June 15, 2019


Living to Regret: A new book reveals the moral legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. a review of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe  (Jonathan Clarke, June 14, 2019, City Journal)

If you're an Irish-American Catholic, as some 13 million of us are, chances are fair that your father or your grandfather or your Uncle Pat was in a bar or social club in the Bronx, Chicago's South Side, or Dorchester, Massachusetts, on at least one occasion in the 1970s or 1980s when the hat came around with a somewhat coercive suggestion: "Make a donation for the lads, won't you?" The "lads" meaning, of course, the Irish Republican Army, which from 1969 to 1998 fought a bitter war against Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army--all for the quixotic goal of reuniting the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, which didn't want them.

In Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe provides an intimate--and terrifying--account of what the "lads" were up to with their ArmaLite rifles and revolutionary pamphleteering. He constructs an entire moral atmosphere, centered around 1970s-era Belfast, and asks us to consider basic questions about the combatants' warfare. Who has the right to call oneself a soldier? What may a soldier do that is not permitted to a civilian? In the lawless Belfast of that period, paramilitaries sorted out those questions for themselves. What Radden Keefe discovers is a young, charismatic, and morally arrogant IRA, whose members later struggled with the memories of their violent deeds.

Say Nothing focuses on one of their many murders--the killing of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten children, who was removed from her apartment by the IRA for the crime of being a "tout," or British Army informer. McConville was blindfolded, driven to a remote location, tortured, executed, and buried in a shallow grave. Her body was not found for over 40 years. [...]

Say Nothing's first half explores the IRA's secretive culture and shadowy operations. The prose, while thrilling, also induces uneasiness when humanizing the would-be revolutionaries or describing their physical courage. Just as it seems that Radden Keefe is ready to mythologize the IRA, however, his account pivots sharply to the achievement of peace with the Good Friday Agreement, ratified in 1998. In subsequent years, those rebels who once crossed moral boundaries for the cause were left with two sets of contradictory feelings: guilt for having killed women, men, and even their fellow IRA members; and betrayal at the hands of past Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, whose perceived abandonment of the cause of a united Ireland rendered their personal sacrifices and anguish meaningless. Radden Keefe found that many former revolutionaries had descended into alcoholism, depression, and joblessness.

Perhaps even more than McConville, Adams is the figure who haunts Say Nothing. Now retired from public office, he refused Radden Keefe's interview requests and did not participate in "The Troubles," a Boston College oral-history project from which the author drew research. Radden Keefe concludes that Adams, ever elusive, is a sociopath--arguably a fair assessment of a former guerilla leader endowed with intellect, discipline, patience, and ruthlessness.

The Other Brother recommends it highly.

Posted by at June 15, 2019 3:43 PM