Terrorism, Torture and 3,600 Lives Lost: Revisiting ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland
One evening in late 1972, a young mother of 10 named Jean McConville was taken from her home in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, by four men and four women in masks. McConville’s children would never see or hear from her again. She had been disappeared and likely killed, one of the 3,600 casualties to result from Northern Ireland’s infamous three-decade period of violence and upheaval known as the Troubles.
Forty years later, a pair of detectives working for the Serious Crimes Branch of Northern Ireland’s police service arrived at the campus of Boston College. They had flown across the Atlantic to retrieve audio recordings kept under lock-and-key in a secure university-library enclosure called the Treasure Room. The recordings were part of an oral history conducted by Boston College featuring direct participants on all sides of the Troubles who unburdened themselves of stories of mayhem and carnage they had participated in. The detectives were investigating the death of Jean McConville. The audio files, they believed, could help solve the case.
The story of McConville, the Irish Republican Army militants who abducted her and the search for truth is the subject of a new book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (out today), written by New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe. Say Nothing is compulsively readable, equal parts true-crime thriller and political history. The book often reads like a novel, but as anyone familiar with his work for The New Yorker can attest, Keefe is an obsessive reporter and researcher, a master of narrative nonfiction.
He began researching the McConville case more than six years ago, after he stumbled across an obituary in The New York Times for Dolours Price, a former IRA member who had participated in the group’s infamous 1973 bombing in London and who, in a late-in-life reversal, took aim at Gerry Adams, the former longtime head of the Sinn Fein political party, for his time as a leader of the IRA. (Adams has long denied ever being in the IRA.) In Dolours Price and Jean McConville, Keefe says he saw the makings of an incredible story. “Right from the beginning, there was this idea of using the story of these two women, and this one atrocity, to tell a larger story about the history of the Troubles and radicalization and the nature of truth in wartime,” he tells Rolling Stone. (Find Say Nothing on Amazon)
Was the Troubles something you’d been interested in before, or was that uncharted territory?
I was somewhat interested in the Troubles in the casual way that anyone who grows up with a name like mine, in a city like Boston, inevitably is. But I’ll be honest with you: I found the literature of the Troubles a little bit forbidding. There are a thousand books written about this period. Some of them quite good, but a lot of them very dense.
An aspect of this that was appealing to me was just that it seemed like in the story of Jean McConville and Dolours Price and [former IRA lieutenant] Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams there was a pretty lean narrative structure, a kind of dramatic spine that might be a way to tell the larger story but in a somewhat more accessible manner.
You didn’t feel daunted by the wealth of material already out there?
It was incredibly daunting. But on the upside, I’m not an academic, I’m a journalist. I write narrative nonfiction. I’m not Irish, I’m not English. Being an outsider who approached the story as a foreign correspondent more than anything seemed like it might be a liability on the front end, but the deeper I got into the process, the more I came to believe that that was an asset.
Why did it start off as a liability and become more of an asset?
In the beginning, I think there was a bit of a sense that the nuances and complexities are so daunting that nobody who comes in for some brief period of time and doesn’t inhabit this world for some huge chunk of his life could ever grasp them.
But I kept going back. I made seven trips over four years and spent a lot of time talking to people and immersing myself in it, and what I realized is that as an outsider I was able to talk to a pretty wide range of people who were generally pretty ready to believe that I wasn’t coming in with an agenda or any kind of preconceived angle on the story.
So that, strangely enough, ended up actually helping in the reporting. That I wasn’t there from the Belfast Telegraph or from The Guardian. I was coming from New York.
How did you get people to talk? The title of the book comes from a Seamus Heaney poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”
I was born in 1976. I’m going and knocking on doors and asking people about a murder that happened four years before I was born. I was kind of astonished at the degree to which that continued to seem so dangerous, in the present day, this murder from almost half a century ago.
It was slow going. But on some level, it always is. There were a lot of people who’d never talk to me, right? Gerry Adams never talked to me. In my day job at The New Yorker, I’ve made a bit of a specialty of the write-around. I’m often writing pieces about central figures who for one reason or another won’t cooperate. I feel as though over the years I’ve gotten comfortable with that as an exercise.
There were a lot of people that did talk to me, and it took a certain amount of coaxing and trying to persuade people that I was serious about this, and that I wanted to capture the real truth of this story. And then there were others I couldn’t persuade, and so then it became a question about how do you get creative and find a way to gather enough material about somebody that you feel as though you can really understand them and put them on the page in a way that they’ll come alive for a reader.
You weave together McConville, [IRA members Dolours and Marian] Price, Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, but also a lot history — Bloody Sunday, Burntollet Bridge. How did you decide what is the absolutely essential history that I’ve gotta have in here and what to leave out?
It was a difficult process, and the rule for me became: I wanted to write the book less in the manner that you would write a history book and more in the manner that you would approach writing a novel. My thought was this is a character-driven story. Here are my characters; did these events affect them personally? Something like Bloody Sunday was important to mention because for somebody like Dolours Price, who right at that time was beginning to think, “Gee, maybe peaceful resistance isn’t the way to go here,” and then all these peaceful protesters go out in Derry and they get shot by the army. I didn’t feel the need to have a huge section on Bloody Sunday — again, that’s something that’s a massive event, but just a sentence or two in the book.
I often read the book with Google Maps open on my laptop, looking for the streets and neighborhoods you describe. I’ve never been to Belfast, but as a reader I got a sense of claustrophobia from the book of how packed in everyone seemed. How did you wrestle with describing the actual physical terrain of this story?
A huge part of what I was hoping to do in the book was capture a sense of place and a sense of atmosphere, and some of that still exists. If you go to Belfast and you wander around, you can still see these streets full of narrow, cramped dwellings that are jammed right next to each other, and this side of the street is Protestant, and this side is Catholic.
I had an experience that felt so revealing to me. I was driving around at one point with Michael McConville, Jean’s son. We were driving on this stretch of road, and one side of the street was a Catholic neighborhood and on the other side was a Protestant neighborhood. And there was a little strip of businesses on one side of the street — a pub and a liquor store and a laundromat, and there was a Subway franchise.
I said to Michael, “OK, so if you’re Protestant, and you live on that side of the street and you’re hungry, would you just walk across the street to the Subway franchise, the local outpost of the American sandwich shop, on the Catholic side?” And Michael said, “Not a chance.”
To me, that was so revealing, this idea that you have these people living in great proximity, but still in a strange sense of isolation from their immediate neighbors. A lot of what I was trying to do was capture how that sense of geography and those kind of cultural parameters would affect you if you grew up in a place like that.
How many visits to Belfast did it take you to internalize that geography, the Catholic neighborhoods and the Protestant neighborhoods, what to say, where to go?
I still wouldn’t say that I entirely have. I know parts of the city really well, and I have friends in a lot of different places from different communities. But it’s a hard city to get to know.
I had this crazy experience when I was going there. It was my first or second trip there. I was going to meet Billy McKee. He’s one of the founders of the Provisional IRA, legendary IRA man, who is very, very old and lives in a very republican area in West Belfast.
I was staying at a hotel in kind of the downtown city center, cosmopolitan part of town. I got a taxi and I gave the guy the address, which is Billy McKee’s home address, and I saw this kind of flicker of uncertainty on the guy’s face and as we’re driving into this little warren of streets in West Belfast. I realized that this taxi driver, who was probably about 60 and had clearly been driving a cab for decades, had no idea where he was going. He was Protestant, and this was not a neighborhood that we would be caught dead in, and we actually got to a point where he had to pull over and ask for directions.
Some of the events in the book are four decades old now, but this history still feels immediate.
I was trying very hard to write about these events in a way that felt like they could be happening today, that they were fresh and vivid. When you look at the central characters in the book, if you want to understand them, you need to understand in a deep way how it all felt to them at the time. Why does Dolours Price go on hunger strike? Why does she drive Joe Lynskey, one of her own close friends, to his death? In order to grasp why as a young woman she would do that, you need to feel the brute force of the British Army. You need to feel the sense of panic and oppression that the young marchers on the civil rights march felt.
Gerry Adams is obviously someone I’ve read about and known about. I don’t know whether to be just absolutely horrified at him, disgusted by him, or in awe of him. He has to be one of the more complex political figures who ever lived.
He’s a feast as a character. If you’re not feeling the whole range of emotions you describe, then you’re not thinking about him hard enough.
He was an interesting figure to write about in part because some of the other key figures in the book were obsessed with him. Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes both felt so betrayed by Adams and spent their final years, in a strange way, not talking with him anymore, but tormented by their memories and the spectacle of who Gerry Adams had become, and by this feeling that he was their commanding officer and he disowned them and he left them behind.
The challenge for me as a writer is that there are a lot of people for whom Gerry Adams is a hero, he’s a saint. And then a lot of others for whom he’s a folk devil. I didn’t want to create a kind of two-dimensional picture of him that would satisfy either of those constituencies, because to me he’s sort of both and more, and I think if I did the book right, you’ve got one person who reads the book and comes out thinking one thing about Adams and another who comes out thinking something entirely different. And a third who, as you said, feels one thing one minute and something else the next.
I want to come back to a word that you used about the Troubles being “unresolved.” The book certainly left me with that feeling. Why is that?
It’s complicated. Some of it is that there is a tendency in Irish culture toward a certain kind of denial, where there are things that people know or suspect but they just collectively choose not to talk about. I don’t want to be too reductive or culturally essentialist about this, but I think if you talk to most Irish people, they would acknowledge that this was the case. I have a friend who’s an Irish journalist who told me, “It started as a social tendency, not a political tendency, but it’s become a political tendency.”
Then there’s a very real political explanation, which is that in order to get all the parties to the table and get an agreement that everybody could sign in ‘98 [the Good Friday Agreement], the negotiators essentially had to agree to punt on the question of how do we deal with the past? You have 3,600 people who’ve been killed. You have acts of terrorism. You have torture, brutality, people who have been disappeared. You have the government sponsoring and tolerating terrorist activity. You have shocking collusion between the state and paramilitary groups. All these types of questions, which in another context might lead to tribunals or some kind of truth and reconciliation process. None of that ever happened.
I talked to a guy who was a former republican prisoner. I was talking with him about South Africa, and this is a guy who studied the South African [truth and reconciliation] issue closely. I mentioned that to him and he said, “Yeah, well, the difference is, in South Africa, there was a winner.” It’s easier to enact a process like that when the conflict doesn’t end in a stalemate.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.