The full title of this book by Patrick Radden Keefe is Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.
I first heard of this book on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast when one of the hosts named it as the thing that was making her happy that week. I should clarify that their “What’s Making Us Happy” segment doesn’t necessarily have to be things that are literally making them happy. They could just be things they find super interesting and/or are obsessing over that particular week. I stress this because there is nothing happy about this book.
It’s about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which took place mostly in the 1970s and ’80s, but the book is clear that there is a long history of the Irish fighting English rule that goes back centuries, and religion has always been at the heart of that dispute. The Roman Catholic Irish were not pleased about being invaded by Protestant English and Scotland back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nor were they any happier when Ireland was split, creating the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland and leaving the largely Protestant Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
Almost as soon as Ireland was split, Northern Ireland started seeing systemic discrimination against the Catholics when it came to everything from jobs to housing and the Catholics promptly started fighting back, first violently, then peacefully, then violently again.
The Price Sisters
This book follows a few prominent people through “The Troubles” and afterwards. One of them was Dolours Price, a Catholic who initially joined the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which modeled its strategy on the Civil Rights movement of the U.S. After one peaceful demonstration turned violent, Dolours (years later) described looking into the eyes of one of her opponents and seeing so much hate that she realized they would never be able to get through to them peacefully. So she joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army also known as the IRA, or the “Provos”, to distinguish them from the Traditional IRA.
Dolours’s father had been a member of the IRA in his youth and raised his children on stories of “the good old days” when he and his pals had fought the British. Dolours’s Aunt Brady had also been a member of the IRA and had been blinded and had her hands blown off in the line of duty, so Dolours had to help take care of her.
Dolours and her sister Marian were both in college when they joined the IRA, which was perfect because it meant no one suspected them. Two pretty young girls who were in class all day? How could they be agents for the IRA? I have no idea how they managed to maintain near-perfect grades while spending their nights robbing banks and smuggling weapons for the IRA.
While this book hardly paints the IRA as some sort of heroic group of liberators, I have to say the feminist in me really appreciated the description of the Price sisters: two beautiful young women who robbed banks, drove getaway cars, smuggled weapons, and used some of those weapons against a baffled enemy. They were pretty badass and they became notorious for it and I have to admire that.
Because the IRA operated in Northern Ireland, they realized they were inflicting more damage on themselves and their fellow Irish than on their true target. So at one point they decided to orchestrate a car bombing in London. Everything went smoothly except for the fact that they had a mole in the IRA who tipped off the police hours before they were supposed to, so the perpetrators weren’t able to flee the country before getting caught.
The Price sisters were both tried and convicted of the bombing. When they got to prison, they demanded to be given the status of political prisoner, which would, among other things, mean they would get to wear their own clothes instead of prison uniforms. That status would also require recognizing the legitimacy of the IRA, which Britain refused to do, so the Price sisters went on a hunger strike and vowed they would take nothing but water until their demands were met. They were force fed for a while, which they described as torture, and the practice was abolished as torture shortly before the British capitulated and granted the Price sisters their demands. But Dolours suffered eating disorders for the rest of their lives as a direct result of both the hunger strike and the forced feedings.
After they were finally released from prison, having sacrificed so much for the IRA’s cause, Dolours found herself questioning its methods and resigned from the organization when it issued her an order she couldn’t follow in good conscience. She went on to marry a famous actor and had a couple kids with him before they divorced and she eventually died of a drug overdose, although whether the overdose was intentional is unclear.
Hughes and Adams
Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams are two other key figures in the IRA who are both featured in this book, although Adams is the only one who declined to give any kind of interview, so everything we learn about him is through other people.
Hughes and Adams were close friends who went to prison together, but Hughes was more likely than Adams to be in the thick of things. Adams tended to give orders while keeping himself removed from the action, whereas Hughes prided himself on never giving his men an order he wasn’t willing to carry out himself.
After the Price sisters’ successful hunger strike while in prison, Hughes and Adams orchestrated another hunger strike with many other prisoners, several of whom died before the IRA’s demands were met. After that, Hughes and Adams grew apart, Hughes haunted by the lives that were lost while Adams was apparently unbothered by the price of war.
After they were released from prison, Adams decided the answer to their problems was in politics, not violence, so he ran for Parliament as a member of the Sinn Féin party, although he said he had no intention of actually participating in parliament because that would require legitimizing British rule over Northern Ireland, which he refused to do.
Since Adams was running for office, and being a member of the IRA was illegal, he vehemently denied having ever been a member of the IRA, which was ridiculous because everyone knew he had been a member of the IRA. He had just done such a good job of keeping himself aloof from the action that no one could prove it.
As a politician, Adams helped orchestrate the peace process, which was finalized in the Good Friday Agreement, in which England agreed to withdraw some troops from the streets in Northern Ireland and, in return, the IRA agreed to give up its weaponry and recognize Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom until a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to leave the United Kingdom. Many IRA members saw that agreement as a betrayal, but it succeeded in finally bringing peace to Northern Ireland and putting them on a path to a united Ireland.
Hughes wasn’t the only one to turn on Adams as he turned to politics. Others close to him came out and said the British offered to meet some of the IRA’s demands during the prison hunger strike, but because they wouldn’t meet all the demands, Adams allegedly ordered the strike to continue. Six more men died before their demands were met and the strike was finally called off.
Adams has denied all these claims, saying his accusers are merely disgruntled opponents of the peace process, and while that sounds like your typical political response, he might have a point. The agreement wasn’t perfect, but no compromise ever is. The deaths of those six men are tragic, but is it a fair price to pay for the countless numbers of people who are still alive thanks to the fact that Northern Ireland is no longer a war zone?
I don’t have an answer to that question and Keefe doesn’t pretend to either. It’s worth noting that violence has not been eradicated from Northern Ireland, but it has significantly diminished. It’s also worth noting that, while some people, like Hughes, accuse Adams of sacrificing men’s lives for his own political gain, we never get to hear from Adams himself, aside from the rehearsed line. Maybe it was pure greed, or maybe Adams really did believe in what he was doing. Maybe he is haunted by those deaths, but can’t admit it because that would require admitting he was in the IRA. We’ll never know.
Throughout the story of these paramilitary fighters is the story of Jean McConville, a Catholic woman in her early thirties who had married a protestant man, who then died, leaving her to raise their 10 children on her own. One night, not long after her husband’s death, Jean was “disappeared” by the IRA. Some men in masks took her away in a van and none of her children ever saw her again. They are all traumatized by that event in their own ways, and many of them were subsequently traumatized by what happened to them afterwards. The older children, who were teenagers at the time of their mothers’ disappearance, were left to fend for themselves, and they actually turned out better than their younger siblings, some of whom ended up in orphanages that were horribly abusive.
It turns out that Jean wasn’t the only one to be “disappeared” by the IRA, and that the policy of “disappearing” traitors was a controversial one within the IRA. The IRA had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to traitors and informants: anyone who was discovered to be a British informant was executed and their bodies dumped in unmarked graves. It turned out to be that last part that was the hardest on the family members left behind who didn’t know how to grieve without a proper funeral or a grave to visit. Jean’s children eventually connected with other family members of those who had been “disappeared” by the IRA, all of whom were haunted by the same questions.
Jean’s children swore up and down that their mother was never an informant. She was a single mother of 10 who barely left the apartment, how could she possibly have been an informant?
But one of Dolours’s jobs when she was with the IRA was to drive informants out of town for their execution. Dolours described driving Jean and lying to her, saying she would be taken care of by a charity organization, at which point Jean allegedly admitted to being an informant and said something along the lines of “I knew those fucking Provos wouldn’t shoot me,” apparently not realizing she was being driven by a “fucking Provo.”
It’s also worth noting that at least one British intelligence officer had found a trick that worked really well when it came to turning IRA agents into informants: you wait until they’re in dire straights, and then you offer them money in exchange for information. What could be a more dire situation than a widow who has to figure out how to feed and clothe 10 children?
So we’ll never know if Jean really was an informant, but does it matter? Does anything justify taking a single mother away from her 10 children without even bothering to return her body? Would it have been possible for the IRA to go easy on her (or any informant)? Or would that just have led to more problems? People were already turning on the IRA by the dozens, even with the threat of death, so clearly it didn’t have the intended effect. But would leniency have been any better for the organization? Could they have found a way to pay Jean off and get her out of Northern Ireland where she would no longer be a threat?
This book was really good and really informative. I learned so much about Northern Ireland, “The Troubles” and the IRA from this book, and I think Keefe does a really good job of remaining neutral. An Irish American born and raised in Boston, Keefe didn’t have a personal stake in the game, so to speak, and I really admired his ability to point out the atrocities committed on all sides.
I highly recommend this book, but beware that the audiobook narrator has a thick Irish accent, so if that’s a problem for you, you might want to read it the old-fashioned way.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else that educated you on something of which you had only been vaguely aware?