27 August 2020

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


I had been interested in reading this book for a while because of all the recommendations it had gotten. I saw it on a few "best of 2019" lists and it was mentioned on one of the podcasts I really like. It was also famously on Barack Obama's top of the year list. I ordered it in a "quarantine haul" after finishing Sally Rooney's Normal People because I felt like reading more about Ireland. Obviously this book is about Northern Ireland and The Troubles during the 1960s-1980s, but still, I wanted to stay in that area.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is 412 pages long, with a more than 100-paged notes section at the end. The first 400 pages are packed with so much information about The Troubles, ranging from firsthand information, legal reports, interviews, newspaper stories, etc. It's actually worth skimming through the 100+ pages that follow to see all the research Patrick Radden Keefe did while prepping to write the book.

Say Nothing is a look at a select few individuals during The Troubles -  a long-lasting conflict in Northern Ireland between those who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom, and those who wanted to join the republic of Ireland. I remember hearing a little bit about The Troubles when I was in middle school, but always thought it was a religious war between the Catholics and Protestants. Apparently it's a fairly common misconception because protestants were typically on one side and Catholics on the other.

Tranquilizer use was higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In some later era, the condition would likely be described as post-traumatic stress, but one contemporary book called it 'the Belfast syndrome,' a malady that was said to result from 'living in constant terror, where the enemy is not easily identifiable and the violence is indiscriminate and arbitrary.'"
Like most ignorant North Americans, all I knew was that there was a lot of violence, but I didn't know any other details. When I went to Ireland in 2017 with my sister we spent most of our time in the Republic. The last two days we drove up to Northern Ireland and I remember being surprised they used a different currency and that the road signs were now in miles not kilometres. My sister's boyfriend and family are also from Northern Ireland, so I bought this book hoping to learn even more about the country and what happened.
Dolours Price posing for a newspaper 

The anchor of the book is the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972. One night the Provisional Irish Republican Army came to her home and took McConville into their car in front of her children. McConville never returned and it obviously had a massive impact on her children. They didn't get any closure about their mother until 2003 when her body was finally found. From there, Keefe sort of profiles and follows prominent members of the IRA, including Dolours and Marian Price, and Gerry Adams.

Of all the social conventions the Troubles upended, one that was seldom discussed was romantic relationships. With its combination of Catholic and Scots Presbyterian cultures, Belfast could be an oppressively prudish society. But as the violence warped everyday life, long-established social mores began to loosen. The omnipresence of mortal danger drove some people to live their lives with a newfound, and sometimes reckless, intensity."
The book is pretty dense, and I found myself coming in and out of interest with it. There were sections that I found really compelling (like the hunger strikes) and then sections that I found stretched on too long. I also felt the book wasn't as two-sided as I was expecting. I found that by focusing on the radical (and unlikable) Price sisters it was difficult to get a full picture of how many other everyday-Irish republicans felt in the north.

I did find myself really interested in the parts where the young IRA members were imprisoned. I always knew about the 1980s hunger strikes because of Steve McQueen's work Hunger (2008) that stars Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands - a member of the IRA who died in prison during the strike.

There is a morbid but undeniable entertainment in watching a hunger strike unfold. As a test of the limits of human endurance, it can become a spectacle for rubberneckers, a bit like the Tour de France, except that the stakes are life and death. It is also a game of chicken between the strikers and the authorities."
Jean McConville and some of her children 

I really loved the way Keefe introduced Bobby Sands, and honestly a shiver ran up my spine when his name came up. I found myself often wishing I was reading more about him than the Price sisters, but then again their long-time involvement in The Troubles can't be ignored.

A lot of the conflict involved in their imprisonment was that they wanted to be considered prisoners of war, but Margaret Thatcher wouldn't allow it. Keefe details how horrible their weight loss was and how willing many of the strike participants were willing to die: 

Humphrey Atkins and Thatcher had been wrong when they speculated that among the ten strikers there must be at least one weak link. After Sands died, another nine followed, starving to death one by one throughout that summer."

What I did find interesting about focusing on the Price sisters and Gerry Adams was that they survived The Troubles and had to live with their actions. Dolours died in 2013, but Marian and Gerry Adams are still alive today. Adams was president of the Sinn Fein political party for more than 30 years.

Gerry Adams


There is a concept in psychology called 'moral injury,' a notion, distinct from the idea of trauma, that relates  to the ways in which ex-soldiers make sense of the socially transgressive things they have done during wartime."

Keefe calls out his interest in this subject matter directly. He never really mentions where his sympathies lie, but mentions how fascinated he is with collective denial: "the stories that communities tell themselves in order to cope with tragic or transgressive events."

I lent this book to my dad before I actually read it myself. He loves history and would have read this already knowing a lot more than I did about this time in Northern Ireland. I would recommend this book to anyone who is seriously interested in non-fiction or loves history. So many people make a point of identifying with their Irish heritage, so it only makes sense to learn a little more about these two countries. Also all dads will enjoy this book!

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