Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (2019) – Nonfiction
I judged a book by it’s cover. I saw the ominous picture, the phrase “a true story of murder ”, and high reviews and I hit buy. In my mind, for whatever reason, I assumed this was a book about a serial killer in Ireland.
Wrong. Very wrong.
This is an historical look at the turmoil in Northern Ireland called the “Troubles”, roughly spanning from 1968-1998. What some call a low-level war or ethnic conflict, for those who lived in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, this was an all-out, ever present, war. The conflict is a bit complicated for those with no prior knowledge about it, like myself. I’ve heard about the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA), but to me it always seemed like something that happened a long time ago, somewhere over there.
For those who may think I am about to oversimplify the conflict, I know I am. But generally, the Troubles concerned a conflict on the status of Northern Ireland. Those called unionists or loyalists (who tended to be Protestants) wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Those who wanted to separate and form a united Ireland (who tended to be Catholics) were called republicans. The republicans’ goal was to form one county with the Republic of Ireland in the south. While I use the past tense, these groups are not necessarily gone.
With that context in mind, Say Nothing dives deep into this conflict. At times it is a bit overwhelming to tell who is who: the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA and/or Provos), the Irish National Liberation Army, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defense Association, the British Army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. All these groups were battling inside a tiny area of Northern Ireland. The British were trying to maintain their colony, the loyalists wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and the Provos and other republicans were fighting the Crown for their independence.
But it is murky. Keefe shows us that at the beginning. A major thread throughout the book is the disappearance of Jean McConville. One night in 1972 in Belfast, Mrs. McConville was taken from her home by unknown persons in front of her 10 children. She was never heard from or seen again. Mrs. McConville is known as one of the disappeared, a term used for others who were taken in similar situations. Keefe brings Mrs. McConville’s children up throughout the book, checking in on them as they attempt to take care of themselves as they have no father, through orphanages, through adulthood. We see how this conflict destroyed this family and so many others.
Persons do not fit neatly into bad guys and good guys. The IRA, while arguably having a worthy cause, used terroristic tactics. They bombed cars and buildings and murdered people. They eventually were able to perform successful attacks in England. In those attacks, people died. Innocent people who did not have a part in the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The British and loyalists groups also used blunt tactics, murdering individuals and tortuting prisoners. Keefe uses interviews given by members of those who participated in the conflict from a unique oral history project by Boston College called the Belfast Project. These individuals admit to murder, to disappearing people. All are old and past their prime and many die after they have given these final words. Some are filled with remorse, others remain steadfast in their belief in the cause. The Belfast Project and its unintended consequences play a crucial part in the unearthing of history.
This book is filled with names and places that I never heard of and that is one of my favorite things about reading books. I was naively expecting some serial killer book and what I got was a glimpse into a place, a glimpse into a war, that I had never really taken the time to look into. It is worth it – to understand a group of individuals and their fight and to understand their mistakes.
Say Nothing is incredibly well-written and researched, using a perspective that takes no prisoners and throws you right into the middle of Northern Ireland, expecting you to hold on. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by both the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. While a bit overwhelming at times, it is an unbelievable look into these factions and major role-players during this time.
Lover of the written word.