Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe


Author: Patrick Radden Keefe 
Title: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

Say Nothing is a history of The Troubles, a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland among paramilitary forces of Republicans who wanted a united Ireland, Loyalists who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the British military forces, ostensibly sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, but instead responsible for numerous atrocities.  Keefe’s narrative gives a broad overview of The Troubles and the ensuing peace process after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But he also focuses in on one incident that offers a window into the deep wounds and layers of memory of The Troubles.

In December 1972, a widowed mother of ten children, Jean McConville was abducted and murdered by the Irish Republican Army. According to the IRA, McConville was an informer for the British Army or a “tout” and was “disappeared” for her offenses. Her children were separated and suffered abuse in orphanages. As adults they continued to pursue justice for their mother.

Intertwined with the McConville story are the stories of two members of the IRA. Dolours Price, with her sister Marian, became a prominent IRA volunteer, partly because they were young, attractive women, who were imprisoned for their role in a bombing and participated in a lengthy hunger strike.  Brendan Hughes was an IRA commander and military strategist who organized the Bloody Friday bombings of July 21, 1972, the IRA’s biggest bombing attack in Belfast. Later, Hughes lead the first of two major hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in Long Kesh prison.

Another key figure in the book is Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party associated with the IRA.  Adams is famed for his contributions to the peace process by willing to be flexible with the goals of Republican ideology.  But this book reveals that he achieved his political aims by consistently denying any involvement in the IRA in the 1970s.  Price and Hughes, both of whom claim they were ordered to commit atrocities by Adams, find a deep betrayal in how Adams washes his hands of guilt for the crimes they still struggle with.

A major factor in this history is The Belfast Project, an oral history project conducted in the early 2000s by Boston College. Former members of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries (including Price and Hughes) participated in the project under the belief that the recordings would be kept secret until after their deaths.  When the existence of the tapes became known, a legal battle ensued as UK authorities tried to use them to prosecute cold cases, including the murder of Jean McConville.

Keefe is an American writer with a journalistic writing style who offers empathy (but not without judgment) for the many figures in the history.  The narrator, Matthew Blaney, lends an authentic Northern Ireland voice to the narrative.

Recommended books:

  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace
    by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair
    by Padraig O’Malley
  • Northern Ireland scrapbook by John Chartres
  • Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

Rating: ****

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