With over 100 pages of notes backing up every scrap of narrative, Say Nothing is a remarkable account of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland intertwined with the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old—and widowed—mother of ten.
Intertwined isn’t quite the right word—the book uses McConville’s broad-daylight abduction (in 1972) as a jumping-off point. The vast majority of Say Nothing concerns itself with The Troubles—though, again, McConville’s disappearance and death create a perfectly murky case study for the whole, protracted, decades-long mess.
The Troubles took the lives of some 4,000 people. On one side, Catholic republicans seeking unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. On the other, Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British army forces. Only 20 individuals were “disappeared.” McConville’s body wasn’t found until 2003, five years after the 1998 agreement that brought three decades of violence to a close.
As Keefe’s acknowledgements and those lengthy notes make clear, Keefe drew heavily on an oral history archive at Boston College. Two interviews in that history were with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Prices—former members of the Irish Republican Army. They provided plenty of detail about McConville’s murder.
The thick wedge of backstory that forms the heart of Say Nothing is critical to understanding what happened to McConville but the book is hardly a detailed prosecution of her murder, allegedly over her role as a tout (informer).
As many others have pointed out, Say Nothing has no heroes. Both sides committed horrific acts of violence that ended the lives of many innocent civilians. Keefe’s narrative covers all the key figures on both sides along with the tricks, the lies, the ambushes, the terrorism, the traps, the the violence, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, hunger strikes, the hazy legal fallout from the Jane McConville case itself, and the personal fallout on McConville’s offspring. You will come to understand the importance of, well, saying nothing.
Keefe covers Gerry Adams’ conversion from leader of the armed struggle to his role as a political deal-maker—and Keefe credits Adams for an end to the outright violence (while acknowledging that ample tension remains).
“Whatever callous motivations Adams might have possessed, and whatever deceptive machinations he might have employed, he steered the IRA out of a bloody and intractable conflict and into a brittle but enduring peace,” writes Keefe.
Say Nothing—A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is recounted in calm, clear-eyed fashion. Keefe’s dogged research is evident and his journalistic approach is solid (read those acknowledgements for a good explanation of how he went about corroborating interviews and checking facts). But McGonville’s disappearance drops far to the background as Keefe takes us deep into the “The Troubles” and all the protracted, violent quagmire.