Book Review:  It This Iraq?  Afghanistan? No, It’s…

Shankill bomb Belfast 1993 feature

Northern Ireland, During The “Troubles.”

Publication date:  February 2019

Review, short version:  Four roses out of four.Book

Review, long version:

I enjoy reading a good book and learning something from it, too.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is a good book and I learned a lot, but I can’t say I “enjoyed” it.

This isn’t a criticism of the writing – Say Nothing is very well-written.  For all its many characters and complications, Keefe’s deft touch meant I had no problem keeping track of who people were, what they were doing and why.

So when I say I didn’t “enjoy” Say Nothing, I’m referring to the tragic subject matter:  the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  The book covers the time period of the late 1960s/early 1970s to the present, with the focus on the 30 years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Harrods cropped
Irish killing British:  In December 1983 the IRA detonated a car bomb at Harrods department store in London, killing five people and injuring 90.

If the words Northern Ireland, Belfast, IRA, Gerry Adams, paramilitaries, bombs, and murders resonate with you, then you know what I’m talking about.

If those words don’t resonate, and you want to know what the hell was going on in Northern Ireland and why, Say Nothing is where to learn more.

Say Nothing is about the conflict between Ireland and Great Britain and that, in itself, is not new.  It had been going on for at least 800 years, with the Irish viewing the English as cruel conquerors, and Great Britain viewing the Irish as ignorant peasants in great need of civilizing.

That civilizing would, of course, include exploiting Ireland’s people and resources for the benefit of Great Britain, with little or no benefit at all to the exploited, from the Irish perspective.

Over the centuries the conflict led to rebellions, which led to suppression, which led to more rebellions, and eventually led to the partition of Ireland in 1920.  Six counties in the north elected to remain part of Great Britain and became Northern Ireland, while the remaining 26 counties became the Irish Free State.

British killing Irish:  In January 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on peaceful protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 13 and wounding 15 others.  This became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

But many people in Northern Ireland were dissatisfied; they wanted a united Ireland, one country on one island, free of British taint.  They wanted a republic of Ireland, and they were proud republicans, ready to fight, murder and die for their cause.

The lead characters in Say Nothing are rebels in their late teens and early 20s, brought up to believe as their parents and grandparents had:  That the British were an occupying force and the Irish had the duty to expel the British by any means.  That this was the year, and they were the new generation who would bring British oppression to an end forever.  That a united Ireland was worth killing for, worth going to prison for…

Worth dying for.

La Mon restaurant
Irish killing Irish:  In Belfast in 1978, the bombing of the La Mon restaurant with a device containing a napalm-like substance killed a dozen people and horribly burned 30 others.

And so began the Troubles.

Say Nothing starts with a mystery:  Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1972.  The 38-year-old widowed mother of 10 is abducted and vanishes.  The “Why?” and “Who did it?” are woven throughout the book.

The abduction was just one of many in Northern Ireland, where people were “disappeared,” never seen or heard from again.  Making people disappear was just one option in the toolbox of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), originally founded in 1919 but mostly dormant by 1969.

As the IRA was revived by the new generation of fighters, it developed other tools including bombings, especially car bombs – in both Northern Ireland and England – and murder, of both Irish and English people.

As Keefe put it, eventually the IRA

“…was carrying out a dizzying number of operations, often as many as four or five each day.  You would rob a bank in the morning, do a ‘float’ in the afternoon – prowling the streets in a car, casting around, like urban hunters, for a British soldier to shoot – stick a bomb in a booby trap before supper, then take part in a gun battle or two that night.”

And the IRA didn’t limit itself to killing British soldiers on Irish soil.  They killed British people in England.  And they killed Irish people in Ireland, all in the name of a united Ireland.

Under the leadership of Gerry Adams, the IRA became very good at terrorism.  Later on, Adams became equally good at denying he was ever a member of the IRA.

Ireland – still two countries on one island.

And the English government and military became very good at counterattacking and denying, as well.

In the end – though there is really still no “end” – it was, as Keefe says, “Three decades of appalling bloodshed and some 3500 lives lost.”

And after all the savagery, the bloodshed, the maiming, the deaths, the lives and property damaged or destroyed, today Ireland remains two countries on one island.  Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom.

And, says Keefe,

“…the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has seemed, at times, to have virtually disappeared.  The soldiers and sandbagged checkpoints are long gone, and every day, tens of thousands of people and countless trucks full of goods crisscross the national boundary in one direction or the other.”

So the same old question:   What was all the killing for?

And the new question:  Brexit?

Will Brexit, postponed yet again until October 31, bring about a united Ireland?

Or will it spur yet another generation of young people to fight, kill and die?

And Jean McConville, the 38-year-old widow and mother who was “disappeared”?  Keefe does offer his thoughts on the “Why?” and “Who did it?”

Disappeared  McConville Body Found_ Lewis.jpg
Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1972:  Jean McConville, the 38-year-old widowed mother of 10, was abducted and vanished.  Shellinghill Beach, Republic of Ireland, 2003:  Her remains were found near the site of previous searches.  The crime has not been solved by police – but perhaps by the author?

And his thoughts on Gerry Adams, as well.  Adams, who transitioned from IRA leader to leader of Sinn Féin, the left-wing political party in Northern Ireland.

Adams, still very much alive, now retired from politics, and still denying he was ever a member of the IRA.

Adams declined an interview for Say Nothing, and Keefe closes with this:

“The downside of denying something everyone knows to be true is that the value of anything you say inevitably starts to depreciate.”

I’m hoping something much more scathing is carved on Adams’ tombstone.

gerry gerry cookbook
The many lives of Gerry Adams (left photo, in glasses):  As a 25-year-old “republican in 1973, forming part of an IRA guard of honour at an IRA bomber’s funeral.”  And in 2018, age 70, as an author, touting his “Negotiator’s Cook Book.”

And in between…

In public and in private, Adams continues to deny he was ever a member of the IRA.  He has repeated the same denial for presidents, prime ministers, even to the families of IRA hunger strikers.

If you were writing a history of the last 40 years of the IRA, Adams would appear on almost every page but he would have us believe he was somehow an innocent bystander who just happened to be in the room.

Daily Mail, May 3, 2014

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