By Patrick Radden Keefe
560 pp. Anchor Books. $17.
This is a wonderful nonfiction account of that period of bitter conflict in Northern Ireland from 1968-1998 known today as The Troubles.
I had only the foggiest knowledge of the period going in, mostly derived from films like “Patriot Games,” and I came out of “Say Nothing” having learned a whole lot.
At its heart, Patrick Radden Keefe’s book is a murder mystery — one that delves into the question of who abducted and murdered Jean McConville. The 38-year-old mother of 10 was taken from her home one night in December 1972, in full view of her children, and never seen or heard from again.
McConville, it seems clear early on, was murdered by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), though no body was found and the IRA never claimed responsibility.
In “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” Patrick Radden Keefe takes a hard look at the legacy of The Troubles and the vicious cycle of revenge perpetrated by Protestants against Catholics and Catholics against Protestants that sent Northern Ireland into a death spiral that had repercussions across the British Isles.
Patrick Radden Keefe doesn’t pick sides, instead shining a light on the terrible crimes committed by both sides. These are crimes that players in the conflict confess to in their own words, thanks to taped interviews many of the participants gave to a Boston College project that were later unsealed following a court indictment.
Some of these crimes, such as the disappearing of Jean McConville, almost certainly would be classified as war crimes.
While reading “Say Nothing” I would find that the moment my sympathies were pulled in a particular direction or to a certain individual, that individual would do something terrible — help set a series of bombs across London, for example — and I’d lose all sympathy for them.
The British government certainly committed atrocities in Ireland going back centuries, but the IRA’s policy of violent retribution was in no way admirable or justified — particularly as it often resulted in civilian casualties.
Much of “Say Nothing” focuses on the lives that many IRA members have led since leaving the group. Among those Patrick Radden Keefe focuses on are the sisters Dolours and Marian Price, the first of whom later married, and divorced, the Irish film actor Stephen Rea.
Rea, interestingly, is best known for his role as an emotionally conflicted IRA hostage taker in 1992’s “The Crying Game.”
Another participant Patrick Radden Keefe highlights is former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, whose knowledge and, perhaps, ordering of McConville’s disappearance is discussed at some length.
There are times when Adams seems like perhaps the likeliest villain in the story, if “Say Nothing” was to have one single villain, which it most certainly does not. But Adams also played a key role in 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, so is Adams a hero or a villain? Such terms, if applicable in real life at all, clearly don’t belong here. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s telling, everyone involved is culpable to some degree.
This is a somewhat timely read as Northern Ireland has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks for the mounting violence that has come about both as a result of the Brexit decision having taken effect on January 1st of this year as well as the decision last month by the government of Northern Ireland not to prosecute anyone in Sinn Féin’s camp for allegedly violating social distancing guidelines during last year’s funeral of Bobby Storey, the former head of intelligence for the IRA.
No one who has read “Say Nothing” can come away anything less than horrified at the prospect of a possible return to these very troubled times.