Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Patrick Radden Keefe has never shied away from exploring the tragedies in the world lesser-known to the Western realms, and in Say Nothing he takes us on an excursion into Northern Ireland. More precisely, he explores the lethal and suffocating conflict which has raged in the country for decades, centred on the I.R.A. terrorist organization, beginning with the infamous kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, mother of ten.
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Patrick Radden Keefe Digs into a Past of Violence
It is no secret pretty much every country on this planet has some sort of dark and violent period in its history, whether it be recent or traced back to its foundation. Despite our various progresses in terms of globalization, we are still incredibly far from being united as humans, and the troubles pervading a single country often remain unknown outside of its borders.
As foreigners, we might catch glimpses here and there, but the big picture will remain hidden from us… which is exactly what happened to a majority of us in regards to the tumultuous conflicts which shaped Northern Ireland in the past few decades. In his non-fiction book titled Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe delves into the country’s past like few others have done on this side of the ocean.
Keefe opens the book in 1972, three years after the new I.R.A. was formed , officially labelled as the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The case we are brought into the fold through is the infamous kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville which shook the United Kingdom for decades to come.
A thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, she was dragged away from her home by masked men, never to be seen again (in 2003, a set of human bones was identified as Jean McConville). What might have ended up a single crime was, unbeknownst to many, only the beginning of some very paranoid, tense and violent decades to come.
After taking an in-depth look at the crime itself, Keefe then walks along with us through the years which followed, exploring a society profoundly affected by a strange and horrific type of inner guerrilla warfare. He not only investigates how the regular people living outside of it all were affected, but also how I.R.A. members of various status recall those years.
While some of them felt they were justified acts of war, others aren’t so certain anymore, and begin to realize they were simply senseless murders, the weight of which is only amplified by the I.R.A.’s failure to united Ireland according to their vision. From infamous members such as Dolours Price and the mastermind known only as The Dark, to the spy games played by the British Army, we get a comprehensive look at the organization’s history and path travelled.
A Window for us Outsiders
I’m wagering like most of you, my knowledge in regards to the I.R.A. was mostly on a superficial level for a long time, essentially being limited to knowing them as a terrorist group. While some authors do love to use them for their works of fiction, I find the amount of people willing to truly investigate them and their history to be sadly lacking. This is the primary reason which attracted me to this historical account of the organization, and let me assure you, if your goals were similar to mine you will be more than satisfied.
The author’s approach to exploring the I.R.A. is quite logical and methodical, simply advancing through the years in chronological order, describing the events and people which defined them. Starting with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville was a good idea on the author’s part as it immediately captured my attention and, I believe, set the tone for the rest of the book. Keefe ensures the reader knows what they are getting into: a tragic story with little honour or redemption to it.
If it was a work of fiction, I would have lamented on the lack of positive features… but this is real life, and it deserves to be told as it happened, no matter how brutal or uncomfortable. The way in which the author describes the consequences of her abduction on society at the time was truly fascinating in itself, demonstrating how profoundly terrorist organizations can affect the people surrounding them.
For an outsider to the Irish world such as myself, I found Say Nothing provided a wealth of invaluable information to help me gain a footing to try and understand the last few decades of the country’s history. Keefe always takes the time to set the context when he is talking about the regular people, ensuring we never feel lost in a foreign world with customs and morals sometimes different from ours. I think he did an especially convincing job of explaining in detail the climate of fear which began to take over at the time, and how it ended up shaping the future of the country itself.
Behind the Forbidden Curtains
If we look at Say Nothing for a moment as a study of a terrorist organization in itself, I think the author most certainly deserves a lot of praise for the amount of information he managed to include about the I.R.A. members themselves. The problem with most books which study terrorist organizations, is the understandable fact of it being difficult to gather interviews with its members and know their opinions in regards to their own actions.
The looks we have into these sorts of groups is often very limited, but in this case it ended up being much more expensive than I had anticipated. Keefe takes the time to introduce us to some of the more infamous members to have belonged to the organization over the years. For instance, we have Dolours Price who planted bombs already in her teens, Gerry Adams who negotiated a frail peace and was subsequently betrayed by his own, as well as the reclusive and mysterious mastermind known as The Dark.
He explains to us where these people came from, what actions brought them to be forever included in the books of history, what their goals and ambitions were… essentially, we learn who they were as human beings. It was particularly interesting to see how Gerry Adams‘ life progressed in the later stages and how he is now an officially-recognized politician who denied his past.
I think for me personally, the aspect of Say Nothing which struck the deepest chord of curiosity within me was reading about what I.R.A. members themselves thought about their history and the actions they took. Perhaps being somewhat ignorant, I expected them all to be unrepentant and parroting ideologies which had been hammered in them since childhood.
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To my surprise, it seems quite a few of them express real regret and severe doubts as to whether or not their actions were justified. Some of them are starting to come around to the idea they weren’t really freedom fighters, but vicious and probably misguided murderers.
The Final Verdict
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe is an incredible eye-opening expose of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, its members, and the profound consequences they had on Irish society. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in Irish history and/or modern terrorist organizations; it’s the kind of writing which stays with you for a very long time.
Patrick Radden Keefe
Patrick Radden Keefe is an award-winning American author and investigative journalist, with the distinction of being a decorated staff writer for The New Yorker.
In addition to his numerous essays, which include “The Idol Thief”, “Rocket Man” and “Empire of Pain”, Keefe has also written three non-fiction books: Chatter, The Snakehead and Say Nothing, published more recently in 2019.