© 2023 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Say Nothing,' The Story Of A Murder In Northern Ireland


In his new book, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe uses one crime to tell a much bigger story. The book is "Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland." It's about the Troubles, the decades of conflict when the Irish Republican Army and other Catholic paramilitary groups used bombings and kidnappings and murder to try to force the end of British rule in Northern Ireland. Protestant paramilitary groups fought back.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: At the point where my story begins in 1972, you have the beginning of what was really an all-out war. You have British soldiers on the streets. You have the police. And then you have a whole series of paramilitary groups planting bombs and shooting at each other in the streets.

KELLY: This was the backdrop for the disappearance of Jean McConville. She was 38 years old, a widow, a mom of 10 children. They lived in Divis Flats, public housing in West Belfast. As Keefe tells it, one evening, gunmen entered the family apartment and took Jean McConville. She never came home.

KEEFE: The intruders told the kids that their mother would be back, that they just needed to talk to her for a short while. But they never saw her again. She was - disappeared. There was no body, no opportunity for the family to grieve or bury her.

KELLY: Do we know why she was targeted?

KEEFE: Well, there were rumors from quite early on that the IRA had taken Jean McConville away and that they'd done so because she was an informant.

KELLY: The IRA, the Irish Republican Army.

KEEFE: Exactly, which was a paramilitary group that was very deeply embedded in that part of West Belfast at that time. And so the children had suspicions, but they really didn't know. Nobody would tell them what had happened to their mother.

And I should say that they, to this day, really strenuously object to any suggestion that she had been an informant. And they say - with good reason, I think - what could she possibly have known, this woman who was a widow and a mother of 10? What type of information could she have been passing to the British?

KELLY: I want to stay in the 1970s for - for a minute because what happens to her children after this is horrendous. They are split up. The younger ones are sent to orphanages, institutions that read like something straight out of Dickens. And you describe this cruel twist where some of the children, who were so young when it happened, say they can't even remember their mother's face anymore. But they remember the faces of the people who took her because they see these people in the streets wandering around Belfast all the time.

KEEFE: Yeah. You talk to the children now, and some of them really - there's one photo of Jean McConville, and they remember that photo. But some of them have trouble conjuring what her face was like apart from that photo. But they do remember the people who took her.

There's a moment that Michael McConville, who's one of Jean McConville's children - he was 11 when she was taken away - told me about, which is just terrifying, that he was in Belfast as an adult. And he flagged down a black taxi. And the taxi leaves the curb, and he looks into the mirror. And he realizes that the man driving the cab is one of the people that took his mother away.

KELLY: It's interesting he told you that story. A lot of her children spoke to you, which I mention because many of the key people who you tried to interview as you were documenting this story wouldn't. They were still terrified to talk, to speak publicly - even years, decades after the events in question.

KEEFE: Certainly in my imagination, prior to getting into this story, I thought of the Troubles as something that was done and dusted. And what was fascinating for me, going back and forth to Belfast over the last four years, was realizing that this conflict may be over. There's not shooting in the streets. But it's still an open wound. And part of the reason for that is that people don't talk about the past.

And it was unlike any other experience I've had, going around, knocking on doors, asking people about a murder that was almost half a century old and having those doors slammed in my face because the past still seems so dangerous in Belfast.

KELLY: Some of that has to do with it's - while there has been a political process that has played out in the last 20 years in Northern Ireland, there has never been a formal reckoning. There's never been an equivalent to, say, what South Africa did with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Why not?

KEEFE: Because I think that if they tried to deal with the past, they never would have gotten an agreement. So the Good Friday Agreement is this landmark peace agreement from 1998, in which all parties agreed to lay down their arms and to try and forge a new Northern Ireland. But in order to get that deal, they had to table any notion of, well, how do we deal with all of the atrocities that have happened?

How do we deal with killings by the IRA, by loyalist terrorist groups? How do we deal with the excesses of the state in which the British state killed unarmed civilians? All of that, they essentially said, we'll just put a pin in that for now and focus on the future instead. And so the result is that you have a peace, but it's a very brittle peace today.

KELLY: To circle back to Jean McConville, by the time you start reporting this, her children are all adults. They're in their 30s, their 40s. And I was struck by how that phrase you said, that the people who took her away said she'll be back; she'll be right back. They were still looking for her, all these decades later, by the time you encountered them. And there comes a day, finally - 2003, I think - where a man is walking along a beach. What happened?

KEEFE: There was a man, just kind of a beachcomber, walking along a beach in the Republic of Ireland. And he happened upon a set of bones. And the authorities came, and they exumed a skeleton which had a single bullet hole in the back of the head.

KELLY: And there was one particular detail that her children were focused on, that they wouldn't really believe it was her until they found a diaper pin.

KEEFE: One thing that a number of them remember is that she had what they call a nappy pin - just a diaper pin that she would have pinned to her clothes. And if you can imagine raising 10 little kids...

KELLY: Yeah, you would always need one.

KEEFE: You always need one. It comes in handy. And when they found these bones, they brought some of Jean McConville's adult children into a police station. And one of her sons said he didn't want to look at the clothes. He couldn't bring himself to look. But he asked the officer, is there a nappy pin?

And the officer looked at first and said, no, there's not. I don't see one. And then he turned a fold of the clothing over, and he spotted it. He said, yes, yes, there is. And that was when they knew it was definitely her.

KELLY: And so to bring us fully up to date, you described the peace that is in effect in Northern Ireland as a brittle one. And we have Brexit looming next month and the possibility that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland may become a hard border again. I mean, how does that complicate what has been this brittle, fragile peace?

KEEFE: It does complicate it. But - but look, to the extent that there's a thesis in this book, it's that the past did not stay buried. And part of what's fascinating about the Brexit story is that I think on some level, policymakers and voters in the U.K. just kind of forgot about the Irish border. They forgot that this was an issue and there might be any sense of irresolution there.

And so part of what we see now, with the whole future of Europe turning on this question of what will happen with the Irish border - will be a hard border or a soft border; will there be a deal for Brexit? - is the revenge of the past. It's the revenge of the Troubles. It's, I think, the suggestion that if you try and ignore this kind of history, you do so at your peril.

KELLY: Patrick Radden Keefe, his new book is called "Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland." Patrick, thanks very much.

KEEFE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.