This week has brought an unwanted opportunity to think about the conflicts that have stretched through my not-very-long life. Most of the headlines and footage have been about violence and destruction in the Middle East. Which is not unearned, but it’s also easy to assume that all of the violence has been centered in that one region of the world.
In Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe firmly disabuses that notion with a series of interwoven tales from the Irish Troubles, which I am ashamed to say I knew existed but mostly thought of as cheap plot devices from New York-based procedural dramas.
Although Say Nothing is an expansive series of narratives contained within the Troubles, a period of violence and resistance between the British government and the IRA, and its various offshoots. The knot at the center of Say Nothing is the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widow who is dragged out of her apartment in front of her 10 children and never seen again. As the McConville children struggle to get by without their mother, Dolours Price is getting radicalized—but as a pretty young woman, she can get away with a lot. Playing a key role in bombing London proves to be a little too far for even her charm, and she and her sister are tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the sisters feel a hunger strike will get them sent home before year’s end.
As the Troubles stretch on, Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes look for ways to make their cause unignorable—and, Adams thinks, legitimize it in the eyes of the world, and maybe even the British government. The ultimate goal isn’t disappearing people or blowing up empty cars. It’s not shoot-outs or spycraft or assassinations; it’s liberation. But, wow, what a lot of blood it takes to get there.
The Troubles lasted over thirty years—until the late 90s, which was a horrifying realization of my own ignorance, but that’s another story. Over those decades, there’s bound to be a large cast of characters, particularly given how young the revolutionaries tended to be (few last long in those conditions). Keefe’s stated purpose is to give a multi-faceted depiction of the conflict, adding more characters to the roster. As with a large ensemble cast in any genre, this one is confusing at first. Truthfully, most of the names and places and events would probably be familiar to those who knew more about the Troubles.
Once I got a handle on things, though, the story moved along at a quick clip, with each turn filled with stunning violence. Keefe isn’t gratuitous with the gore or the hurt, but there’s more than enough to give an idea of the depths of the warzone that was Northern Ireland. And while the blow-by-blow is interesting, the most interesting part for me was the retrospective of various participants as they took part in an oral history of the Troubles. Some had regrets of what they did, while others’ regrets stem from the movement leaving them behind. Was it worth it? Depends on who you ask. The heat of the revolution tells one story, when violence is the answer to every question and the conviction of youth makes every cost seem negligible against the promise of success. But age has a way of cooling those decisions down and wearing away the sharp edges of the person who made them. Often, revolutionaries don’t live long enough to tell the after-story, or maybe we don’t think to ask the ones who do.
Reading Say Nothing was profoundly humbling, as it always is you find out how much you don’t know. Keefe, at least, makes it an interesting introduction. (And it’s got a hefty reference section, so I know just where to start.)