Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing tells the story of the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother who was kidnapped at gunpoint in front of her children in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. It weaves the story of her disappearance with the lives of Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, important figures in the Provisional IRA, and Gerry Adams, who went on to lead Sinn Fein. Globe Books spoke with Radden Keefe who is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.
What drew you to this story?
I came to this through an obituary for Dolours Price. What initially grabbed was just the outsized dimensions of her life, the drama of it. That obituary also mentioned that she had played a part in the disappearance of Jean McConville. What was appealing right from the start was that you could tell a story of these two women and use that as a lens to look at the broader history of the Troubles.
Had you been looking for an entry point to tell the story of Northern Ireland?
No, not at all. Given my conspicuously Irish name you might think I have some connection to this stuff, but I didn’t. For The New Yorker I tend to write these big, sprawling narrative pieces and in my experience the only way you can count on holding on to a reader for 10,000 words is if you have pretty outsized characters, so that was what drew me in. These people lived extraordinary lives [that] intersected in interesting ways.
What was it like doing the research?
It took quite some time to earn the trust of a number of the important sources, actually getting to a point where people can open up and tell you about these vivid, often quite painful, but sometimes funny and moving memories of this conflict. I was trying to capture the atmosphere of [Belfast] as it feels now, but particularly how it felt at the height of the conflict. Going there now it’s strange, it’s still very tense. It’s one of the things most striking to me from an American point of view. It’s true that people aren’t shooting each other in the streets any more but some of that queasy atmosphere is still present. You have these peace walls, these huge fences that separate Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods, so the architecture of sectarianism is still plainly there. You still have murals everywhere of guys with guns. It’s very strange to imagine being a child in peacetime Northern Ireland and you grow up surrounded by these murals of masked gunmen.
Did you go on your own or with a local who could make introductions?
It was both. One of the things that’s strange about Belfast is if you go with a local there’s some places they can take you and some places they can’t. It ended up being an advantage for me to be from New York in the sense that if I was with a Belfast Protestant friend of mine going into some Catholic, Republican neighbourhoods would have been uncomfortable in a way it wasn’t for me, mostly. If anyone asked me what I was doing I would just start talking and it was immediately obvious I wasn’t from there and just didn’t map on to local identity politics.
The disappearance of Jean McConville was central to this story. What is it about a disappearance that is so difficult to deal with?
A lot of it is just about uncertainty. In any instance of forced disappearance, in any conflict, not just Northern Ireland, what is so barbaric about it is that you can paralyze the loved ones of the person you disappear, because they’re just stuck, they don’t know. I’ve seen that up close. And the trauma on the lives of multiple generations of the same family can be really profound.
What does your book tell us about what the future looks like in Northern Ireland?
This is the big question I have been wrestling with. I think there’s been a prevailing tendency for half a century now to elect not to talk about certain things. In my experience that’s not a strategy that really works. You can try to brush the past under the rug or try to bury it, but it won’t stay buried. The tricky thing in Northern Ireland is what’s really needed is some sort of process, a truth and reconciliation process or some agreed upon framework, where people can come to terms with what happened. For complicated political reasons that’s just never been possible.
With Brexit and the potential re-emergence of that border, what do you think that could lead to?
Nothing good. The voting public in the U.K. appears to have just forgotten about the Troubles. There’s a sense that it’s ancient history, you don’t need to think about it, the Irish border is not one of our foremost concerns. I think it was that myopia that led to Brexit. The first order impact will be devastating economic consequences, but beyond that it is going to bring up a lot of this trauma, this dark history. I don’t think the Troubles are back, but I do think on the margins you’ll likely see a return of some violence.