Despite a week of family and work obligations, I spent most of it rushing back from an errand, or logging off a Zoom meeting eager to return to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. (If you read one nonfiction text this year, make it this one.) It’s remarkable and, rare in nonfiction, written with spare, clear, elegant prose. It is, as the subtitle makes obvious, an account of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s conflagrations to present-day; vague images of fires and bombs on the television news as I was growing up. Radden Keefe brought things home: I grew up in a society divided along fraught, linguistic lines; one who, like Northern Ireland, stood on the brink of chronic sectarian violence. (In 1970, as I walked to school, Canadian soldiers manned every street corner: the FLQ kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, ironically Irish-born, and deputy premier Pierre Laporte. Unlike Northern Ireland, though Laporte was killed and Westmount mailboxes bombed, Quebec slid into sullen stability: the English fled; the French stayed; allophones endured; language laws passed; separatist referenda, defeated. Quebec continues playing chicken with Canada and Canadians, for the most part, politely tolerate it.) I compare apples with oranges and ignore the matter at hand, Radden Keefe’s amazing book, my digression a testament to how thought-provoking it is.
Say Nothing is organized like a compelling true-crime account. It revolves around Jean McConville’s murder, widowed mother of ten. Accused of being an British informer by the IRA, McConville was taken one night by people who looked strangely familiar to her children, like neighbours, and never seen again. As Radden Keefe proves again and again, the IRA didn’t brook betrayal and informing, “telling,” was the ultimate loyalty breach. Radden Keefe doesn’t leave you hanging. He has a story to tell, a revelation about McConville’s murder towards which he moves like Macbeth treading towards Duncan’s chamber. As a matter of fact, there’s a third murderer in McConville’s execution, eerily echoing the third murderer in Banquo’s, who remains unknown, mysterious, until the end.
What was brilliant and fascinating about Keefe’s study was the layers of suggestion in the notion of “say nothing.” Surrounding McConville’s murder are three figures: Dolours Price (pictured) an IRA woman-warrior, beautiful, notorious, and fiercely dedicated; likewise, the chief IRA “military” operative, Brendan Hughes; and the wily chameleon, player-of-sides CO Gerry Adams, who, in the end, is the only one out of this entire story “say[ing] nothing.” (Radden Keefe calls him a “cypher”.)
McConville is a obscure figure: did she inform? didn’t she? does it matter, given the horror of her death? There is resolution for McConville’s children, but she remains shrouded in mystery, a private person made public by her murder and the pursuit of her murderers driven by her suffering, dispersed children. Adams, on the other hand, is a limelight figure, a glamorous Che Guevara-like persona in the early account, the consummate politician later, hero to some, traitor to Price and Hughes, a clever, politically manipulative figure who never drops the mask, never possessing the need to “tell”, to reveal anything of his inner world. Price and Hughes, on the other hand, instigators and participants in violent, vengeful acts, are clear and open in their beliefs, adherence to the cause, and, despite their reprehensible actions, familiarly human in their need to tell what their actions meant, even when they’re racked with guilt, or in denial thereof. They want to “tell” and their desire to “tell” centres around Adams’s refusal to admit he was one of them.
McConville’s punishment was one of many in the fraught, violent IRA history and stands as an example of what the IRA did and how they tore themselves apart. Gerry Adams remains in the middle of the IRA’s terrorist actions and its veering towards political solutions. According to Price’s and Hughes’s accounts, Adams seems to have set in motion bombings, disappearances, and manipulated and used the sacrifices of IRA members. Who can forget Bobby Sands? (I still remember the news announcement of his death and the days that preceded it, how we were mesmerized by his action.) Time and again, as Price and Hughes maintained an armed struggle to gain unification with Ireland and took actions that plagued them and drove them to their deaths, Adams seems to have exploited them and then denied any part in the organization they gave up their conscience and lives for. As Radden Keefe’s account moves inexorably toward its players’ destruction, opening with McConville and ending with Hughes and Price, what struck me like lightening was that Gerry Adams is possibly one of the most spectacular gaslighters in history, an artist in obfuscation and denial, the man who took “say nothing” to its ultimate degree. Even when he speaks, he “says nothing” beyond platitudes and adamant (pun intended) denials.
Radden Keefe takes these figures and draws them with clear, precise, perceptive strokes. He is never sentimental, exhibiting instead a subtle compassion, never for Adams, though. He gives him due political credit for steering the ship, but is never blind to what he left in his wake. Radden Keefe sheds light on Price and Hughes, their deeply-held, guileless zealotry and why Adams’s expediency broke them:
There is a concept in psychology called “moral injury,” a notion, distinct from the idea of trauma, that relates to the ways in which ex-soldiers make sense of the socially transgressive things they have done during wartime. Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury: she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for her own conduct. This sense of grievance was exacerbated by the fact that the man who steered republicanism on a path to peace was her own erstwhile friend and commanding officer, Gerry Adams. Adams had given her orders that she faithfully obeyed, but now he appeared to be disowning the armed struggle in general, and Dolours in particular. It filled her with terrible fury. (299-300)
If Adams had indeed been the commanding officer of both Price and Hughes, this talking point could be interpreted as surpassingly callous: both were indignant because Adams had ordered them to take brutal actions, then disowned them, claiming that they alone bore moral responsibility, because he was never in the IRA. When each finally spoke up, Adams maintained that they were lying — and, in order to discredit them, pointed to the genuine trauma they were experiencing. Adams himself seemed conspicuously undaunted by the past. So many others were tortured by what they had experienced in the Troubles. But he never looked as though he had lost a night’s sleep. (344)
There is no one in Radden Keefe’s account to sympathize with, condone their actions, or, for most of us, to understand that single-minded devotion to a cause by violent means, or even with Adams’s reading of historical narrative and “say nothing” gaslight-wielding “realpolitik”.
Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is published by Anchor Books. It’s a compelling, brilliant read. I’d love it if you read it, so I can discuss it.