- Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard (I read this multiple times as a teen)
- a brief visit to Belfast in 2001
- Lost Lives by David McKittrick et al. – a book that I bought second hand after my Belfast visit. It lists the story of every life lost during the Troubles (3,630 people were killed between the late 1960s and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ).
Through the stories of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten who was abducted from her home in Belfast and never seen again; Dolours Price, the first woman to join the IRA; Brendan Hughes, an IRA commander; and Gerry Adams, the politician who brokered peace with the Good Friday Agreement but ultimately denied his IRA past, Keefe tells the larger story of the Troubles.
Say Nothing is an exceptional piece of narrative nonfiction. I found Keefe’s writing so engrossing that I frequently had to remind myself that he was telling a true story. Keefe maintains the tension by shifting the focus between the McConville family, Price and Hughes. The reader sees Belfast through the eyes of victim and perpetrator, but nothing is clear-cut, and the violence is shared between the Protestant unionists and the Catholic republicans. Keefe’s skill was evident when I found myself cheering for Dolours as she resisted the gruesome feeding tube during her hunger strike, and for Hughes as he darted between houses on the run from the British military – yes, these are the people who played a part in many, many deaths.
Although the focus is on Keefe’s cast of four, the complexities of the Troubles are explored through life for ‘ordinary’ people – the passing of weapons from one flat window to another as raids were underway; the pause of gunfire as women stepped out to buy milk and bread.
…ordinary families all across Belfast boarded up their doors and windows, as if for an approaching hurricane. They would move their old furniture away from the front room so there was less to burn, in the event that any incendiary material came crashing through the window. Then they would huddle in the back kitchen, grandparents clasping their rosaries, and wait for the chaos to pass.
This book is part history, part political writing, part biography, part true crime – it’s structed around the mystery of McConville’s abduction but not at the expense of broader themes – the large-scale tragedy and the moral injury (for many, the Good Friday Agreement was merely a ‘power sharing arrangement’ that ended the conflict on the streets but did nothing to address the heart of the matter).
It also speaks to the importance of memory – for individuals, for people as a collective, and in our links to landscape. In the case of Belfast and its residents, the barricades may have gone but the memory of ‘…living with constant terror, where the enemy is not easily identifiable and the violence is indiscriminate and arbitrary’ remains.
Sixty buses had been commandeered by Catholics and placed along streets to form barricades, a new set of physical battle lines delineating ethnic strongholds. Everywhere there was rubble and broken glass, what one poet would memorably describe as ‘Belfast confetti’.
What are the long-term consequences of such trauma? How do people ‘forget’? In time, how should they ‘remember’? Keefe notes that in the Good Friday Agreement ‘…negotiators had focused on the future rather than the past…. there was no provision for the creation of any sort of truth-and-reconciliation mechanism…‘. I would be interested to read more about the parallels with Berlin, a city where atrocities are openly documented and very much a part of the collective memory – how does this change the way people grieve?
Like other staunch republicans, the Price family did not refer to the place where they happened to reside as ‘Northern Ireland’. Instead it was ‘the North of Ireland’. In the fraught local vernacular, even proper nouns could be political.
In a tantalising and somewhat speculative finish to the book, Keefe mentions the ‘B’ word (Brexit). He writes –
It would be ironic, to say the least, if one inadvertent long-term consequence of the Brexit referendum was a united Ireland — an outcome that three decades of appalling bloodshed and some 3,500 lost lives had failed to achieve.
5/5 Is it too early to declare my book of the decade…?