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)

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: ****

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 19: Belfast and across the sea to Scotland

Another Sunday in Ireland, I start the day of 8 February 1998 with a long walk to view the murals and sites of West Belfast. I start at Milltown Cemetery where many Irish Republicans including those who died as a result of the 1981 hunger strike are buried. I walk along Falls Road where there are a great variety of political murals, some covering entire buildings such as the headquarters of Sinn Fein. Compared to Derry, the murals are a shoddy and uninspired. At least many of the newer looking ones portray visions of a peaceful future. This is less true in Sandy Row, an adjacent Protestant neighborhood where the murals depict calls for violent action and “No Surrender!”

Bummed out by all of this, and feeling like a “terrorism tourist,” I head to the more cheerful environs of the Belfast Botanic Gardens. I don’t know much about plants but I love botanical gardens and visit them in any city I encounter them. Belfast’s is quite lovely with a couple of large greenhouses dating back over 100 years. I refresh myself in the warm, misty, lush surroundings.

In the afternoon, I departed Belfast and Ireland for good, setting sail on the SeaCat ferry – aka the “vomit comet” – to Stranraer in Scotland. Sharing my passage are a large number of drunken Scotsmen in kilts returning from the Five Nations Rugby match in Dublin. Scotland won so at least they were happy drunken Scotsmen in kilts. As the ferry picked up speed and the seas got rough, they spilled more and more of their beer on the deck. They took advantage of this by turning the ferry into a giant slip and slide.

I saw a fellow tourist trying to take a picture of a drunken, dancing sliding Scotsman but before she could the picture he lifted his kilt and showed us that he was wearing nothing but what God gave him. I talked with the flashee and learned that she was Charlotte, a Canadian traveling with an evangelical group called Youth With a Mission. After docking in Stranraer, I followed about a dozen of the young missionaries to the train station where the train was waiting empty and unlocked. We all just dumped our bags on the train and headed into town to find a chip shop for supper. Back on the train, we took our seats and ate, after a long prayer of grace of course.

An hour later the train steamed off to Glasgow. I arrived tired and dopey and stumbled to the SYHA Glasgow Youth Hostel. I’d been staying in independent hostels and avoiding the overpriced, overregulated HI hostels, but my Let’s Go guidebook listed this as the only one in town. After being charged for a sleepsack even though I brought my own, I was put in a room with two ruffians who stayed up all night smoking and shouting with the lights on. This was the most awful night of my vacation but somehow I fell into a fitful sleep.

Belfast mural

This wacky mural on the Falls Road appears to have no political significance, but I like it very much.


The Irish Nationalist movement gains solidarity from people around the world involved in political struggles.

Botanic Garden

A moment of solace in the Botanic Garden.


One of the more sober kilted Scotsman on the SeaCat to Scotland.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 18: Derry/Belfast

I made my tearful farewell to Derry and Steve’s Backpackers Hostel on the morning of 7 February 1998. Steve and Brett walked me to the door, posed for pictures, and very warmly bid me goodbye. This is definitely not your typical hostel.

I took a long bus ride to Belfast. It was sunny in the green hills approaching the city, but felt gloomy once I got there. For all the evidence of The Troubles in Derry, there was not much of a visible presence of security forces while I was there. This was not true of Belfast. Armored vans patrolled the streets with men in fatigues leaning out the back with very long rifles. I was talking to my Mom on a pay phone when one of these vans passed by and I described it to her and just then the phone cut out. I called her back right away so she wouldn’t freak out. It turned out that I was more freaked out than she was.

At The Ark hostel, people were amicable enough watching a Shirley Bassey special in the tv lounge, but it lacked the warmth of Steve’s. I go to an internet cafe to checkup on my email, look at the schedules for ferries to Scotland, and while I’m at it check up on the Mets. Hey, we got Al Leiter in trade!

I decided this would be a good time to pick up my tickets for the ferry to Scotland. En route, I see one of Belfast’s landmarks, the Albert Clock tower which is kind of like Westminster merged with the Leaning Tower of Pisa in miniature. I also see the Lagan Weir which keeps the waters of the River Lagan under control in an industrially beautiful way. After buying my ticket, I walked down to center city, a large district made pedestrian-only to prevent car bombings, with the unexpected benefit of commercial success. I did some window shopping but most of the stores were closing up already.

Belfast’s oldest pub, White’s Tavern, is in the center city so I pop for the charm and a pint, but it’s pretty much dead. The next stop on my pub crawl Ye Old Eglantine Inn. In direct opposition to White’s, it is too crowded with lots of young college students. I don’t fit in so I take my leave early from there as well. Feeling gloomy, I return to the Ark and to bed.

Steve’s Backpackers Hostel

Steve, Brett and myself in front of the hostel.

Albert Memorial Clock

The leaning clock tower of Belfast.