(The funeral of Dolours Price)
In reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND one has the feel they are inhaling a novel, a work of fiction that is drawing them into a complex plotline where it is hard to discern what is fact and what is fiction. But Keefe’s work is not fiction, but a recounting of the brutal events that are part of the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s onward that includes extreme violence, personal heroism, ideological commitment, individual growth, ideological evolution, and the last vestiges of colonialism. The ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants; the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Protestant Unionists; the British army and its occupation are all played out from the “Time of Troubles” to an acceptable peace settlement. Keefe is a terrific storyteller who has created a true story of murder and memory in the context of the larger struggle that is and was Northern Ireland. Keefe accomplishes this by providing novelistic quality and pace which is the key to creating history that reads as if it is fiction.
(The Price sisters, Marian and Dolours in prison)
When asked in a New York Times podcast how he came to write the book, Keefe describes how he was reading the Times obituary of Dolours Price on January 23, 2013 and was attracted to the former IRA member and decided to dig further into her life story. As he became engrossed in her biography he came across Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of ten who was kidnapped, and whose fate would be buried for decades. The connection between the two women is a major theme of the book as it pulled together victims and perpetrators during the “Time of Troubles.”
Keefe focuses on a few important individuals as his protagonists. Within this context are several families that come to the fore. The story unfolds as Jean McConville, at the age of 38 is kidnapped and seized in front of her children to be murdered by unionist thugs. Next, is the Price family that produced two daughters, Dolours and Marian who would experience the brutal unionist attack against a peaceful Catholic march on January 1, 1969 from Belfast to Derry. This would turn the sisters from their socialist and civil rights beliefs into joining the IRA. Radden reviews the history of Catholic v. Protestants, including important political, religious and socioeconomic points of view to place the reader in the moment as the “Time of Troubles” is about to commence. The British response to the violence is key as Catholics assumed that British troops were being sent to Belfast to protect them from Protestant violence, but in short order it was clear that their mission was to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and B-Specials (anti-Catholic Unionist Auxiliary police).
(Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader)
The history of the period is seen through the eyes of the McConville children as they have to cope with the loss of their mother, the separation of siblings into orphanages and other institutions, and living on the streets; the Price sisters who become key members of the violent wing of the IRA and carry out their operations until after years of imprisonment and hunger strikes they are released from prison and turn against the violence; and paramilitary leader turned politician, Gerry Adams and his alter ego, Brendan Hughes. In addition to these individuals’ other major characters impact the story. Reverend Ian Paisley, a radical Protestant preacher who calls for “religious cleansing” of Catholics; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who does not have an empathetic bone in her body when it comes to the Irish; and Frank Kitson, a British officer who excelled an counter-insurgency in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and was assigned to Belfast along with 30,000 troops to Northern Ireland to institute his theories in crushing a civilian led rebellion. In introducing his characters Keefe provides a mini-biography of each that is insightful and allows the reader to understand their role and place in history. What is amazing is how Keefe takes each character and deals with their emotional burdens.
(Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes)
Keefe analyzes the strategies and tactics used by all sides in the conflict. He explores the creation of MRF by Kitson, an elite squad that infiltrates the IRA and carries out “interrogation in depth,” rather than “enhanced interrogation,” or just torture. The planning and implementation of Provisional bombings carried out, i.e.; in central London in 1973 and the trial that followed are investigated in depth as are several other operations. The conflict within the IRA between the Old Guard and the Provo’s is carefully dissected. The imprisonment, particularly of the Price sisters is examined carefully, in addition to the overall effect of Provo, Unionist, and British actions taken to achieve their agendas. But the main mystery that clouds the entire story surrounds the abduction of McConville. It will eventually take decades to learn what occurred that night, well into the 1990s when the children learn the truth and finally break their silence.
A key to Keefe’s success as an author is his ability to integrate aspects of Irish history throughout the narrative be it the Great Famine, the Easter Rebellion of 1916, etc. As he tells his story Keefe weaves a few threads very effectively. Keefe concentrates on one aspect of his story, the plight of the McConville children, then switches to the Dolours Price planning a bombing operation, to the arrests and escapes of Gerry Adams and Brenden Hughes, or the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, elected to Parliament, but allowed to die in prison from a hunger strike. The components of the story seem diverse and unconnected, but Keefe can mesh the disparate elements for the reader which in the end come together.
(Jean McConville and three of her ten children)
A key development in the history of the conflict is the supposed evolution of Gerry Adams from a paramilitary leader to a politician. Adams would come to realize that violence alone would not achieve his goals and believed a political component to the IRA strategy was called for. Adams believed that a political movement was needed to run parallel with the armed struggle, the Provo’s would carry out the armed strategy, the Sinn Fein the political as he is elected to parliament. It is fascinating how Adams can carry out his metamorphosis as the provisional IRA was illegal, and its political wing, the Sinn Fein was not. Keefe is correct in emphasizing the importance of how Adams successfully develops the IRA from a revolutionary cadre to a retail political outfit.
(Northern Ireland during the Times of Troubles)
Keefe is very careful as he confronts the war’s strange ending. Adam’s negotiates, but at the same time is planning and carrying out paramilitary operations. The split between the former “partners” Adams and Hughes is thoughtfully portrayed as is the split between Adams and Dolours Price. Keefe digs deep into their relationships as Adams seemed to suffer from amnesia concerning his role in the IRA, but for Hughes and Price he was their commanding officer who ordered them to carry out nasty operations. The result was Adams denied it all, and Hughes and Price passed away by 2013.
Keefe’s approach is comprehensive and tries to uncover as many secrets as possible that are buried, bringing many to the attention of the public. Keefe has done all those involved in “The Troubles” a great service as his efforts lays out the past and hopefully it should help those involved to achieve some type of closure. Further, he describes the creation of the Belfast Project, an oral history of the “Time of Troubles” that is archived at Boston College which contains interviews that include Brendan Hughes that sparked a great deal of controversy and intrigue. However, when you approach the history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to the present one must remember that the civil war was so vicious that closure may be something to aspire to, but difficult to achieve. One last tidbit that Keefe brings up in the last pages of the book; wouldn’t it be ironic if Ireland is finally unified after all these years because of the Brexit vote, if so, the “Time of Troubles” needed have taken the course that it did – just a thought.
(The funeral of Dolours Price)