Almost Five Decades on From a Notorious Murder, ‘The Past Doesn’t Stay Buried’

A Q&A with Patrick Radden Keefe, the author of "Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland."

Helen McKendry, eldest daughter of Jean McConville, holds a family photograph showing her mother Jean McConville (left) and some of Jean's children including Helen herself (second from right), at her home in Northern Ireland on May 3, 2014. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)
Helen McKendry, eldest daughter of Jean McConville, holds a family photograph showing her mother Jean McConville (left) and some of Jean's children including Helen herself (second from right), at her home in Northern Ireland on May 3, 2014. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1972, masked intruders took Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother of 10, from the family’s apartment in Divis Flats, in Belfast. McConville was assumed killed by the Provisional IRA, but it was only in 2003 that her remains were found.

The McConville case is at the heart of a new book by the New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Spanning decades, the book is at once a true crime story and a sharply written, intricate portrait of the Troubles, punctuated by other forced disappearances and closing with the story of an ambitious project held at Boston College. Initially intended to produce sealed recordings of interviews with former fighters, the information produced by the project wound up being used, over the objections of participants, to investigate Troubles-era crimes.

Foreign Policy spoke with Keefe on the reporting process, the surprising discovery of the person he believes fired the shot that killed Jean McConville, and how one possible consequence of a British departure from the European Union—the reimposition of hard border controls with Ireland—could bring back old tensions to a fragile peace.

Foreign Policy: How did you first become interested in writing about the McConville case?

Patrick Radden Keefe: So Dolours Price [a Provisional Irish Republican Army member] died, and there was this obituary in the New York Times describing the dramatic arc of her life, and at the point where she died the Boston College controversy was already underway, and so it had come out that there was this secret archive at Boston College, and that the police were investigating this famous 1972 murder. So for me, that was the kernel of the whole book, right, the idea that you could potentially tell the story of this one crime and look at both the victims and the perpetrators and look at the narrative of Dolours Price’s life, which really stretched from the beginning of the Troubles all the way to the present day. At the time I thought, there’s a magazine article here, and so that was how it started.

FP: Was that your intention going in, to do a portrait of the whole period?

PRK: It was, but I wanted to use the lives and the experiences of a handful of people and allow that to serve as a kind of prism through which you could reflect on the whole scope of the conflict. So the intention was definitely not to write a history of the Troubles. There are a lot of those books out there. What I wanted to do was something slightly different, which was to write narrative nonfiction that was very character-driven and would hopefully be accessible in that sense, basically a murder mystery. But then use that as a way to look at the broad sweep of the Troubles.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, Doubleday, 464 pp., $28.95, Feb 26, 2019

FP: Why use Jean McConville’s case as the window in—why this case out of all the disappearances?

PRK: It’s a great question—there are so many cases you could use. There’s 3,600 or so people who lost their lives over the course of the Troubles, and there’s a sense in which you could write an account like this about any of those individual deaths. Jean McConville was particularly appealing in that her murder and disappearance had taken on a kind of iconic quality long before I came to this story. There’s an academic in Belfast who once talked about the idea of a hierarchy of victims. And the idea that in some ways, she’s the ideal victim, she’s like the perfect victim, this widow, who’s a mother of 10, but then there are other people who believe that she was an informant, and she was killed because she was an informant. So that allowed me to explore a lot of the “cloak and dagger” aspects of the Troubles, which I was interested in.

There was this one act; there’s this woman in her thirties who is shot and buried in an unmarked grave. But in that single act, you tie together the stories of a whole series of characters—of her children, of Dolours Price, of her sister Marian Price, of Gerry Adams, of Brendan Hughes. So it not only ties together these different characters but it also spans time in the sense that this happened pretty early in the Troubles, in 1972, but you end up with a big legal fight in Massachusetts quite recently, just five or six years ago, over the status of these secret interviews which shed light on that killing. It managed both to draw together a series of characters, both victims and perpetrators who I wanted to write about, and also encapsulate the whole chronological sweep of the Troubles and the sense that there’s so much that’s not resolved.

FP: Over the course of reporting the book, what surprised you most during the process?

PRK: Certainly the most surprising thing for me was to have a moment really quite late in the game, I’d essentially finished the book and was working on the final section, and I stumbled across the identity of the person who I believe actually pulled the trigger and killed Jean McConville. I had always assumed that it would be “random IRA gunman No. 3,” not someone who was essential to my narrative. It was just a very eerie and arresting experience to make that discovery and then to discover that it was somebody who’s already a character in the book. That was certainly the most surprising thing in a kind of immediate sense.

In a broader sense, I was struck again and again over four years by the degree to which the past doesn’t stay buried. And I would be going around Belfast knocking on doors and I could see the fear in people’s faces when I asked about this murder that happened before I was born. The strangeness of that, of the way in which the past kind of lives in the present, even if people don’t talk about it, especially if people don’t talk about it, it remains full of danger, was something I gathered along the way. But it continued to surprise me, right up until the end.

FP: There’s been a recent spate of unrest in Northern Ireland, scrutinized because of the possibility of a reintroduction of a hard border. Do you have a sense this will mean something in the context of this history?

PRK: Part of what’s been really fascinating is that it was really as I was finishing the book that Brexit happened. Right from the start, right from 2014, one theme that came through in my time spent in Northern Ireland was the idea of the fragility of the peace. It’s one thing as an American and an outsider to come in and realize, in the popular discourse in the United States, there’s a tendency to think, “Oh, it’s all done and dusted, wasn’t that all taken care of in the 1990s?” And to celebrate the peace and have a sense that there might have been some kind of reconciliation there. And so the first thing was getting there and realizing, boy, this is a very brittle peace. You still have these extremely divided communities—there’s a real sense that there’s all kinds of residual tension.

At the same time, for most of the period of time that I was working on the book, I was a little dubious of these suggestions that the peace was that fragile and that things were going to go back to the bad old days. I certainly talked to Irish republicans who said that they want to bring back the armed campaign. And the interesting thing with Brexit is that it takes this conflict and this source of tension that most of the world, not just in the U.S., but in Europe and in fact even in the U.K., forgot about and thought was in the rearview mirror, and makes it suddenly extremely problematic again. I do think that the possible reintroduction of the hard border will sharpen those tensions and also force people to reckon with the legacy of the Troubles in a way that they had the luxury of not doing before.

Having said that, even in the event of a hard border, I don’t see any return to the really bad days that I write about in the book. You saw that recently there were some bombs in Derry just a few weeks ago, the truth is that the armed groups that are still planting bombs and calling in threats and hijacking and so forth are really very marginal—there’s very little support for them. And so, to the notion that Brexit in whatever form it plays out could bring back a huge amount of tension, absolutely. Do I think it’ll catapult us back to the 1970s or the 1980s? No, I just don’t think anybody has the stomach for that.

FP: Right, it’s more of a sense that it’s another political flash point for this lack of reconciliation.

PRK: Part of what’s so striking is the border and the iconography of the border, it’s so vivid and ever-present there, and it took so much work on both sides to create a system where now you just drive along and you hardly notice you’ve crossed from the republic into Northern Ireland. So even if you don’t get a return to all out bloody war, the notion that you might have checkpoints and sandbags and soldiers with rifles is emotionally and iconographically pretty upsetting.

FP: What do you think the future looks like for the Boston [College] papers—what they might end up being used for, whether any others will be unsealed, or whether they’ll even become available to researchers?

PRK: When the project was initially undertaken, the idea was this was this long-running, extremely tumultuous, bloody conflict in the heart of Europe that spanned decades. And it happened to take place in a part of the world where the code of silence is really pronounced. And so how do we, in the interests of history, remedy that? The whole aim of the project was: We want to create a record that will be available to future historians, but we don’t want it to be used to prosecute people while they’re alive. So we’ll keep it very secret, and we’ll have this agreement that none of the recordings will be unsealed until after the participants are dead. And where we end up in 2019 is exactly the opposite situation, which is that I don’t think the Boston College tapes will ever become available to researchers, or scholars, or people like me, but they are available to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who are very happy to dip into them in order to bring criminal cases against people who are still alive.

FP: Do you think that outcome is damaging to trying to break the code of silence in other ways?

PRK: I do. I experienced this myself. Over the last four years as I was trying to get people to talk to me, there was a very strong sense, and I know this because people said this to me explicitly, that they’ve been burned by talking about these subjects that happened 30, 40 years ago. And that can be a dangerous thing. I spent a lot of time talking to people that are engaged in this extremely delicate process of trying to figure out where the remaining bodies of the disappeared are. They still have families who have loved ones who were disappeared. And there’s a handful of them that haven’t been found. This independent commission, this binational commission has been going out digging and doing the detective work of trying to get to the bottom of where are these people found. And they don’t want to prosecute anyone, in fact they have a grant of limited immunity to give to anyone who cooperates. All they want to do is recover the bodies. And part of the problem they have, is after the Boston College fiasco, people are less willing to talk. And so they’re going out there saying, “Look, we’re not going to come after you, you’re not going to be arrested, we’ll protect your confidentiality, we’ll give you immunity. All we want you to do is help us help this family find the skeleton of their loved ones.” And there’s been a profound chilling effect because of the way in which the Boston College affair went down.

FP: When you were reporting, did you have any encounters that showed you how much people are dedicated to not talking about the McConville case?

PRK: Yes, all the time. The book is called Say Nothing for a reason. Most people I approached were disinclined to talk, particularly when you start asking about the McConville case. This is the paradox: I think there’s a very strong desire to not discuss the past and try to turn your back to it, but if there’s one thing that came through for me is you can do that, but it doesn’t mean the past will go away—it’ll haunt you, and, as we see with Brexit, it’ll come back to get you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Miles is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @e_a_miles

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