Say Nothing is saying something awkward at a political moment in time. British police investigations remain live. People are before the courts while material remains in possession of the notoriously untrustworthy Massachusetts academic institution, as ever ready and willing to screw its own research participants and researchers. With that backdrop, any newsworthy body of work that may be perceived as having a strong association with or provenance in the Boston College oral history archive making its way into the public domain is problematic. It causes deep apprehension amongst the already BC shafted participants, fuels political unionism’s hunger to feed on the past rather than solve it, and arguably lends succour to the case for the prosecuting authorities. The mood in the judges’ chamber, already hostile in respect of the project, in a place as claustrophobically small as the North can be further soured by the atmospheric pressure external to it. Arguably, so long after the event and given the manner in which the seminal Voices From The Grave was used by the British to hound and harry the project, these things can always wait until less turbulent times. The story about Jean McConville will still be the story about Jean McConville a decade from now.
Patrick Keefe cannot be criticised for any this. He has no duty of care to either me or the participants in the Boston College project, merely a duty of candour to the wider public. Nor can he be expected to time or tailor his work in deference to the apprehensions, fears and preferences of the interviewees. As an investigate journalist of serious repute, he was merely fulfilling his vocation and pursuing the story.
Conversely, my misgivings notwithstanding, Say Nothing might just say something about the value of the BC project at a time when, for the body of those interviewed, confidence in the venture is at a nadir. Tommy Gorman in a discussion with project director Ed Moloney at a screening of I Dolours – a film Gorman praised as powerful - described himself as one of the “losers” and “eejits” who participated. As disheartening as that might be for myself who had a major role in putting the project together, the view is nevertheless rife. The silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud, is that Say Nothing might help resuscitate acknowledgement of the huge potential the project held as a mechanism for truth recovery and understanding, when all else has lamentably failed to even scratch the surface of the elusive phenomenon. In the North truth is always about recrimination and retribution, rarely about reconciliation and revelation.
The end-product of four year’s research by Keefe has been the publication of the best book on the republican dimension of the North’s violent conflict that I have certainly read since A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney. It reconstructs early 1970s Belfast so well that the temptation is there to close the eyes while reading it, just to inhale the ambience of the times. No one yet has come up with a means to read books with eyes closed. Audiobooks are a poor substitute. Keefe draws his reader down into the pores of some of the North’s practitioners and victims of politically violent conflict. The grit and grime, the humanity and hatred, the glory and the gory, the treacherous and the trusted – all of it is there. A persistent dialectic of ebb and flow, that might with each incoming tide help gradually wear down the rock of the past’s stubborn resistance to probing.
Despite tracing the lives of many key players, the book has thus far received less media interest than it undoubtedly merits. Paradoxically, McConville fatigue has played some role here. As horrendous and unpardonable as the war crime perpetrated against her and her family unquestionably was, the appetite for more of the same, even when better presented and packaged, has naturally waned.
One of the main talking points has been Keefe’s suggestion that the person who fired the solitary lethal bullet into Jean McConville was Marian Price. Both she and her sister, the late Dolours, figure prominently in the book. The case put forward by Keefe after some forensic journalism is arguable without being definitive. It is substantially buoyed by the persuasiveness of impressionistic narrating. The place of omission is relied upon, the unspoken rather than the said. While nothing if not meticulous, Keefe is still hostage to a certain leap of faith being required to get the accusation across the line.
Marian Price will emerge largely unscathed in terms of what people conclude. Not so much Gerry Adams, who has long figured as Vlad The Impaler in the McConville drama. Keefe’s writing is so sensory, the reader’s antennae so pre-programmed, that the mind’s nose can intuitively pick up the malodour of decomposition each time a page opens, and the name of Adams is mentioned. In terms of alleged culpability for the death of Jean McConville, Marian Price is a new kid on the block: Gerry Adams, the ancient mariner. Her alleged role, which she fiercely denies, will fade whereas the supposed role of Adams has become indelible in the public narrative: relished by many because of its convenience as a political baton, regardless of accuracy or his own denials.
Adams’ vulnerability to the charge has been amplified courtesy of his estrangement from the truth in so much of his public discourse. Accused in the book of having covered up for a child rapist while harbouring a sociopathic instinct for self-preservation, plugged into imagery of loitering around secret burial sites, there is no great leap of imagination required to view him as a paradox: the marker for unmarked graves.
Brendan Hughes, long dead, is brought back to life. We are treated to his ruminations and reflections on life within the IRA. The same for Dolours Price. The road they travelled was tearful and tenebrous. Dolours and The Dark, aptly named for the journey. Reading their words pushed tonations into my head, where they pitched and swirled with an effect resembling auditory. The Word had become flesh: authentic Voices From The Grave. The story in which they feature juxtaposes the desolate and bleak life of Jean McConville with the frenetic high-octane lives of the Price sisters who lived but a few miles apart. Incident by incident, to the muffled beat of the recessed drum cadence, the reader becomes a spectator to the inexorable march in the direction of a denouement foretold.
In the course of his research, Patrick Keefe often spoke to me. In spite of my reticence, if the book was going to come out, better my perspective in there than not, particularly in relation to the recidivistic Boston College, which emerges in the pages not covered in glory. Keefe also set the record straight regarding how the Sunday Life came to possess an interview Dolours Price gave to the Irish News and which unwittingly, at least on the part of the Irish News, acted as the catalyst for the subpoenas that would eventually come to sabotage the project and cast a chill effect over primary research of the type the College had commissioned only to abandon at the first sight of trouble.
Patrick Keefe was the consummate researcher. I savoured our close quarter jousts and his intellectual company, while admiring the professional distance he maintained. Always direct, with no hint of deviousness, he was never going to permit me a pole position in shaping the narrative. Often, he would assertively challenge my interpretation of events, nowhere more so than in my firm belief that Mrs McConville was informing on the IRA to the British.
We argued, disagreed and drank whiskey, our last being Connemara, too much like Scotch for my liking. He opined that I would most likely be annoyed by the book. While at times described by him in less than flattering terms, I was not alone in that. These things irk only when we take ourselves much too seriously and suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance. And of course, there are matters I prefer had not featured. But that is his call to make not mine. While harbouring an inclination for this type of work many years down the line rather than now, ultimately, there is no way I can find myself genuinely annoyed at a superb book by an outstanding journalist. In contravention of the title, I think it was better to have said something than nothing.
Patrick Radden Keefe, 2018, Say Nothing. Publisher William Collins. ISBN-13: 978-0008159252