“The Troubles” seems incommensurate — euphemistic even — as a descriptor of the social fission that cleaved apart Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. In “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe probes the convulsions that claimed more than 3,500 lives in the country of less than 2 million people and scarred thousands more — and the stunned sense of denial that still clings to them — through the case of one victim.
The 1972 murder of Jean McConville was one of 497 killings that year in Ulster. The Belfast in which it occurred was a lawless, despoiled hellscape marauded nightly under cover of blackout darkness (police auxiliaries dubbed “B-Specials” had shot out the streetlamps) by paramilitary gangs and British army squaddies rolling in lights-out Land Rovers. Yet the eye snags on details. McConville straddled the religious divide. In a “mixed” marriage with a Catholic, her family had been ejected from their inner-city Protestant neighborhood — joining thousands of “refugees” from Belfast’s sectarian enclaves. During the years that followed as many as one in 10 of Belfast’s then-350,000 residents would be displaced, Keefe writes. “Sometimes a mob of a hundred people would converge on a house. … On other occasions, a note [instructed] the owners that they had a single hour to vacate.”
They found public housing in a Brutalist Le Corbusier-inspired, all-Catholic high-rise fast degenerating into “a slum in the sky.” Then her husband died. A single mother now to 10, McConville was snatched from her home in front of her children. Her abductors were neighbors, who later stood by — except to complain about the noise — as the unattended kids turned nearly feral, before another family evicted them and they were farmed out to the care of sadistic, “predatory” priests.
McConville’s remains were disinterred from a beach 31 years later — DNA was used to identify the bones, but the clincher for her now-adult children was the “nappy pin,” an often used object for a mother of 10, on a swatch of fabric found with her remains.
But her death wasn’t mob rule: The book alleges the order to “disappear” her came from Gerry Adams, then-Belfast Irish Republican Army chief turned leader, until last year, of political party Sinn Féin, and co-architect of the 1998 peace accord that finally ended the carnage. According to Keefe, the IRA branded McConville an “informer,” but this doesn’t square with her children’s recollection of a woebegone, careworn woman. An official inquiry concluded simply: “She was an innocent woman who was abducted and murdered.”
‘Say Nothing’ powerfully documents a society benumbed by trauma attempting to reckon with the abyss that engulfed it.
The Troubles pitted Republican against Loyalist — Catholics railing against British rule they considered an occupation and that consigned them to second-class citizenship versus the descendants of Scottish and English “planters” proclaiming die-hard loyalty to the crown. But in 1969 — when Catholic “civil rights” marchers were, with police connivance, jumped by Protestant thugs touching off the violence — there was another cleavage: young versus old. A new generation had come of age, imbued with the spirit of the previous year’s student protests. Police brutality convinced many there was little future in sit-ins. They would infuse “physical force” Irish republicanism with new fervor and dedication. In place of posthumous lionization, they sought results.
I grew up in England with an Irish immigrant father and English mother during the 1980s, by which time the IRA bombing campaign had moved to “the mainland” besides Ulster; “Say Nothing” chronicles the antecedents to that phase of the conflict. It reads at times like the annals of an action movie, teeming with superhero derring-do for “the cause” — one Ireland, united, north and south. IRA operative Brendan Hughes absconds from an internment camp inside a discarded mattress, narrowly escaping a skewering from the “spear” that crews impaled garbage with; his confrere Seamus Twomey is sprung from prison aboard a hijacked helicopter.
Then there’s the physical scourging, wielding the body as a protest against British intransigence. Imprisoned in England for a 1973 London car-bomb attack, Marian and Dolours Price reprise the movement’s practice of hunger-striking. They’re gruesomely force-fed but refuse to submit. The U.K. authorities cave, acceding to their demand to do their time in Ulster. In 1981, 10 IRA inmates of the notorious Maze Prison near Belfast sought reclassification as political prisoners; they fasted until they died.
But there’s something inhuman about the idealism; the violence it incites against the self, and others. It was a point lost on the IRA’s Irish American supporters — generations, and an ocean, removed from the old country — among their biggest financial backers (Keefe, with distant Irish roots himself, recalls “ambient support for the IRA” growing up in Boston during the 1980s; he also notes the tension between the IRA’s professed “revolutionary [socialism]” and the conservatism of many U.S. supporters), but more than half of those killed in the Troubles were civilians.
“Say Nothing” powerfully documents a society benumbed by trauma attempting to reckon with the abyss that engulfed it.
It’s an exercise fraught with recrimination. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Many would rather the festering wounds just scab over. Besides granting Northern Ireland its own legislature, closer ties to the Republic of Ireland and pledging, at such time as the majority of citizens favor it, unification with the south, the Good Friday Agreement sought to turn the page: releasing paramilitary prisoners; placing a two-year ceiling on sentences for crimes connected to the Troubles.
But there are cases that, unlike their victims, won’t die.
“Say Nothing” has made headlines in Britain and the Irish Republic for its hypothesis that the trigger-person in McConville’s death was Marian Price (she “vehemently denies” this). There’s also witnesses’ testimony that McConville was executed on the orders of Adams, along with the 16 people “disappeared” during the Troubles — a tactic, Keefe notes, redolent of repressive regimes rather than self-styled freedom fighters.
Adams was arrested in 2014 but released without charge — the witnesses are dead; the evidence against him circumstantial. Though such accusations have dogged him over the years, he steadfastly denies even being in the IRA.
This proved expedient, granting him entré to the U.S.-brokered peace talks through which he persuaded the IRA to disarm (mostly; unreconciled factions remain active) — an accomplishment for which he’s rightly feted. But this amnesia is problematic in a key figure in post-Troubles Northern Ireland, stunting healing, Keefe writes.
Toggling between marveling at his “sociopathy” and acumen though, I wonder if “Say Nothing” doesn’t unduly mythologize Adams.
Mentioned only in passing is the vital tradition of non-physical force Irish nationalism.
Moreover, while Ulster Protestants outnumbered Catholics two-to-one in 1969, thanks to higher birth rates, Catholics may eclipse them there within two years. “Outbreeding Unionists may be an enjoyable pastime for those who have the energy, but it hardly amounts to a political strategy,” Adams has said. Still, “In the long run,” Keefe writes, “the war may be won by demography.”
Then there’s Brexit — particularly unwieldy when it comes to the Republic and Northern Ireland’s “porous border,” opening the door to a prospective referendum on Ulster seceding from the U.K.
“The real question is whether [a united Ireland] would have happened eventually anyway, without the violent interventions of the IRA,” Keefe writes on the penultimate page.
Yet one thing seems certain: Adams is an author of this “brittle but enduring” peace, pinioned in place in Belfast by intra-community “peace walls” damming up old enmities, and standing on the bones of victims like Jean McConville.
Patrick Radden Keefe
Doubleday, 464 pp., $28.95
Phillips has written for the Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Financial Times, Times Higher Education and other publications.