Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which blends together history and a particular true crime case, was the winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. I have travelled to Northern Ireland many times before, and am fascinated by the history of the country. I had been drawn to the book for some time before I found a copy to borrow on my library’s app.
The prologue of Say Nothing begins in July 2013, in the library of Boston College, which ‘holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political and cultural artefacts in the United States’. Here in 2013, writes Radden Keefe, ‘two Belfast detectives arrive, and take back with them a series of secret files… [which] contained sensitive and dangerous secrets.’
Part of the focus of Say Nothing is the disappearance of thirty eight-year-old widow Jean McConville, from a small home in the notorious Divis Flats in Belfast. She was the mother of ten children, and four more who died in infancy. Throughout, Radden Keefe relates details of her home life, and later her case, to the societal conditions in Belfast at the time, showing that Jean’s circumstances were far from unusual: ‘But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.’
Radden Keefe makes Jean’s case feel so immediate; he writes, for instance, the following about the circumstances of her disappearance: ‘But when they opened the door, a gang of people burst inside. It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were – it was roughly eight people, but it could have been ten or twelve. There were men and women. Some had balaclavas pulled across their faces; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks. At least one of them was carrying a gun.’ These people were the McConvilles’ neighbours. They dragged Jean away, using her son Michael as a decoy, and left little trace behind them.
Michael McConville becomes the focus of one of the earlier chapters, in which Radden Keefe examines how he spent his time during the Troubles. Michael ‘spent most of his time thinking about pigeons’, as opposed to the other children, who made danger their playground. These children would ‘scuttle outside and crawl through the skeletons of burned-out lorries, trampoline on rusted box-spring mattresses, or hide in a stray bathtub that lay abandoned amid the rubble.’
We learn much more about Jean as the book goes on. After her husband’s death to cancer, she, who ‘had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression’, and became a recluse. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and had little support from those outside of her home. According to Michael, his mother was ‘an overworked, depressed, psychologically fragile’ woman, who ‘spent her days cocooned in her flat, smoking cigarettes and juggling children and doing laundry by hand.’ A day before she was dragged from their flat, attest her children, she did not come home from bingo. She had been forcibly taken to an army barracks after being ‘tied to a chair, beaten and interrogated’.
Jean’s story is, of course, heartbreaking, as is the majority of the historical and political context against which her disappearance occurred. After she is taken, her children are left alone in the flat, having to fend for themselves: ‘They held onto one another, marooned inside the flat. Bedtime was suspended and dishes piled up in the sink.’ Helen, the eldest McConville daughter, takes charge of her younger siblings, and receives no help whatsoever from their cruel neighbours, or the Catholic church, who were ‘unsympathetic’ to the McConvilles’ plight. Soon, rumours began to spread about Jean’s disappearance, with some believing that she ‘had absconded of her own free will, abandoning her children to shack up with a British soldier.’ The children are eventually taken into care, where many of them are treated in appalling ways, the traumas of which profoundly affect their adult lives.
Radden Keefe’s writing pulled me in immediately. He covers the historical and political background with impeccable control, and although the information within the book could quite easily have become dense, he makes it accessible. The author has such a handle on complex and tumultuous periods of Northern Irish history. Radden Keefe’s prose is informative, intelligent, and intoxicating. He focuses on many different individuals throughout, who all have a part to play in the wider story.
Say Nothing is so much more than a true crime book; it is a social, political, classist, and geographical history. Radden Keefe writes at length about the IRA, Sinn Fein, and tensions between Northern Ireland and the British government, and focuses on individuals who had quite a part to play during this period, such as Gerry Adams. Of course, there is a great deal of shocking content here, some of which I found quite difficult to read. Radden Keefe examines the myriad concerns which the wider political context fostered, all of which are intertwined with the story of Jean and her children. Say Nothing is fascinating and incredibly thorough, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.