Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Eight stars

After reading a history-rich fictional pentalogy about the Irish struggles, I could not help but turn to Patrick Radden Keefe’s book. Keefe takes the reader into the heart of the Anglo-Irish conflict, particularly as it developed in Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland, depending on which side you support). Keefe explores how the simmering tensions of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the British Army and Ulster (Protestant) majority in the six remaining counties turned out to be some of the bloodiest clashes of the entire push for a freed Ireland. Keefe explores all aspects of the fighting, from the creation of plots to harm and kill, to turning those who would otherwise be seen as British sympathisers, and even into the negotiations to bring about a lasting peace. Keefe lays out much of the details as seen through the eyes of the Northerners, painting degrees of abject poverty and constant concern by the Catholics, as well as their attempts to use blood and terror to bring British and the Ulsters to their knees. While the IRA and Sinn Fein (the political embodiment of the Cause) are not synonymous, Keefe connects some fairly large dots, particularly as it relates to Gerry Adams, long seen as the face of the fight in the 1970s through to 1999. A man who would not break, even when tortured, Adams did all he could to bring about a better understanding to the world about the plight of the Catholics in the North and how horrid things were for them under the British thumb. The campaign began to work, though the constant reporting of IRA violence or Ulster targeting of the Catholic population soured much of the support that began. As Keefe explores throughout, the IRA—both its long-standing version and the newer Provisional form—had its own internal problems, particularly power struggles as to how things ought to go. For some, no peace without all 32 counties united, while others saw that this could not happen with any degree of ease. There was also a strong push to make comparisons between the violence meted out on the streets of (London)Derry and Belfast and the cruel punishments that would be condemned elsewhere in the world. How could the British and Protestants act and the world would turn a blind eye? Keefe turns also to some of the revelations of the Boston College interviews, headed up by academics after a formal peace was secured. Stories that emerged when amnesty was provided helped flesh-out some of the darker and more violent aspects to life in the North over the close to three decades of hardcore fighting. However, some of the interviews were used by the British in legal settings to bring members of the IRA to justice for crimes committed, using a large loophole in the process. Even with peace established, new wars emerged, continuing to pit the IRA against the British. Told in raw and unapologetic honesty, Keefe tells a story that many readers would not otherwise believe while also being compelled to learn more. I strongly suggest anyone with an interest in learning more about the struggles in Ireland from the 1970s through to the present find this book and discover trove of sources and details likely not part of the mainstream narrative.

As I mentioned above, reading this book complemented my previous binge reading of a powerful five-novel series about the Irish struggles. I remember some of the heightened struggles in Ireland, mostly from news reports and loose historical documents. What Patrick Redden Keefe provides here is a strong and well-documented approach to the plight of the Irish in the North at the hands of the majority, providing the reader with a look at the oppressed that sought to push back against the majority. Keefe does not shield the bias, though some would say that this is the only way to get the story out there, to focus on those who were fighting for a cause, even if they also sought to use violence as a means to success. I have often wondered why sides must shed blood and bomb one another, how that could ever lead to lasting peace and change. Keefe’s book left me sympathising with some of the plight, though the use of random violence that took the lives of the innocent to prove a point does not sit well with me. Even two decades after formal peace has been established, this book rocked me and brought much of the buried narrative back to light. Stories and sentiments, as well as giving the reader and inside view into how things were run and what happened to those who did not obey. More than a primer on the subject, Keefe drawls on many sources and depicts the struggle as being not only real, but somewhat essential in order to have their voices heard. Through the blood and the bombing, the violence and the vindication, Keefe provides the reader with something sobering to give a difference perspective than many may have had. Long chapters provide the core of the book, though it sometimes takes a while to get the true sentiment across, thereby educating the reader effectively. The mighty British may appear prim and proper, but this St. Patrick’s Day, as I nurse a pint or two of Guinness, I’ll think a little harder about how the colonial power sought to control one of the last vestiges wanting independence and self-rule.

Kudos, Mr. Keefe, for a stunning book. I could not have asked for more and hope others will be as shocked and gobsmacked as I was while reading.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: