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Book Club Reflection: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

15 Mar

I’ve been waiting to have time to chat with my book club about Keefe’s Say Nothing since I finished it and absolutely loved it. Luckily, that time finally came last week!

We started with a little background about the author. Keefe is a staff writer for the New Yorker based in Boston. He has Irish roots but his interest in the Troubles steamed from the obituary of Dolours Price he read. When he started researching the Troubles and speaking with the people involved, he found that being an American branded him as an outsider and gave him more access to the players because he wasn’t considered British or Irish and thus wasn’t trying to get information for the other side. We felt he portrayed the characters in a very fair way without taking strong sides. It was to a point that you felt almost OK with the actions both sides took and it took a minute to step back and realize those actions were murder or imprisonment. You were able to reconcile the IRA’s crimes because the British were doing equally horrible things. Since the British were representing the government, they had power and those with power get to narrate what is good and bad. Being an outsider lets Keefe tell this story with less of an agenda. We did feel that he felt a bit upset that Gerry Adams wouldn’t speak with him. He seemed to share this sentiment with IRA members who felt that Adams had turned his back on everyone when he denied his part in the IRA. I’m secretly hoping for a Gerry Adams Belfast Project tape but I know it’s a long shot.

One of the reasons cited for the betrayal of Adams is that he went against the sense of absolutism that the IRA had. The only solution they would accept was their independence from Britain and joining the Republic. Adam’s role in the Good Friday Agreement was a concession and thus he went against the IRA. Other ideas permeated the story, especially silence when lent itself to the title as well. Keeping quiet about something traumatic comes up often in references to Irish culture. One reader had read from an anthropologist that this sense of secrecy stems from large families living in small spaces. Household peace was easier to maintain if certain things weren’t discussed. This prevalence made it a part of the national culture. I’m not sure how true I think that is, but it’s an interesting idea and it’s easy to see it played out in the book, especially in the case of Jean McConville. Many of us were confused why McConville’s story was used to bookend the book. While a dark part of the IRA’s operations, they didn’t disappear a large number of people. We had various reasons for thinking Keefe did this. Partially it might have been because of the role her murder played in the release of the Boston College tapes. It seemed odd at first how willing some of the confessors were to tell their stories, knowing that they had families who were going to have to live with the truth after they were gone. That’s how badly they needed healing from what they’d lived through.

We had some personal anecdotes to share as well. One reader grew up in a strongly Irish family and remembers praying for the hunger strikers at Thanksgiving dinner. The book touched on the IRA support in America but I hadn’t thought of it being in my area so that was eye-opening. Someone recommended a movie about Bobby Sands called Hunger starring Michael Fassbender. Another shared a YouTube video of Seamus Heaney reading a poem he wrote about the Troubles which inspired Keefe’s title.

As always, it was a great discussion. I only hope I finish the book for our next meeting before the date. Until then, write on.

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