe writes. All those awful things — and for what? As she herself put it in an interview, “I was often required to act contrary to my nature.”
Keefe’s depiction of Price is so rounded and intimate you’ll be surprised to learn that he never spoke to her. The first he ever even heard of Price was when he read her obituary in The Times, in 2013. Price participated in the so-called Belfast Project, a set of confidential interviews conducted with paramilitary fighters a few years after the Good Friday Agreement, kept under lock and key at Boston College and subject, from 2011 on, to a subpoena made at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The fate of the Belfast Project turns out to be an absorbing drama in its own right, as Keefe delicately unpacks the legal and moral quandary surrounding what amounts to a cache of confessions — conducted at considerable risk and in utmost secrecy — in which people implicated themselves and others in the cruelest, most brutal acts.
A name that kept coming up in the secret interviews was apparently “Gerry” — as in Gerry Adams, who until last year was the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party long aligned with the I.R.A. In 2014, Adams was questioned by police about the death of McConville but never charged; in their interviews for the Belfast Project, I.R.A. volunteers said they reported to Adams.
But to this day Adams, known as one of the I.R.A.’s most prominent leaders during the 1970s, denies ever having been a member of the I.R.A. It’s a gambit that’s both audacious and absurd.
Keefe’s portrait of the shape-shifting Adams is unsparing; he calls Adams’s strenuously whimsical persona “cake fairs with a dash of bloodshed.” But then Keefe also posits that this very ambiguity made it possible for the various sides of the Good Friday Agreement to believe they could negotiate with Adams and arrive at a peace deal.
This sensitive and judicious book raises some troubling, and perhaps unanswerable, questions. Does moving forward from an anguished past require some sort of revisitation and reckoning? Or are certain memories so perilous that they’re better left buried and ignored? A conspicuously unbothered Adams, for one, seems never to look back. As he once told an inquisitive reporter, in a quote that manages to sound naïve and cynical all at once, “If you don’t ask, you can’t tell.”
Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
By Patrick Radden Keefe
Illustrated. 441 pages. Doubleday. $28.95.
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