Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Patrick Radden Keefe. SAY NOTHING. A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. William Collins. 511 pp.
RRP: €10.30 from Kennys.ie
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap. (Seamus Heaney)
This outstanding book about the Northern Ireland Troubles takes its title from Seamus Heaney’s poem about the place where he grew up. In that poem he goes on to explain that in Northern Ireland, ‘Whatever you say, you say nothing.’ It might seem like a bit of playful poetic contradiction, a clever play on words, but the reader soon learns that it is far from frivolous, that in the time and place covered in this book it describes not a quaint tradition but a necessary survival skill. In her Booker-winning novel The Milkman, Anna Burns treats of it in a small community; here it is Ulster-wide.
The central action of the book is the abduction of mother-of-ten Jean McConville from her apartment in the Divis Flats, ‘a dank and hulking public housing complex in West Belfast.’ As her children looked on she was taken by a group of men and women, some with faces covered in balaclavas or nylon stockings; her older children recognised some of those without masks as their neighbours. That was in 1972; in 2013, Jean McConville’s body was finally discovered across the border in Co Louth.
The author, an American journalist, uses McConville as one of the central pivots of his story, even though she has been ‘disappeared’ in the opening chapter. Another focus of the book is Dolours Price and her younger sister Marian. The photograph on the front cover is of Dolours, taken when she was on holiday in Italy and had not yet achieved notoriety. The girls were teenagers when they were among those attacked with rocks and sticks at Burntollet Bridge under the benign and approving eyes of the RUC. That event radicalised the sisters and they were among the earliest women accepted into the Provisional IRA.
The other main players in the story are Brendan Hughes, the most active and most determined of the IRA leaders in Belfast, and Gerry Adams. Hughes it was who, long after his hunger strike and release from Long Kesh, and now in lonely high rise isolation, summarised the 30 years of conflict as akin to a group trying to launch a large boat from a soggy marsh. They lift and push, strain and suffer, only to find themselves left in the mud and slush as the boat with its survivors sailed into calm and prosperous waters. For Hughes and the Price sisters and many of those in this book, the captain of that boat was Gerry Adams.
The genesis of the book and the source of much of its research is what is known as the Belfast Project, an initiative by the Jesuit-run Boston College, to collect interviews from participants in the Troubles, Orange as well as Green, with the guarantee that these would not be released until after the death of the interviewee. Fortunately for those involved, the individual items of tape or video or text were identified only by a one-letter code; the former activist identified by the code was not known to the College or to anyone other than the original interviewer.
After the deaths of Hughes at the age of 60 and Dolours at 62, their records were demanded by the British government, and were handed over by Boston College with little demur. Fortunately, for those mentioned as having been involved in the IRA, lawyers were able to claim that any charges against third parties arising from the documents were hearsay and would not stand up in court. Despite this, Gerry Adams was interviewed for more than three days by the PSNI about his role in the disappearance of Jean McConville among others. Although no charges were laid, the book seems to say that the file is still open.
The book deals with only the nationalist side of the northern conflict; atrocities committed or actions taken by the loyalists are mentioned only in passing, although some of those involved on that side were also interviewed for the Belfast Project. But there is more than enough in the book to give a good idea of what those lifting that boat had to put up with. Here, for example, is how it describes the attempts to break Dolours Price from the hunger strike she had undertaken to demand that she be returned from England to serve her sentence in Armagh for her role in the London bombings of 1973.
A group of doctors and nurses marched into Dolours’s cell. They took her into a room where they forced her into a chair that was bolted to the floor and began tying her up with bedsheets, to secure her. She tried to struggle, but she was weak; she hadn’t eaten for more than two weeks. An object was shoved roughly into her open mouth. It was a wooden bit with a hole in the centre of it. Another pair of hands produced a thin length of rubber hose, then inserted the tip through the hole in the bit and began to slide this tube down her throat. She could not catch her breath as the tube snaked past her tonsils, and she gagged, nearly suffocating. She tried to bite the tube, but the wooden contraption prevented it. Several officials held her body back, and then she felt liquid coursing down the rubber coil and into her belly.
Not long after the Price sisters ended their hunger strike and were returned to Ireland, the World Medical Association ruled that forced feeding was unethical. It was not used on Bobby Sands and Brendan Hughes and the other Long Kesh hunger strikers. The book tells the story of a Dr Ross who was sympathetic to those strikers and would bring them clean water collected from a mountain spring. ‘Bobby Sands had never trusted Ross. He called him a ‘mind manipulator.’ But the doctor’s kindness had meant a lot to Hughes. Later he learned that after watching all ten men die in the hunger strike, Dr Ross had taken his own life, with a shotgun, in 1986.’
There are many other stories like this in the book. It reads like a thriller, a dark horror story; you have to remind yourself that it is not just based on, but accurately describes some of those events with real-time witness exactness. If you know little about what happened in Ulster in the 30 years up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1999, this would be an excellent if uncomfortable primer.
The McConville family are still seeking justice for their mother. The material here should give them some help, if not judicial then at least psychological. Gerry Adams is part of their search. Although he repeatedly denies that he was ever a member of the IRA, Patrick Radden Keefe does not seem to believe him. More seriously, a reader will need to decide whether Adams is a ruthless psychopath or a visionary peacemaker, because there is evidence for both opinions.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.