Times of Troubles

Say Nothing – A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe, London: William Collins, 2019, pb, 511 pages

In May 1169, an Anglo-Norman expeditionary force landed in Wexford to help the King of Leinster subjugate a revolt – an episode mythologised as inaugurating eight centuries of English oppression of Ireland.

Almost exactly eight centuries later, in January 1969, the Civil Rights-influenced but Irish Republicanism-infused group People’s Democracy commenced a march from Belfast to Derry at the other end of the island in protest against endemic anti-Catholic discrimination. They were ambushed by Loyalist yahoos hurling bottles and bricks, and carrying cudgels, crowbars and planks studded with nails.

The mob’s victory was Pyrrhic, because at least two among the thwarted marchers, sisters Dolours and Marian Price, became convinced that peaceful activism was pointless, and went on to play major roles in decades of terrorism. In probing the Prices, Patrick Radden Keefe provides a praiseworthy account of ‘The Troubles’ that took 3,500 lives between 1969 and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, and reverberate even in 2020’s radically altered Ireland.

Jean McConville, with her family

Say Nothing’s central incident is the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, the Protestant widow of a Catholic, abducted in front of her children by IRA-supporting neighbours who suspected she was a police informant, and never seen again until 2003, when her body was found over the border. Radden Keefe peels back layers of obscurity to give the optimal obtainable account of these ancient-feeling events, and their aftermath.

He conveys excellently the province’s authentic flavour – its bigotries, braveries, cruelties, intrigues, ironies, and paranoia, with flashes of humanity and black humour. That long-ago, but still-breathing, Belfast was a gritty city of hard edges and legends, adventurers, drunks, opportunists and traitors, bitter logic and nightmare.

The title comes from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ – a witticism of dread import in this claustrophobic country, where everyone knew everybody, and hated half of them. Heaney’s “famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place and time” united both sides in omertà and ‘tribal, intimate violence’ that left little room for mercy. Jean McConville’s abductors (and allies, if she had any) were all victims of circumstance, burdened by myths of 1169, 1688, 1845, 1916, or maybe ‘just’ a murdered family member.

We meet ex-terrorists living on into impoverished, un-romantic middle age, sunk in survivor’s guilt and resenting erstwhile comrade Gerry Adams for allegedly betraying their cause. The author understands, but concludes “Politically, it would be folly not to sympathise with Adams” – who, if he was self-serving, could see the shooting had to stop.

Say Nothing says little about Loyalists, but this reflects Unionist inarticulacy rather than authorial bias. This particular Bostonian author never succumbed to the Irish-American vices of ‘Ould Sod’ sentimentalism or safely distant sabre-rattling. The many journalistic flourishes don’t belie the book’s believability. It is a welcome entrant indeed into a deeply partisan field where too often authors seem to say anything.

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