Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” – Vietnam, Thanh Nguyen as quoted in Say Nothing
Growing up in Canada has afforded me a comfortable life thus far, void of wars or societal conflict. A few minutes in front of any newscast will remind me of how fortunate I was to have won the birth lottery and had my start in a land with such opportunity, tolerance, and freedom. None of this would be even possible had my maternal grandfather’s parents not left Ballymena (in the North of Ireland) and immigrated to Ontario, Canada, near the beginning of the last century.
As politics and global conflict were topics omitted from the Sunday dinner table, I was mostly unaware of the history that plagued the place of my ancestry. Although never grasping the gravity of the situation, I remember watching the twisted expressions of anguish that would blanket my grandfather as he read through the papers and contemplated the fate of his left-behind relatives. As a young lass with no concept of sectarian strife, I chalked it up as one of those terrible things that happen in another part of the world, far away from the peaceful lands I inhabited.
Now that I’ve matured and grown less self-involved, I have become engrossed in the struggle that English Colonialism has imposed on the world for centuries. I crave answers to why the Irish were turned against one another, as I struggle to understand how this Christian conflict could result in the partition of her lands.
In Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe lays out a nail-biting recount of the three-decades-long dissidence that eventually ended in the Good Friday Agreement on April 10th, 1998 (in my 22nd year). I would recommend this courageous book to anyone, Irish or not, for the opportunity to bear witness to the terror that loomed over those devastating years.
The spotlight of the narrative was on the Irish Republicans and their leaders, soldiers, and struggle, while the Loyalists were the elusive ‘other’ side, grouped with the British soldiers. While I can certainly understand this framing, I would have liked to hear more from the Protestants in fairness to the fullness of the story. However, the code of silence amongst the paramilitaries may have rendered their version impossible to hear.
Given the secret nature of The Troubles, it’s a wonder that so many were willing to discuss those dark days at all. If not for the recordings procured for future academic study at the Boston University, by a reformed Republican insider, Radden Keefe would not have been able to write this book, at least not as extensively.
Just the rumour of someone speaking about the atrocities of those years could mean certain death. There was no place for disloyalty in the eyes of the Provisional IRA, real or perceived, as Jean McConville and her ten children were to find out when she was abducted from her kitchen table, never to be returned.
Throughout Say Nothing, Radden Keefe chronicles the orphaned children’s search for their mother, and it is the deafening silence of so many that rang the loudest for me. Fear of reprisal shrouded civilians and members alike, which kept their mouths sealed. It was mortifying to read how a weapon in the humiliation arsenal of the Provos was to tar and feather women they deemed traitorous. The minor act of offering a pillow to a British soldier who lay dying in front of their door, as was the crime of Jean McConville, could incur lethal wrath.
‘In the febrile atmosphere of wartime Belfast, for a local woman to be seen consorting with a British soldier could be a dangerous thing. Some women who were suspected of such transgressions were subjected to an antique mode of ritual humiliation: tarring and feathering. A mob would accost such women, forcibly shave their heads, anoint them with warm and sticky black tar, then shower a pillowcaseful of dirty feathers over their heads and chain them by the neck to a lamppost, like a dog, so that the whole community could observe the spectacle of their indignity.’
Of course, scenes like this, plus countless other rationale laid bare within the history of the conflict, are the reasons why they said nothing. For some, the silent torture of daily terrorism ended up culminating in Belfast Syndrome, or what we now refer to as PTSD. No matter which side of the divide these stunned women found themselves on, they survived by being fed sedatives to drown out the sounds of firebombs and screaming children whilst white-knuckling it through their days, in prayer to the same God.
‘Doctors found, paradoxically, that the people most prone to this type of anxiety were not the active combatants, who were on the street and had a sense of agency, but the women and children stuck sheltering behind closed doors.’
Reading of the deadly bombing campaigns issued by the paramilitaries, where many innocents ended up casualties, left me feeling nauseous. How terrifying it must have been to live with these cruelties in one’s everyday life, sometimes even at your front door.
Prior to the British construction of the Long Kesh correctional facility on the premises of an aircraft base 12 miles outside of Belfast, internees were incarcerated on a floating prison: The HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Maidstone. This 500-foot ship had been used decades before, during WW2, and was described as a hell-hole, “not fit for pigs.” However, it was mainly Nationalist soldiers kept in these inhumane conditions, since, although terrorism was asserted by the Loyalists as well, they didn’t seem to be a target for capture; sort of like their brand of criminality was useful to Scotland Yard. 🤨
‘Just before dawn one morning in August 1971, three thousand British troops descended on nationalist areas across Northern Ireland…. Of the 350 suspects arrested that day, not a single one was a Loyalist…. The disparity in treatment only compounded the impression, in the minds of many Catholics, that the army was simply another instrument of sectarian oppression.’
We learnt about the tenacious spirit that saw various Republicans partake in lengthy internments and fatal hunger strikes, but, as noble as one might wish to see the Republicans, they had a longstanding tradition of failure that weighed heavily on the cause.
‘It was almost as if “defeat suited them better than victory,” in the words of one historian, “for there was a sense in which Irish Republicanism thrived on oppression and the isolated exclusivity that came with it.”‘
A glaring irony found within Say Nothing is the large chunk of the last half being devoted to Republican touts: double agents or betrayers. British Military intelligence estimated that by the end of The Troubles, 1 in 4 members was some type of an informant, with senior members nearing 1 in 2. You should take anything they report with a grain (or twenty) of salt, though, as this would be a helpful way to fabricate and disparage the loyalty of the Nationalists.
Fortunately for the masses, with the assistance of the Clinton government and the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, a final cease-fire was signed in 1997. Finally, there was a halt to the thirty-year tribal conflict, and The Good Friday Agreement was born.
‘Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, but with its own devolved assembly and close links to the Republic of Ireland. The agreement acknowledged that the majority of people on the island wanted a united Ireland – but also that a majority of people in the six counties favoured remaining part of the United Kingdom. The key principle was “consent”: if, at some juncture, a majority of the people in the North wanted to unite with Ireland, then the governments of the UK and Ireland would have a “binding obligation” to honor that choice.’
As glorious as it is that the violence has stopped and people have forged ahead with a tolerance unseen in previous years, when I picture the Emerald Isle, I see her emaciated shadow as I pine for the fullness of what she could have been. Ireland’s soul lacks nourishment; hers, a people who have suffered through debilitating famine, only to live to fight injustice via hunger strike. Until the ravenous fangs of British gluttony are unclenched, she will remain detached, and starving for freedom.
Thanks for reading this review for Say Nothing, and please watch for my companion post coming up in The Gallery later this week, where I’ll showcase some of the murals found in Northern Ireland depicting the conflict.
Have you read any great books about The Troubles, or
other important times in Irish history? I’d love to hear