A chilling photograph ushers us into Patrick Radden Keefe’s examination of one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious crimes. On a wasteland of burned-out cars and grim tower blocks, a shaven-headed child stands alone, staring us down, a weapon ready in his hand. Superimposed on the grainy picture is a quote: “The clear, clean, sheer thing” which is how Patrick Pearse, a leader of the 1916 insurrection against British colonial rule in Ireland, described the violent nationalist cause. Keefe’s juxtaposition – of Pearse’s romantic rhetoric and this hellish modern image, of myth and reality – is sharp and his intention clear. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland will be just that, true. But not clear and certainly not clean.
On a December evening in 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty- eight year-old widow raising her ten children in a public-housing flat in Belfast, was taken from her home by a group of armed and masked men. She was never seen again. Three decades later, on a desolate beach, her skeleton was accidentally unearthed. It revealed, “…a single gunshot wound to the back of the head which would have been sufficient to cause her death.” The Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that waged a terrorist campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s, never admitted responsibility for McConville’s murder. But everyone knew that execution, usually preceded by torture and a taped confession, was the IRA’s way of dealing with informers. And word was that McConville had, for cash, been passing along information on IRA movements in her neighbourhood to British Intelligence. To this day, her family denies the accusation and the identity of McConville’s killers remains obscure. As does so much in Northern Ireland – a tiny British province with a population of fewer than two million – where knowing is not the same thing as saying and where saying, even decades later, can still be dangerous.
It is no wonder, then, that the repellent climax of Say Nothing is the moment when one of the guilty speaks. “We each in turn fired a shot,” the interviewee admits, recalling McConville kneeling at the edge of a freshly dug grave, “…We left her in the hole.” The statement was made in 2010, not to Keefe but to Ed Moloney, a journalist whose taped interviews with ex-paramilitaries became part of an oral history known as the Belfast Project, archived at Boston College on the understanding that the testimonies would remain sealed. the subsequent legal battle over the release of five interviews containing references to the McConville murder is a convoluted drama and Keefe wisely provides an abridged account. So much has already been written about this and about all aspects of the case, as Keefe’s notes and bibliography indicate. Over the years, indeed, the face of Jean McConville, half-smiling and half-frowning in a tattered snapshot, became the face of Northern Ireland’s “disappeared” (numbering “fewer than twenty” though many other bodies were dumped aboveground), and her name appears with depressing regularity in the numerous histories of the period.
So why exhume this victim again? “One theme I had become fascinated with as a journalist was collective denial,” Keefe writes, “the stories that communities tell themselves in order to cope with tragic or transgressive events.” In 2013, he came across the obituary of a woman named Dolours Price, an infamous IRA bomber, hunger striker and, crucially, a member of the Unknowns, the unit that handled suspected informers. The obituary mentioned an ongoing legal battle over the secret archive at Boston College and that glimpse of the past bleeding into the present set Keefe on a four-year excavation. The result, he emphasizes, “…is not a history book but a work of narrative nonfiction,” a tricky form which Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker, employs effectively here and, for the most part, judiciously, relying on interviews with McConville’s family among others, and on extensive background research.
Say Nothing opens like a thriller – “One summer day in 2013, two detectives strode into the Burns Library…[they] were investigating a murder” – and ends with a killer unmasked — “It was this third individual who fired the shot that killed Jean McConville.” No evidence is presented. But the speculative case that Keefe makes in his concluding pages has a pleasing symmetry, as does the entire narrative. Four main characters, all IRA operatives, occupy the foreground: Dolours Price and her sister Marian; Gerry Adams, an IRA commander turned politician; and Brendan Hughes, a unit leader and inveterate nationalist. In alternating chapters, Keefe deftly evokes these interconnected lives, each one shaped by and ultimately shaping the violent history of a divided territory.
Condensing that history is, however, a more daunting task. British colonialism, Irish nationalism, Protestants, Catholics, Loyalists, Republicans, internment, torture, hunger strikes, secret agents, murder, bombings, ceasefires, more bombings, more bodies: all horribly familiar to some of us, even after two decades of peace, but understandably mystifying to many readers today. Knowing this, Keefe nimbly weaves in the tangled strands of the past but holds fast to his connecting thread, McConville. “Because I have elected to tell this particular story,” he acknowledges, “there are important aspects of the Troubles that are not addressed. The book hardly mentions loyalist terrorism, to take just one example.” There are indeed other omissions, some crucial, and in this respect Keefe at times risks trading substance for smoothness. Say Nothing is, consequently, the oddest of hybrids: a pleasingly even chronicle of terror, expertly paced, and as moving as it is horrifying.