Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

2 Mar

I didn’t know how much I was going to enjoy this story until I was already engrossed in it. I visited Belfast in 2018, mostly to see the Titanic Museum. I didn’t know much about The Troubles. I knew about the IRA only from the parallels drawn between it and ETA, which I did my undergraduate thesis on. This research gave me the perspective that the IRA is a terrorist organization. But this book rarely uses that word. It’s more often referred to as a paramilitary group. I think that different perspective is what made this book so fascinating to me.

Cover via Amazon

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Summary from Amazon:

In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past–Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

Some of this was so crazy that you wanted it to be fiction instead of a bitter true history. The murders and deaths were terrible and hearing about the dangers of daily life in Belfast during this time made me wonder why my mother didn’t stop me from visiting because of old headline fears. This book took decades worth of headlines and developments and told a story. While it starts and ends with Jean McConville, the story seems to spend a lot of time with Dolours Price. Price’s story is an extreme example of the IRA’s brutality but it highlighted much of the organization’s history without bringing in too many other people. I found it fascinating to hear about an armed struggle from the side I’d always been told was the enemy. I won’t say this changed my opinion of the IRA; more that it helped me understand why someone would be drawn to the other side.

Keefe did an amazing amount of research for this and it showed. Most of the major players in the story are now dead and his stories of and about them come from news articles and interviews that he poured over for years. Dolours and Brendan Hughes seemed more well rounded in the book than Dolours’s sister Marian or Gerry Adams. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the later are still alive.

I had a love/hate relationship with Price through the book. She had ideals I could never sympathize with and she went to lengths I would never consider. But I had to admire her determination. I think, directed in a different direction, she could have been famous for very different reasons. It’s a result of location that she turned into a bomber and criminal. I think she could have done great things if she’d directed her attentions and focus in other directions.

I think I was so intrigued by the people in this book because their lives were so different from mine. I’ve not had to deal with religious oppression, the driving force behind the IRA, or another form of surpression or opression that would have driven me to take a path similar to the IRA members highlighted in this book. I’ve never suffered political violence like the McConville family. It’s hard for me to fathom what it would have been like to be in their shoes. I think this is part of why I wish I knew this story better before visiting Belfast. I would have wanted to learn more about it and get a different feeling for a place that could give birth to the IRA.

Patrick Radden Keefe
Image via the author’s website

There were two parts of the story I found most interesting. The first was the 1970s, the hight of Dolours’s involvement in the IRA and a large part of the book. The activities undertaken and efforts of the group to gain political power were fascinating. The second was the Belfast Project. It’s amazing that the Boston College historians were able to get the interviews they did. I’m fascinated by the lack of legal protections the project provided and I’m a bit disappointed that the noble goal of the project fell apart so quickly. I’m interested to see who else did interviews and hope that as time passes, more information can come out of the project to provide peace of mind and closure to remaining victims.

For a long time, it didn’t seem like the stories in the book would come together. There was a long stretch in the middle when McConville wasn’t mentioned at all. It seemed like almost an afterthought to have added her kidnapping at the beginning and I wondered repeatedly how it would ever come together in the end. I was frustrated in the middle, waiting and waiting for things to be relevant again. While they eventually were, this was my only frustration with the book.

The audiobook was narrated by Matthew Blaney and the voice in my head took on his accent for hours after listening. I’m glad they got an Irish narrator for this book. It seemed a little out of place at the very end when Keefe mentions that he’s American born, but I think the book woul have lost a lot of it’s impact if the narrator had been American as well. Keefe’s Irish roots were what drew him to this story so it seems appropriate to have an Irish narrator.

It’s the memory of the IRA and what it did that stays with this book throughout. Dolours is warned once against speaking about what happened to McConville because she has children. It’s the McConville children who eventually identify their mother. The things that happened in the 70s still have strong impacts today. This is worth remembering for all major decisions made by a generation.

Writer’s Takeaway: Nonfiction is a fight I’m not sure I could win. The amount of research that’s evident in Keefe’s writing is amazing. It’s clear he poured over many primary sources, articles, and secondary histories that helped him weave this story. His ability to jump from person to person to tell a full story made this a joy to read and gave the reader a great perspective of the IRA as a whole and how it changed and eveolved. My hat is off to Keefe. I don’t think I would ever try to duplicate his amazing efforts.

This book was fascinating and a joy to read. A full Five out of Five Stars.

I’ve decided to give this book the 1980-1999 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge. It’s debatable, but it feels appropriate.

Until next time, write on.

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