The Books of 2020, #4: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Ooooh, down to 441 pages with this fucker! Barely a pamphlet! Good thing, because it was a real fuckin’ depressing read!

I consider myself pretty well-rounded in most areas of history, certainly more so than the average civilian. But I realized recently that, while I’m conversant with Irish history up _to_ The Troubles, I don’t know much about The Troubles themselves.

This is probably due to my general disdain for the Irish-American plastic paddy pro-IRA loudmouth that Chicago is lousy with, and was particularly lousy with when I was young in the 80’s and 90’s and The Troubles were still at full boil. The simplistic “fuck the British, Protestants suck, Catholics are saints, the IRA is pure!” narrative that dominates American thought about the era settled into my mind and I haven’t been bothered to interrogate that until recently, even though I ambiently knew that my understanding was puddle-deep and probably mostly wrong.

So I was a bit stymied to find out that no one really seems to think a good single-volume history of The Troubles has been written yet. This particular book kept coming up though, and, having read it, I see why.

Say Nothing views the modern era of The Troubles (1969-today) via the lens of the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year old, mostly apolitical widowed mother of ten, from her Belfast flat in 1972. Her life up to the disappearance and through the decades-long investigation into it is interwoven with the story of how the mostly-moribund legacy IRA was woken up in the late 60’s to become fully active again and how it grew and changed throughout the conflict and its putative ending in the Good Friday Accords and since.

The McConville case ends up being the spine on which pretty detailed biographies of both Delours Price (early convert to the active wing of the IRA) and Gerry Adams (never-quite-publicly-admitted leader of the IRA during most of this time turned legit politician via Sinn Féin later on; gets most of the credit for bringing peace of a sort to Northern Ireland via The Good Friday Accords) are hung. Numerous smaller players are also brought into closer or further focus along the way, depending on their relationship to the McConville case and the bigger events that define The Troubles.

The book hooks the reader well, better than a typical straight history probably would, as it has this rather sensationalist criminal case at its heart. There’s also a fair amount of reasonably exciting legal action around the very publication of this book covered near the end. That one also gets a fairly even, medium-detailed history of The Troubles, mostly from a grounds-eye level, is just a bonus.

That said, the McConville case IS the primary story being told here, and the further away a person or event is from the people directly involved in that, the less detail there is. Hateful bigot shithead Ian Paisley makes a couple of appearances, but there’s very little coverage of, say, the Loyalists’ beliefs and goals throughout the conflict, or much in the way of how the British government’s policies developed.

So keep all that in mind. I’m purposely not going into any detail on the McConville case itself as that’s the hook that will pull you through the book. Even if you don’t care about The Troubles themselves at all, that case has enough twists and turns to keep the average true crime junkie fully engaged. Lastly, as somebody coming at this from a historian’s angle, the coverage of all of the issues and drama surrounding the bulk of the primary sources used to tell this story was quite interesting to me as well.

Overall, Say Nothing gets my recommendation for anyone interested in The Troubles, and it contains enough detail that you can come in with next to no prior knowledge and follow along.