In 1998 the Good Friday Peace Agreement ended the decades-long violence in Northern Ireland perpetrated by the Catholic IRA and Protestant extremists. The history of what the Irish euphemistically call “the Troubles” — the bombings, kneecappings, kidnappings and assassinations of the 1970s and 1980s throughout Ireland and Great Britain — has roots that sink into the centuries, reaching back to Henry II’s invasions, the religious consequences of Henry VIII’s divorces, and Cromwell’s never-forgotten brutalities. The Troubles was a warfare that spread from Belfast and towns in the northern counties and across the Irish Sea to the cities of England.
“Say Nothing,” by New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe, is the story of the consequences of that violent period.
Keefe explains the larger political picture of that violence, but his story focuses fundamentally on the complicated poignancy of the human cost of those years. His narrative follows the intertwining lives of Jean McConville (a 38-year-old widowed mother of 10 children who was kidnapped and killed by the Irish Republican Army) and the IRA soldiers and leaders Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams. It is a story about the destructiveness of zealotry and brutality, the debilitating and resurrective power of memory, and the culture of concealment that lies at the heart of the overall Irish story. The title of the book comes from a Seamus Heaney poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” in which he calls his homeland a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod.” It is a place where, as Keefe describes it, “the sulfurous intrigue of the past would continue to linger.”
Keefe’s account portrays in heartbreaking and bloody detail how those years of terror took the lives of many innocents as well as true believers on both sides. He also dramatically recounts the effects on the people who killed and bombed in the hopes of creating a united Ireland or a British-centered one.
It is a story of two Irelands because Ireland has for centuries been a bifurcated place — forced to shed its religion, its native language, its customs in obeisance to the dictates of the British Empire. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more clearly mapped out than in the geography of the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. They run a parallel course in Belfast, one a stronghold for Catholics and the other a sanctuary for Protestants, a series of similar narrow streets and near-identical terraced houses — all separated by walls and centuries of fear, hatred and mistrust. It is the land of peat bogs that preserve dead bodies, no matter how long ago they disappeared, “a landscape that remembers everything that happened in and to it.”
Keefe’s narrative about the Irish culture of concealment is framed by the story of Jean McConville and her children, the story of the disappeared, the chronicle of an innocence lost. He takes us through McConville’s kidnapping and murder in 1972, the IRA bombings in London in 1973, the hunger strikes of Bobby Sands and others in the early 1980s, the heartbreaking account of McConville’s 10 orphaned children, the unraveling of IRA soldiers like Brendan Hughes, the carefully calculated political rise of Gerry Adams, and the tragic end of Dolours Price.
Keefe’s chronicle is a cautionary tale about the nature of revolutionaries. He portrays his characters in all of their admirable and awful ambiguity — the unyielding passion and the adulterated guilt. The kind of PTSD that the McConville children live with their whole lives is not all that different, perhaps, than the dark memories that haunt and destroy the lives of Price and Hughes. The only person who in the story who seems to be able to shed the memories and sense of guilt is Adams, the former president of Sinn Fein (the NRA’s political arm), and that might be because, as one of his former lieutenants said, he is a sociopath.
This book has a political sensibility, but it is the collateral damage that breaks our hearts — the passionate young woman who believes more deeply in the value of the ideal than in the individuals she kills, the mother who is ripped from her children, the political figure who can allow a half dozen young men to starve themselves to death so that he can market his agenda. With the confusion stemming from Brexit and what that will mean for a hard border between north and south in Ireland — a border of security checks and tariffs that re-establish an artificial divide between the two — and what that could do to the still-fragile, two-decades-long peace, this story of the ramifications of building walls that demonize the other is one we should all heed before the situation turns into another Bloody Sunday.
Michael Pearson teaches a course in Irish literature at ODU.