Say Nothing Cover

Say Nothing

A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe

Doubleday, New York, 2019, 464 pages

Book Review published on: July 16, 2021

In his 2019 book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe offers a wide-eyed, and often gritty, narrative set against the backdrop of the tumultuous period in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tells a very human story of terrorism and loss that illuminates the savagery of civil wars in a way that highlights the human cost of internecine conflicts. The book opens with the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten. Keefe takes this crime, shocking in its suddenness, and weaves it into the fabric of the conflict, focusing on 1970s Belfast. While McConville’s disappearance is the main narrative thread that runs throughout the book, the book is much larger than just the story of that one crime—at its heart, it is a story about the human dimension of insurgencies, and of the impact of sectarian violence on its participants.

The book focuses primarily on the activities of members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Keefe introduces the reader to a cast of characters so intriguing that they nearly read as fictional. The narrative follows people like the Price sisters, Marian and Dolours, a charming but deadly pair of nationalists, who joined the cause of Irish independence young and became deeply involved in paramilitary activities. In addition to the Price sisters, the reader follows the arc of an enigmatic guerilla known as “The Dark,” Brendan Hughes. As the years slip by, the story grows to increasingly be about Hughes’ close friend, cell mate, and political strategist Gerry Adams, whose political journey also slowly spurs alienation and an estrangement of sorts from his countrymen. The second half of the book increasingly incorporates Adams, a critical but divisive figure in Irish politics throughout the Troubles, and the subsequent peace process.

The transformation of Adams from guerilla leader to professional politician is one of the most interesting elements of the story, as he progressively becomes a contentious figure in Irish politics. While some grudgingly agree that without Adams there would have been no peace process, his rebuffing of past compatriots—and even cell mates—make him a target for significant Republican ire. As the narrative shifts the focus from the Price sisters to Adams and back again, the differences in the personal transformation of former combatants, many who suffered greatly, are striking. The ideological arc and public role of Adams stands in stark contrast to of some of his former comrades. While Adams goes on to serve as leader of Sinn Fein, many of his surviving acquaintances find themselves old, released from prison, and part of a society tiptoeing through an uneasy peace—cautiously optimistic, but ideologically unfulfilled with the status of Northern Ireland. Keefe’s treatment of Adams and his association with political violence is fascinating and will interest readers interested in topics such as conflict termination, and the relationship between insurgency and politics.

The greater majority of the people whose stories are told in Say Nothing are members of the IRA or one of its splinter groups at one time. The inclusion of more members of the British army, or Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), would have brought more balance to the narrative, which at times may imply that the Irish Republicans were the only actors contributing to the chaos and violence in Ireland at the time. While skewed by necessity of the subject toward an Irish Republican cast, the focus on one organization allows for a closer look at the inner workings of guerilla and rebel organizations. Keefe illuminates the importance of intelligence and the criticality of operational security, as well as the corresponding brutal enforcement deemed necessary for double agents.

Military readers specifically may find themselves wishing that Keefe dedicated more time to the eccentric “Little Brigadier” sent to Northern Ireland to lead an elite British army unit, Brigadier Frank Kitson. One of the few British actors given any pages, Kitson’s biographical sketch is in and of itself an interesting read. A Mao-quoting, professional soldier with experience in places ranging from Cyprus to Malaysia and many points in between, Kitson was an old hand at managing rebellions. He understood the critical role information played in countering insurgencies and introduced lessons learned from abroad, such as the use of the “counter-gang” (totally hooded and obscured individuals used to identify prisoners as key members of rebel organizations) from his time countering the Mau Mau in Kenya. As with the section on Brigadier Kitson, the very brief description of the Military Reaction Force—a shadowy, plainclothes British army organization that conducted both reconnaissance and direct attacks on republican insurgents and whose very name was never clearly established—may leave some readers wanting more.

Similarly, the book could benefit from more contextual information regarding the various loyalist organizations, and perhaps a better overview of the RUC and their tactics. The short shrift paid to Kitson, the RUC, and loyalist paramilitary groups is understandable given the centrality of the IRA members to the central theme of the McConville’s disappearance, and it is one of the very few underdeveloped parts of an otherwise thorough work. At the very least, the overview of Kitson and the MRF make for an entry point for deeper study of modern British counterinsurgency lessons learned in Northern Ireland.

Modern, Western insurgencies are a rare occurrence, and Keefe delivers a gripping narrative on a moving topic largely overlooked outside of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Irish-American enclaves in the United States. With its elements of history, politics, and true crime, Say Nothing will appeal to a variety of readers, particularly those in the military, intelligence, and law enforcement fields. A unique element of Keefe’s work is how he endeavors to understand the psychology of the participants themselves in order to better put the historical events in context. By doing so, Keefe enables the reader to delve into the thinking of true believers taking part in sectarian violence. With the McConville disappearance as his vehicle, Keefe shows us the impact of civil wars have on people and communities. Lastly, he demonstrates that insurgencies are political endeavors, and that even the most dedicated insurgent can change his or her mind as circumstances shift—soldiers can transition to statesmen, while some will be left behind when the shooting stops.

Book Review written by: Maj. Rick Chersicla, U.S. Army, San Antonio