Summer Reading: A Wow Book

Say_NothingDespite 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.

10 thoughts on “Summer Reading: A Wow Book

  1. I read this last summer. You’re right in your summation. The only other thing I felt was sorrow for the MacConnell children. Their lives were made so much more difficult with the loss of their mother.

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  2. Great review!

    I read this book last summer as well, and I agree with your assessment of it. _Say Nothing_ was a “wow” book for me, too, because it clearly depicts the hatred that can grow out of sectarian divides. The inability of people to bridge their differences, and the refusal of politicians to remedy the social problems, is as sad a tale as that of the people who initiated and sustained the violence in Northern Ireland.

    As for Gerry Adams–I admire your take on him as a “spectacular gaslighter.” What do you feel his success with that strategy reflects about what it took to survive “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland?

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    • Thank you so much! It means a lot.

      Hmm, an interesting question. I think he succeeded because he made his moves like a chess-master, relying only on, admittedly, a brilliant reading of times and players. Where I think he failed was that his rational approach didn’t account for everyone else’s emotions. Things have come back to him, but his ability to deflect the fecal matter from the fan is grudgingly fascinating and hate-inspiring. (I had a gaslighting boss for years and years and, unlike Adams, what “got her” in the end was her inability to stop the pathological lying, her need to be loved and admired even while stabbing you in the back. Her gaslighting was half-assed compared to Adams’s spectacularity!) Life is short, but history is long, even if it flies at dusk. I think Adams will have a historical reckoning. The McConville arrest, the story of the niece’s sexual abuse are intimations of historical comeuppance: his ability to lie to himself and others are what make him such a spectacular gaslighter. Adams may have read the short-term brilliantly, but he can’t have predicted the puritanical search for transgressive purity of our own place and time.

      There’s something Radden Keefe said that has stayed with me, in response to what Adams’s success says about N. Ireland and that is how, unlike Mandela’s (Adams admired him and modelled himself? I don’t think Adams is a Mandela!), flawed as it was, Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened the door to public confession, expiation, and a sense of justice and reckoning for the victims and their families. I think N. Ireland never had this reckoning and the divisions of the “troubles” are low-lying embers. Radden Keefe also makes a great connection between Brexit and the tensions it has stirred up for N. Ireland. (He also mentions the long long hand of demographics: this is also true of Quebec, btw, the white francophone is in abeyance and will continue to be. Quebec in one hundred years, if we survive the pandemic and climate disaster, won’t be what Quebecois nationalism envisioned and aimed for.) But embers can always flare, just last week I saw a news report that the “Real IRA” set a car bomb. Shades of Dolours Price.

      On another note, I also LOVED what Radden Keefe had to say about the body in the cause’s demands, the hunger strikers, men and women (another exploitative Adams sin). Have you read Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast about women’s medieval piety as centred on fasting and the body as metaphor? It’s FANTASTIC. I’d love to do a comparison between what she writes and what Radden Keefe had to say, in particular, about the Price sisters’ hunger strikes, among others.

      Wishing you a great summer, or what’s left of it. Hope you and the family are well.

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  3. I read this and admittedly knew very little about it. As an American in the 1970’s we were all about the Vietnam war and the Kent State shootings, but this was horrific.

    Every year I look at NPR’s recommended books and this one caught my attention. My father was a big non-fiction reader (although on a family vacation I found him reading one of my romance novels) and he instilled in me a love of learning.

    I was blessed in that both my parents were readers – our family vacation would have been very boring to any non-reader. We would all arrive with a bag of books and read each others and talk (and drink) to the wee hours of the morning.

    They are both gone now, but my sister and I maintain the tradition.

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    • Oh, what a wonderful story. You were blessed with reading, loving parents. My parents weren’t sufficiently literate to be big readers, but their respect for education encouraged me to read and they also bought me (though working class and not quite able to afford it) any books I wanted. Regular bookstore trips.

      I love reading nonfiction more and more, like your dad, and this one is phenomenal. Wishing you and your sister a wonderful, healthy reading summer!

      P.S. As a Canadian, the 70s brought all of that too. But also our own FLQ crisis and the “troubles” … Montreal, indeed Quebec, has a huge Irish population. Quite often, many French Canadians carry Irish names, like Ryan.

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  4. I just finished this on audio and holy sh*t – this was a fantastic book. We’ve got 3.5 months left on this hellish year but it would take an act of God at this point for this to not be the best read of the year for me.

    In a former life I spent an inordinate amount of time during my collegiate years studying Britain/Irish relations and the innumerable blunders and tragedies along the way. So some of this was a refresher and some of it was first time revelation. I’m in agreement with you – it’s a book with no heroes, save for the McConville children who should have been allowed to take several more pounds of flesh for the suffering their family endured.

    Thank you so much for the recommendation. This book is a gosh darn revelation.

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    • Squee! *does a little introvertish dance* You’re most welcome, I’m so happy you enjoyed it and that it found yet another reader. I don’t know anyone who’s read Say Nothing and doesn’t like hawk it and throw it at their friends, “read this!” It’s really so much about the way he builds his story, the lethal subtlety of his observations, and his drawing of these unbelievable characters.

      His next book, btw, is on the Koch Brothers: and I can’t wait. I’m not that interested in the KochBros., but I’ll read anything this guy writes.

      Ha, that’s cool that you studied British/Irish relations: it must’ve been especially interesting to see how Radden Keefe connects the “troubles” to Brexit.

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