Jean McConville was a widowed mother of 10 children in Belfast when the IRA came for her in 1972.
She was never seen again — one of the thousands of victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but one of only 16 who were “disappeared” — murdered and secretly buried in an unmarked grave. Her orphaned children were left to wonder what happened to their mother.
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” answers the question through a riveting account of the bombings and assassinations carried out by the Irish Republican Army, as told by those who planted the bombs and pulled the triggers.
In particular, the book takes aim at Gerry Adams, one of the most recognizable names and faces of the struggle by Catholics to end British rule over the six counties making up Northern Ireland. From 1983 to 2018, Adams was the head of Sinn Féin, the legal, political cousin of the outlawed IRA. Adams has steadfastly denied that he was ever an IRA member, which author Patrick Radden Keefe, among many others, says is ludicrous.
“Say Nothing” unravels the McConville murder by profiling Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes. Price was a member of an elite cell within the IRA called the Unknowns, which she said reported directly to Adams. Hughes was a commanding officer in West Belfast and had an especially tight bond with Adams.
Price and Hughes eventually left the IRA — Price married and eventually divorced actor Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”) — and both were embittered by the compromises of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That agreement, with Adams as a key architect, ended the armed struggle and ushered in a Catholic/Protestant power-sharing government. But it fell well short of the IRA’s goal of a united Ireland, leaving Price and Hughes furious that the killings they engaged in had accomplished nothing.
So they dished. They sat for tape-recorded interviews in which they told in horrifying details about bombings, abductions and murders. In Price’s case, she said that included driving McConville across the border to Ireland and being present when the IRA killed her because she was believed to be an informer for the British — a “tout.”
In 2003, erosion on a beach finally revealed McConville’s body, 31 years after she was buried.
Price and Hughes were unequivocal: It was Gerry Adams who ordered the widow’s killing. They said so in the tape recordings, which were stored in a high-security, limited-access room at Boston College, part of an extraordinary oral history of the Troubles. The paramilitaries who participated in the Belfast Project had been promised that their accounts would remain secret until they died. (Price died in 2013 and Hughes in 2008.) In 2013, Northern Irish police still investigating McConville’s murder won victories in U.S. courts that forced the college to turn over recordings of a half-dozen of the participants, including interviews with Price and Hughes.
The release provided a treasure trove of the IRA members’ own accounts of the terror that the group spread throughout Northern Ireland for three decades — and the role they say Adams played in directing that violence.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
By: Patrick Radden Keefe.
Publisher: Doubleday, 441 pages, $28.95.