You meet God in the midst of the Troubles

'Say Nothing' by Patrick Radden-Keefe.

The Troubles saw more than 4,000 people killed in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. Mostly Catholic republicans fought a mix of Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British armed forces over the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

One of the iconic photos from The Troubles, captures Father Alec Reid, administering the last rites to a British soldier who had just been beaten to death after taking a wrong turn and driving into the path of a funeral procession for a member of the IRA.

In Father Reid’s pocket was a long letter from the Sinn Fein, to the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume. The letter represented the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process. Reid handed the letter over stained in blood.

Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

- Seamus Heaney

Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, ‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ is filled with equally staggering stories.

“Everything is strange for the first few moments, then after a time normal existence seems strange.”

Stakeknife, aka Freddie Scappaticci, the lead member of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit tasked with investigating touts (IRA leaks), was a tout himself.

Dr Ross, the prison doctor who oversaw the death of 10 men during the Irish hunger strikes took his own life, with a shotgun, in 1986.

Sisters Dolours and Marian Price carried out the bombing of the Old Bailey at just 23 and 19 years of age respectively.

‘Nothing is going to come out of this that is commensurate with the pain that you will put into it.’

One of the striking things about The Troubles is the poetry in the way it’s described. Even the name ‘The Troubles’ sounds more like the gossip of two neighbours discussing a marriage breakdown - ‘they’re having some troubles’ - than internecine warfare. Some more examples of the lyricism:

  • The Unknowns, a secret IRA unit entrusted with “very specific jobs, obeying orders without question.”

  • The murals, which still exist today, bearing phrases like: GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS, BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL.

  • The absolutism:

“the man who in the name of Ireland accepts as a “final settlement” anything less by one iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation … that it were better that he had not been born”

“New recruits to the Provos were told to anticipate one of two certain outcomes: ‘Either you’re going to jail or you’re going to die.’”

  • Even employing the verb to be ‘disappeared’ as a way of describing the act of abducting, murdering and secretly burying a victim.

Radden-Keefe’s interlinking of the lives of The Troubles’ key figures, like Jean McConville, the Price sisters, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams is masterful.

Adams emerges as the most perplexing character, responsible for both the conflict and its resolution.

“the fiction that Adams had never been a paramilitary created a political space in which interlocutors who might not want to be seen negotiating with terrorists could bring themselves to negotiate with him.”

‘Say Nothing’ is a remarkable book with “no heroes, just more and less complicated villains.” And the echoes of The Troubles continue to ring out today.

“As everything has turned out,’ he said, ‘not one death was worth it.”

- Brendan Hughes

Quick Links:

As a follow-up to ‘Say Nothing’, watch Alex Gibney’s documentary ‘No Stone Unturned’ about the massacre of six innocent men as they watched Ireland's victory over Italy at the 1994 World Cup.

For more Patrick Radden-Keefe, read:

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