Say Nothing forces readers to reflect on how rapidly a society ruined by injustice and discrimination can erupt into ethnic cleansing, police brutality, state-sponsored terrorism, bitter recrimination, psychological warfare and the breakdown of neighborhood trust.
Where does a staff writer for The New Yorker turn for his topics? Patrick Radden Keefe’s two previous books covered, respectively, a smuggling ring of undocumented immigrants run by a Chinese grandmother out of a noodle shop in Manhattan, and the secret Echelon spy network that made breaking news years before WikiLeaks. While the journalist never reveals what led to his newest investigation, he plunges deep into another underworld of deceit, spies and collusion.
For American readers, “the disappeared” may spark associations with the “dirty wars” decades ago in Argentina or Brazil against radicals and communists. For an Irish audience, these terms apply to those during what has been dubbed the Troubles whose bodies were never recovered. Menace hangs over the reasons why these men and women wound up as corpses dumped on an Ulster by-road or, in the case of Jean McConville, unearthed after a storm eroded a beach.
Her fate has long been a footnote in accounts of the late conflict fought in the North of Ireland. Say Nothing examines how and why this widowed mother of ten was abducted by those who included her neighbors among masked vigilantes in December 1972. Keefe opens his study deftly as he describes the stark Brutalist architecture of Divis Flats and Tower which replaced slums at the entrance to West Belfast. This Catholic enclave defended by the Irish Republican Army depended on its Celtic version of the Mafia omerta as a code of silence.
As the Hibernian tag puts it: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” It took until 2003 to discover McConville’s remains. How she was identified by her children will be left for the reader. It’s one of many anecdotes which enrich what could have been in less skilled hands a facile true crime yarn.
Keefe credits 11 research assistants in his acknowledgments. His diligent mission was accomplished over seven trips to Ireland over four years and supported by documentation from a wide range of publications, oral and written archives and attentive and thorough interviews. One wonders if a researcher raised on the island could have brought the detached judgment needed to balance the intimate conversations and delicate details Keefe uncovers. Informers in the indigenous Irish culture, “touts,” have long been reviled and accusations of betrayal—merited or not—increased the death toll as McConville and others, at least some of them innocent, have been condemned. The guilt of the woman, Keefe hedges, appears to be more likely than the I.R.A. claims, after the deadly fact of McConville’s demise, that she used a radio to relay information to the British Army. Keefe judges this unlikely once let alone twice, but he presents both sides.
Over 20 years have passed since the Good Friday Agreement negotiated what many label “the peace process,” yet as Keefe depicts many of those damaged after the previous 30 years of guerrilla war and terrorism, the caution and reticence of dissidents and those daring to oppose the official recital of events and consequences promoted by Sinn Féin on behalf of the Irish “cause” speak for themselves. The author limns precisely the elusive rhetoric of Gerry Adams, averring that without the wily spokesman, who persists in distancing himself from even the “armed struggle,” today’s fragile peace would likely never have been brokered for long.
Such in-depth analysis could have stayed with the McConville case; this episode had been premiered in a 2013 issue by Keefe’s employer.
Commendably, Say Nothing delves into not only that murder but the memory in its subtitle. Barely out of their teens, Marian and Dolours Price exacted reprisals against the forces who occupy their province. The sisters used their winsome looks and mini-skirted charm to elude the enemy. They took the fight to London, part of a bombing campaign, and the resultant publicity encouraged Vanessa Redgrave to offer to adopt the pair as her own personal cause. Their fame or infamy endures. So does their memory.
Neither sibling fares well, despite in Dolours’ case a marriage to a fellow Belfast native, an up-and-coming actor named Stephen Rea. Keefe delicately dramatizes the haunted trauma and mental instability which accompany the women after their publicity and imprisonment. He does the same, masterfully, for Gerry Adams’s one-time right-hand comrade.
Nicknamed for his looks “The Dark,” Brendan Hughes carried out in secret what the public face of Adams turned away from: the machinations of an I.R.A. operative with an innate talent at outwitting the foe. So much so that he seemed to his fellow fighters in many places at the same time. Keefe portrays the betrayal and abandonment that “The Dark” endured after he and Adams parted ways over the future of the “cause.” What scholars dub “the physical-force tradition” in republicanism has long been its defining characteristic. Separating those willing to violently act for what they judged as a free (and ideally socialist and non-sectarian) Ireland, this principle kept Hughes’ loyalty. He and some of his friends felt that Adams in his duplicity wanted to drop the Armalite rifle and hoist the ballot box instead, so Sinn Féin would secure political power while pretending that it remained in tandem with the party’s militant allies, to win the “long war” against the colonial regime and its Loyalist supporters in Ireland itself.
With nuance, Keefe adroitly channels Hughes’ taped confessions into an interior monologue that articulates “The Dark’s” despair. He wonders, along with both his rank and file and their enemies, why so many thousands had to die if the republican movement shielded its true intentions from the troops and collaborators on the ground.
For those unfamiliar with “The Troubles,” Say Nothing depicts their background vividly, illuminating events within Irish republicanism, the better to elucidate how McConville’s demise stands as a synecdoche for hundreds of thousands who found their small homeland blown apart. The book has two small shortcomings that underline how comprehensive this narrative is. Its endnotes cite hundreds of sources; a timeline of relevant, complex events over the past half-century in the North Atlantic archipelago would have eased comprehension for foreign readers. Photographs speckle these pages; one wishes only that many more could have been included.
An audio performance by Matthew Blaney deserves equal acclaim for its powerful rendering of the book’s spiritual desolation and psychic miasma. He claims to have read hundreds of books on the Troubles and now adds a volume which transcends the subject proper. Say Nothing forces readers to reflect on how rapidly a society ruined by injustice and discrimination can erupt into ethnic cleansing, police brutality, state-sponsored terrorism, bitter recrimination, psychological warfare and the breakdown of neighborhood trust. Lasting lessons for anyone aware of the fragility of cultural cohesion and legal dictates.