REVIEW: A True Story of Murder and Mystery in Northern Ireland, Amid the 'Troubles'

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Say Nothing; A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

439 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has woven a fascinatingly true story out of seemingly disparate threads.  It begins as a mystery with the sudden kidnapping and total disappearance of Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother of ten in 1972 Belfast, Northern Ireland.  This strain of a story is added to by three other related but distinct story lines — those of Dolours Price, a very young civil rights advocate who slowly evolves into a key member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA); Gerry Adams, the political leader of the IRA and president of Sinn Fein; and Brendan Hughes, a top lieutenant in the IRA and Gerry Adams’ best friend and personal enforcer.

These separate but related sagas entwine themselves into a rich tapestry of violence, tragedy, attempted redemption and memory that tells us ultimately much more than any single story could possibly explain.  Keefe has given us a murder mystery inextricably tied to the bigger picture of the history of the IRA but most specifically centering on the so-called “Troubles,” the violent conflict that rocked both Northern Ireland and Great Britain from the late 1960’s until 1998.  That this story is so tied to memories true or just commonly believed ultimately becomes a testament to humanity — both at its best and worst.

The story begins with Jean McConville, a seemingly apolitical woman who is believed by some in the Provisional IRA to have spied for the British government.  She may have just been an innocent woman who offered an Injured British soldier a pillow to lay his head upon as an act of kindness.  All we know for sure is that she disappears the next day leaving her ten children to wonder what has occurred as their lives spin out of control never to fully recover.

Her disappearance and the trauma it causes her family, appears to be an unending tragedy that all but destroys many of her children’s lives until some forty-five years later when it becomes public knowledge that Boston College has assembled an oral history of “the Troubles” in its archives.  The search for answers to her disappearance will bring renewed sorrow if not a conclusion to the family’s despair.

Dolours Price, a young idealist who slowly morphs into a Provisional IRA operative, is a fascinating individual and ultimately the key to learning the truth about Jean McConville’s disappearance.  That Delours would eventually marry and divorce the famous Irish actor, Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), only adds to the many twists and turns of the story.

The most complex character by far is the enigmatic Gerry Adams.  Although commonly known as the head of the Provisional IRA, Adams always keeps his distance from the more violent aspects of the organization by stating firmly that he is only the political leader of Sinn Fein.  While often stating unequivocally that he has never been in the IRA, he keeps a separation from the acts and the consequences of his more violent cohorts.  This seemingly inconsequential difference makes a huge distinction between Adams’ life and the lives of other IRA members.  Adams would live a relatively honored life as a Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland and later the Irish Parliament, seemingly free of the angst that hindered most of his early compatriots.  Many of his early colleagues in the IRA, including Brendan Hughes, would ultimately feel used and abused by the more sophisticated and political Adams.

There are very few heroes in this story.  The Provisional IRA would ultimately kill more of their own countrymen than they would kill British or Northern Irish Protestants.  What is left is only hatred that inflicts everyone- the innocent and the guilty.  There is self-hatred and certainly hatred of “the other.”  Their hatred tends to kill indiscriminately — the pure, the culpable and more often than not themselves — if not physically, then metaphorically.

Paul Markowitz is a California-based writer.