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Living to Regret

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Living to Regret

A new book reveals the moral legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. June 14, 2019
The Social Order

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, 464 pp., $28.95)

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.

McConville was probably not an informant—but this is hardly the point. During his research, Radden Keefe grew close to several of McConville’s children, determined to keep their mother’s memory alive. She was, in many ways, the proverbial least among us: poor, stunted, bewildered, and ill-starred, and surely more sinned against than sinning. Radden Keefe avoids romanticizing her any more than he romanticizes the people who killed her, but by tolling her name at regular intervals, he pays tribute to her humanity, drawing a contrast with the revolutionary rhetoric of Sinn Féin, the political party historically linked to the IRA.

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. But to Adams and his allies, he was a soldier, not a murderer. In contrast with other ex-revolutionaries, Adams is a happy man today, the author of 13 books, including a sentimental memoir about his Belfast boyhood.

Radden Keefe notes that the leader of the British Army’s anti-insurgent team in Northern Ireland was a veteran of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya; the British presence in Northern Ireland is part of a broader legacy of British colonialism. The Irish-American side of my family loathed the British, a sentiment that fit uncomfortably with my own naïve sense of the place and of its literature, its liberal tradition in politics, and its material beauties. Yet one cannot help noticing, somewhat against one’s moral instincts, that in many post-colonial countries the civil service remains the only functioning aspect of the state, while train stations and grand hotels, in turn, remain the most distinguished public structures. Even so, if one accepts the right of self-determination as a paramount political value, then the British had no right to be in India, Egypt, or South Africa.    

In Radden Keefe’s telling, Belfast was a dismal place, grindingly poor and imaginatively stunted. Catholic men suffered most of all because they were denied entry into most desirable categories of employment. Indeed, unemployment is a thread running through Say Nothing, a problem left unresolved by the Good Friday Agreement. Mass unemployment creates a moral vacuum, and young men often fill it with despair or violence. Consequently, several criminal organizations have emerged in the last two decades that claim the IRA’s name and legacy, with smuggling and protection rackets their main lines of business. Their emergence is a consequence of Britain’s long-running collusion with Northern Ireland’s Protestant loyalist majority.

I wonder how aging Irish-Americans, many of whom once backed the IRA financially or politically, will feel about Say Nothing. The book clearly exposes the real ends of all that hat-passing and jar-stuffing—and it was not to support the hunger-strikers’ families. Perhaps their views will remain unchanged about the justice of the cause or the methods used in its advancement. No one likes to think himself complicit in murder—though die-hard loyalists may still not see it as murder when Jean McConville and others like her were taken from homes in Belfast and Derry, or when the Provisional IRA killed the elderly Lord Mountbatten and his two sons by blowing up their fishing boat. Perhaps they should keep a photo of McConville on their mantles, and try to meet her eyes when they pass.

Photo: benstevens/iStock

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