Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Prior to reading Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, my knowledge of the Troubles was limited, and was essentially informed by three things:

    • 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…?

17 responses

  1. Kate, I’m so pleased to see some else read this and loves it as much as I do! Definitely the book of the decade! Superb writing! I couldn’t put it down, thought of the characters long after I read it. I picked it up in Ireland last fall after a walking tour in Derry/Londonderry with a man who grew up there during the Troubles. Fascinating walk through a town with so much history! There are murals everywhere in Derry commemorating those times. He recommended this book. Also did a walking tour in Belfast. Another city that is fascinating! The walls and fences are still up there and so much graffiti. Would love to go back. There are lots of interviews and documentaries on YouTube with the key players in this book, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. Very interesting peeking into their lives after all the violence and bloodshed. There is also a full length documentary with Dolours. I rented it on Amazon Prime, I Dolours. She died an alcoholic. Peter our guide in Derry mentioned Brexit too and how delicate the peace is and the violence could ignite again easily. They are very concerned about Brexit. I saw on the BBC that there have been 2 or 3 bombings in Northern Ireland since Brexit. It’s very sad. I love the Irish people and wish they could be united.

    • I suspect this book will open up a whole lot of new reading and viewing for me! I think the Dolours documentary is mentioned in the book, so I definitely need to hunt that down.

  2. This sounds excellent. I remember when they built a large glass building in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement and how it symbolised so much hope – since the Troubles no buildings in Belfast were ever made of so much glass. I really hope Brexit doesn’t jeopardise the fragile peace.

    • We’ve heard a lot in Australia about the logistical nightmare of Brexit and Northern Ireland but no real mention of the potential issues that Keefe raises. Given that the Troubles dominated the lives of many people who are still alive and well, you have to wonder if Brexit will open relatively fresh wounds.

      • I’ve ordered a copy of this book so I’ll be able to think on that. From memory, Adams maintained in his biography that he was always politically attached to Sinn Fein, but not active in the IRA. There have been times throughout history though where the two have been synonymous. I should point out that Adams’ biography is wholly sympathetic to the Catholic Republican cause as that is his ‘side’. That fit with my own personal leanings but if you’re looking for objectivity, it’s not present in his autobiography. But he is an impressive man and I thought it was well worth the read, although it’s possibly 20 years old now and I was a lot more idealistic 20 years ago.

  3. This has been on my list to read for a long while, sounds like I need to address that. Have you read Milkman? I know it got some feedback for being difficult, but it’s great on the effect of the Troubles on everyday life.

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  5. I loved this one too and – despite having lived through some of what he describes – I found it really informative. I have him booked to come and speak at my work in June, but it looks like it’s doubtful it will go ahead 😦

  6. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts – the COVID-19 edition | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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