SAY NOTHING: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday. 441 pages. $28.95.
"Say Nothing" is more like a gripping novel than the painstakingly researched, well-documented (95 pages of notes, bibliography, and index) “True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” promised by the subtitle. For those who care to know more about the Troubles, this is an enlightening read.
As for the title, Keefe acknowledges a poem by Nobel Prize-winning Irishman Seamus Heaney. Moved by the “Troubles,” those 30 years of sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland from 1968 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Heaney wrote: “Northern reticence, the tight gag of place / And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing / Where to be saved you only must save face / And whatever you say, say nothing.”
Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a Guggenheim Fellow, uses for the book’s starting point the December 1972 abduction in Belfast of Jean McConville, a widowed 38-year-old mother of 10. Horrifically, she was abducted in the presence of her terrified children, who never saw her again.
It was generally assumed in McConville’s run-down Catholic neighborhood that the IRA was responsible for the abduction and subsequent disappearance, charging she was an informer (a paid betrayer of the Republican cause); however, those involved with the IRA who knew for certain, would “say nothing.”
McConville’s remains were eventually found in 2003 in an unmarked grave just south of the border in the Republic. But it was not until 15 years later, due largely to Keefe’s persistent, clever sleuthing, and perhaps some sheer luck, that the public could know with near-certainty the identity of the IRA volunteer who executed McConville.
A particularly lucky moment came in spring 2018. As Keefe was finishing his book, he visited Drogheda and met a former IRA operative who knew who had shot McConville. This man, his tongue perhaps loosened a bit by Irish whiskey, neither confirmed nor denied the identity of the woman that Keefe had come to suspect.
While acknowledging the merits of this fine work of journalistic writing, otherwise appreciative readers might disagree with the semantics of certain passages. They will bristle when Keefe refers to the IRA as “murdering” British soldiers, arguing that such soldiers were foreign occupiers in an undeclared war, combatants who could be said to have been killed in action or, alternatively, to have been executed for war crimes, not unlike the Germans and Japanese executed by the Allies after World War II.
Commendably, Keefe details some of the despicable policies of the British government and the atrocities for which it was responsible during the Troubles. But some readers will say, “Of course, the Troubles could have been precluded altogether had Britain not facilitated the partition of the island following Ireland’s War of Independence.”
As a poet has written, “but imperial pride dies slowly / and persists in bullying an ancient foe / whose people refuse to remain repressed.”
In the final pages of “Say Nothing,” Keefe addresses a political matter about which there are continuing significant developments: Brexit. An unintended consequence of the 2016 referendum might be what 30 years of the Troubles could not achieve: a united Ireland. Many unionists have a deep fear of such a consequence. Meanwhile, many republicans pray for it even as the government of the Republic of Ireland remains officially neutral.
In addition to its many image-evoking passages, the book includes a few well-chosen photographs that are no less evocative: one of a Catholic priest administering last rites to a British soldier who had just been shot.
Interestingly, several recent movies set in the context of the Troubles, particularly “The Journey” and “’71,” could have been inspired by events described in the book. The same could be said of the Tony Award-winning play “The Ferryman” by Jez Butterworth, which is about the disappearance of someone during the Troubles, not unlike the disappearance of Jean McConville described so poignantly in “Say Nothing.”