by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2019
Spurred on by reading the 2013 obituary of Dolours Price in the New York Times, the author, a journalist for The New Yorker, became intrigued enough by her story to start researching for Say Nothing. Ms. Price, formerly a central figure in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had been the first woman recruited to be a soldier for the IRA. She was raised in an Irish Catholic family and was indoctrinated at a young age that they were duty-bound to eradicate the British from Ireland. While still a teenager, along with her sister Marian, she led bombing raids, targeted people for execution, and delivered people to their dates with death. They were later arrested and imprisoned; yet later in life Dolours became disaffected and disillusioned with the IRA’s mission and tactics.
The book starts with a brutal abduction in 1972 of a woman who became a household name in Ireland but was largely unknown in the United States: Jean McConville. A recent widow, 38 years old and mother of 10 children, she was forcibly taken from her home in front of her children by an armed, masked group of men and women. They tell the children she’ll only be gone for a few hours and then will be returned to them. The children never see her again. She is murdered and dumped in an unmarked grave. All the neighbors are outside and watching. It’s common knowledge that this is the work of the IRA but no one dares speak of it.
The author returns to this event again and again, as he traces the beginnings of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and how the British, perceived as an occupying force, were considered the enemy. He focuses on a few key characters who were central to the radicalized IRA: Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, the Price sisters, and Jean McConville (who they believed was an informant for the British). After Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, when the Irish began to tire of seeing their own civilians being blown up and the English public barely being aware of the catastrophe engulfing Northern Ireland, Dolours Price convinced Adams that “Only half of it is our war. The other half is their war, and some of it should be fought on their territory.” She became convinced that “a short, sharp shock—an incursion into the heart of the Empire—would be more effective than twenty car bombs in any part of the North of Ireland.” They began to work on an initial plan to firebomb London. When those bombs leaked and had to be abandoned, they then decided on car bombs.
Two of the car bombs that were planted were deactivated by London’s Metropolitan Police before they could detonate, but two others exploded as planned. However, because of a tip, the roads, airports, and seaports were all closed before the IRA terrorists could escape, and they were all arrested at the airport. The next several months detail the hunger strikes and the battle of the wills that the Price sisters and other terrorists fought with Margaret Thatcher.
After being released from prison in 1977, Gerry Adams eventually became the leader of the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Féin, and helped broker a peace agreement between Northern Ireland and the British government. But in the process, he disavowed his comrades in arms—he denied having ever been a part of the IRA, a line he never deviated from. This infuriated his former combatants and they never forgave him for the betrayal. They felt that all the deaths and bombings (which they say he orchestrated), and personal sacrifices they made were all for nothing—in the end they didn’t get what they wanted (a united Ireland) and too many people suffered in the process.
This book tells a sobering tale of a truly frightening time to be living in Ireland and Great Britain. The author digs deep into the lives of the key players to bring The Troubles to life for those of us who did not have to live through it, tying together their personal stories with key political figures and events of the era. It certainly filled gaps in my understanding of this fraught political time, and even shows how these struggles tie into the recent Brexit issues and how they affect commerce with Northern Ireland.
If this part of the world interests you, or if you have Irish Catholic heritage coursing through your veins, I think you would learn a lot by reading this book. His skill as a journalist and as a writer has made this book feel like a page-turning novel.