A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
It’s another Nonfiction Book Club selection! This one was put forth for voting by Mary Anne and we were all pretty excited to read it. We tend not to stray towards current or former bestsellers, but this was a topic everyone wanted to know more about.
From the publisher marketing:
From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.
In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.
Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past–Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.
To say it’s been a long month would be an epic understatement. Though my lack of book reviews this month probably attests to it. I’ve still be reading, but the spark to write reviews, or do much else, has been dampened by the sheer amount of chaos at the bookstore (and in my country) this month. But the month is now over, everything has, or will hopefully, work out to make things better. The review will be less of a traditional review and more a recap of our book club meeting, which seems the better fit to me as there is no lack of reviews of Say Nothing out on the interwebs.
We had a fascinating book club discussion this past week – we had two new members for a total of nine attendees which is a bit more than usual (there’s usually six or seven of us) and it always warms my heart that I have such a large group of regular book club members. It was also the first time we had gotten to talk to each other since the day before Thanksgiving (we don’t meet in December) and so much has happened since then. It was not lost on us all that as we were reading about the Provos (the Provisional Irish Republican Army – the Northern Ireland branch of the IRA), armed insurrection was taking place in our country as well.
Collectively, we all approached this book with an English bias – few us of, even those in book club who lived through this time, knew much about the Troubles. Because of this, we paused halfway through the meeting and I gave everyone a mini-Irish history lesson (I studied abroad in Galway as a history major and my step-dad was a proud Irish-American whose Catholic mother detested my Presbyterian mother for no good reason). Everyone had been voicing a lack a sympathy with the plight of the IRA, which was due to the English-centric narrative of history education, even world history education, here in the States. The teacher in me couldn’t ignore the prime opportunity to enrich everyone’s historical background knowledge.
We also discussed how deplorable Gerry Adams, former leader of the IRA who then claimed not to be involved in the organization when he became a member of parliament*, was, but then also had to admire how he realized that the only way to have actual change was to do so through official channels (such as the government) even if he found them detestable. While he brokered the peace agreement, he had skeletons in his closet, as it seems most politicians do, at least to some extent.
*We acknowledge our knowledge of Gerry was limited to Patrick Radden Keefe’s position on him, supplemented by the interviews of Hughes and Price, and that without learning more about this time period, we cannot claim to assess his motivations without bias.
Our discussion of Gerry branched in two different directions – one where we discussed how justified it would have been for the Native Americans to have continued to rise up against us, the thieves of their land. While we collectively agreed that we don’t condone violence, we understand how after countless generations of oppression, the frustration is too great to be contained any longer. We then delighted in how excited we all are to have a Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, who is a Native American. It finally feels like we have the right person in the position – the original caretakers of the land will be, at least to some extent, the caretakers once more.
The second thread to come from Gerry Adams, was that of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit. As someone with a strong opposition to, and therefore later investment in a Brexit-EU deal (I have family and friends living in the UK), I am very interested to see how things work out going forward as a strong, supposedly non-negotiable point of the UK leaving the EU deal is that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remain “soft” to allow for free movement back and forth. I am curious to see if, while a Scottish Independence referendum will certainly arrive again, if a Northern Ireland one will as well, or if talks to reunite the two parts of Ireland together again will get more traction. No one else was too interested in pursuing this thought inquiry, but do intend to pay closer attention to the news coming from the two Isles in the future.
We found the most fascinating figures in Say Anything to be the Price sisters, specifically Dolours. Dolours and her younger sister, Marian, were young adults when they were arrested at Heathrow following bombings in London that they were involved with. While in prison, the sisters claimed to be prisoners of war and demanded to be repatriated to Ireland. When the Brits refused, they went on a hunger strike and were subsequently force-fed by the British. This sparked great controversy and eventually, after suffering from eating disorders related to the strike and force feeding, the sisters were released. Dolours went on to marry a British actor in the ’80s and continued to be vocal in their support for the Irish Republicans as well as opposing the Good Friday peace agreement.
The two sisters immediately captivated us and we discussed the radicalization of the youth in organizations around the world, which also led to a deeper discussion of terrorism – did we consider the IRA to be a terrorist organization based on our 2021 definition of terrorism? Did we consider the mob of insurrectionists on January 6th to be terrorists? On both counts, we struggled to define either as terrorism or not. It is a conversation I’m sure we will continue to come back to in coming months (we do frequently find ourselves bringing up previous books months, if not now years, after reading them).
In the end, we didn’t find ourselves particularly enthralled with the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, but as more as a way for Patrick Radden Keefe to bookend his story – she disappeared close to the start of the troubles and her body was found not long after the peace agreement. With every book club book, I always ask everyone where they would shelve the book in the store now, after reading it. We had it in true crime before, and decided as a group that it’s new home should be in history.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.