One of the more notorious incidents in The Troubles, the conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland, is the disappearance of Jean McConville. The widowed mother of ten disappeared one night in December 1972 after she was forcibly removed from her home by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Rumors circulated for decades about what had happened to McConville and why. Murder was hardly uncommon during The Troubles (especially if someone was suspected of being an informant) or frowned upon by the IRA, but disappearances were another matter.
Patrick Radden Keefe, a writer for The New Yorker, was raised in Boston’s Irish-American community, which still retains strong ties to its Irish cultural identity and sympathies to the IRA’s goal of uniting all of Ireland. Keefe himself, however, wasn’t particularly interested in the IRA or Northern Irish history and politics until he wrote a 2015 article about the McConville case. He eventually expanded the article into this book, which was released to great acclaim in 2019.
I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was released but only now got around to it. I wish I’d read it earlier–it’s definitely one of the better nonfiction books I’ve read lately and one of the best books I’ve read all year. Keefe is a superb writer, with a knack for blending extensive research with an accessible narrative. A lot of books about The Troubles are pretty daunting to someone unfamiliar with the time period because they assume a lot of pre-existing knowledge on the part of the reader. In laying the groundwork for understanding what happened to Jean McConville, Keefe provides a very readable recap of the main personalities, organizations, and events of The Troubles. He also does so in a remarkably even-handed, unbiased way and thoughtfully probes into many philosophical issues the narrative raises about memory, ethics, and trauma, among others.
The book starts with the details of the McConville case before expanding to encompass the stories of several prominent IRA members who are alleged to have been involved (including Northern Irish politician Gerry Adams, who now staunchly insists he was never an IRA member–to the consternation of many of his former comrades). This may seem like a diversion from the story at hand, but it’s really not because the story of the IRA is the key to finding out what happened to McConville and how details of McConville’s disappearance eventually began to filter out. In a true crime story, it is often easy for the victims of the story to be buried under all the other details of the case, but Keefe never loses sight of the devastating fallout that McConville’s disappearance had for her children, most of whom were packed off to grim, brutal orphanages for the remainder of their childhoods.
Though the whole book is excellent, I found the latter half of the book the most gripping, perhaps because it was the aspect of the story I was least familiar with. In the early 2000s, in the wake of a relative peace in Northern Ireland, Boston College ended up agreeing to house an archive of oral histories from IRA members (and other paramilitary figures). There were a lot of rules about access and participation because being an IRA member was still a punishable crime–let alone confessing to crimes committed as an IRA member. Beyond that, the IRA frowns upon anyone talking . . . to anyone. (The book’s title comes from an oft-quoted IRA maxim: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”) To ensure confidentiality, security measures were taken to protect the participants’ identities, and they were assured that the archive’s very presence (let alone content) would not be publicized until after their deaths.
However, nobody bothered to legally vet any of the promises made, and within a matter of years, the archive became the centerpiece of an international legal battle as Northern Irish police subpoenaed the archive because information on the disappearance of Jean McConville was included within it. This placed participants not only in legal jeopardy but also in physical danger since talking to anyone about IRA activities can still be a deadly proposition in Northern Ireland. The odyssey of the oral history archive has as many twists and turns as a mystery novel, several of which actually made me gasp aloud.
I also appreciated that Keefe largely keeps himself out of the narrative. I have written before about how much it irritates me when nonfiction writers needlessly insert themselves into the events, but Keefe knows when to get out of the way of the story, leaving his anecdotes for endnotes, and when to be more direct about his own experiences working on the book. In fact, one of the reveals that I found so shocking was so effective precisely because it was one of the few moments that Keefe talked about his work on the book. When he described how hair-raising it was when he had that epiphany, I was right there with him because I was just as freaked out as a reader.
I highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy well-written, well-researched, thought-provoking nonfiction that combines true crime and history.
*Also available as an ebook and audiobook on Libby.
Recommended for those who enjoy the work of David Grann, Jeff Guinn, Truman Capote, and Beth Macy.
Have you read Say Nothing? What is your favorite book about Irish history? What nonfiction have you been reading lately? Tell us in the comments! And as always, check out our online library catalog to learn more about any item or to place holds.
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