“Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed that, ‘for the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe, or linguistic.'”
I was quite lucky to read Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2019) as my first book of 2020. My book club chose it as our next book, so I was already reading it when I discovered that it was also one of Obama’s 2019 book recommendations. This book was a well-written mix of murder/mystery and some history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The mystery is all about finding out what happened to Jean McConville in 1972. It’s hard to get a more sympathetic victim. She was a recently widowed, mother of ten children, and only 38 years old. She was taken from her apartment in front of her children at gunpoint and was never seen or heard from again. It was assumed it was the work of the Provos, a more violent faction of the IRA. McConville’s children were left orphans, separated, and sent to government institutions and orphanages. Many of them faced deplorable conditions and abuse.
In order to understand the circumstances surrounding McConville’s disappearance, Keefe writes a lot about the years of The Troubles in Ireland. It is embarrassing how little I knew about The Troubles going into this book, so I learned a lot while reading this. While the Republic of Ireland is majority Catholic, Northern Ireland is a British territory and majority Protestant. A sizable Catholic minority in Northern Ireland faced severe discrimination. Many were nationalists who wanted the British out and to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. Many of the Protestants were unionists interested in staying under Britian’s rule.
In elaborating on The Troubles and the work of the Provos and Catholic Nationalists, Keefe focused on four people heavily involved at the height of the violence. Dolours Price and her sister Marian initially preferred non-violent means for change. But after being attacked while marching for peaceful change, Dolours changed her mind and joined the Provos. Dolours and Marian rose quickly in the ranks and became part of a secret group of leaders. Dolours came up with and masterminded a plan to deploy car bombs in London.
Dolours was a fascinating character: bright, charismatic, and likable. She was also a woman who defied gender roles, which I found rather inspiring. At the same time, she was very young and Keefe portrayed her as probably caught up in the excitement of the operations without truly understanding the consequences–certainly the long-term consequences.
There was violence and hypocrisy on both sides of this conflict, but because Keefe focused on the Provos, that’s where it was really obvious. I was very irritated reading about how Dolours and other Provos righteously argued that any violence they perpetrated was justified. Or when they blew up a bomb near Harrod’s in London close to Christmas, and then said they weren’t trying to kill civilians. When reading with hindsight and the objectivity of not being personally involved, the violence seems wholly unnecessary and detrimental.
Besides the Price sisters, Keefe also wrote a lot about Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams. Adams was a great one for hypocrisy. As one of the leaders of the Provos, he always kept himself out of the fighting, only directing the action. As the years went by, Adams found himself gaining more power by focusing on politics. When he did this, he continuously denied ever being a part of the IRA, even though it was a ridiculous lie. As unlikable as he was, though, he was also instrumental in finally obtaining some peace in Northern Ireland.
There was a lot going on in this book, and I found it both educational and fascinating. Not only do we see the violent actions of the youthful Provos in the late 60’s and 70’s, but we also see what became of those fighters as they aged and the world changed. I would definitely recommend this book.
As the book continues, we learn that Jean McConville was one of about twenty people that the IRA “disappeared” during The Troubles. It sounds like McConville was murdered and secretly buried on the direct orders of Gerry Adams–the Gerry Adams who denied being in the IRA and later met with McConville’s family, sympathetically telling them that he hoped they would find their mother’s body. We also discover who likely shot the gun that was responsible for Jean McConville’s death.
However, I felt slightly unsatisfied with the conclusion. Dolours later says that McConville was killed by the IRA because she was a spy for the British. But Keefe argues how unlikely that would be, and I agree. What I wanted to know was why the IRA thought McConville was a spy. Sure, I now know who pulled the trigger, but it was this misinformation that led to McConville’s death. Hughes and Dolours had different, but specific, stories of how McConville had worked with the British. If they weren’t true, where did they come from? I guess it’s just another theme of the book that history is dependent on memories and the willingness to talk, and sometimes you just can’t get both.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.