A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Patrick Radden Keefe
Shortly after beginning Say Nothing, I realized how little I knew of The Troubles. Although Keefe would be the first to admit his book isn’t a comprehensive history, I found it an intriguing segway into this difficult time in Northern Ireland’s history.
Say Nothing centers on four figures: Jean McConville, a thirty-eight year old mother of ten who was taken from her home by a group of intruders in December 1972 as her children hung from her limbs; Dolours Price, a young, glamorous IRA volunteer who lead the team that perpetrated the March 1973 London bombings and subsequently became infamous, with her sister Marian, for a prolonged hunger strike; Brendan Hughes, master IRA tactician, head of the D Company, the feared “Dirty Dozen”; and Gerry Adams, a leading figure in the peace talks and the Sinn Féin party who disavowed his IRA past.
The book, which reads like a novel, traces the history of these figures as they navigate life in a city divided by sectarian conflict, where bombs and shootings are commonplace. Although Dolours, Gerry, and Brendan chose to live as revolutionaries, Jean, a Protestant living in a Catholic stronghold, was caught up in forces beyond her control.
While intimately personal, the book also chronicles the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the uncompromising ideals of the IRA volunteers, and life in prison and internment camps. I had not fully understood the process or psychological consequences of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike until reading this book, and I’ll never see the process the same way again.
Attention is also paid to the British Army and its use of “touts” or informants, a practice Keefe attributes to Brigadier Frank Kitson who became a master of counterinsurgency techniques while stationed at sites of colonial uprisings and later assigned to Northern Ireland.
As Reefe unspools the trajectory of the IRA volunteers, he traces the painful lives of the McConville orphans who were put into state custody and institutionalized. Their family was irrevocably shattered when Jean was “disappeared.” In 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility, and in 2003, her body was uncovered.
Jean McConville and her family were only one of many who were uprooted by the Troubles. But a culture of silence permeates Northern Ireland. Part of this developed before the Troubles, but because the peace settlement did not include a truth and reconciliation process, anyone who talks about their activities risks arrest and prison. Keefe wonders who should be responsible for a shared history of violence. Only the truth can answer that question, and Say Nothing is a remarkable contribution to that history.
This is such a readable book, it will appeal to true crime aficionados, mystery lovers, and history buffs, not to mentions anyone wanting to know more about the history of Northern Ireland or the IRA. In fact, one of the few flaws is that the book is so readable, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the events depict real people and real pain that deserve empathy and witness. The book is also more thematic than chronological, which makes the flow more logical and the narrative more coherent. However, at times, I got a bit murky on the timeline and had to reorient myself. These very minor issues should not keep you from picking up this book; in fact, I encourage you to read it as soon as possible.
Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.