A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 1
Writer John Patrick Keefe’s tale of kidnapping and murder of Belfast housewife Jean McConville in December, 1972, is a searing look at the Northern Ireland social horror that was The Troubles. McConville was abducted in front of her crying children, hauled off into the night and vanished. Her remains were uncovered on a remote beach in 2003, five years after the Peace Accords brought an uneasy silence to the shattered region.
Her death was blamed on the IRA, who feared she was a British informant although details of any collaboration with the authorities were extremely sketchy and unproven. The book’s title, Say Nothing, refers to the code of silence that suffocated the community throughout those years when the North was riven by sectarian violence.
Keefe, winner of numerous awards for his insightful writing, is a longtime staffer for The New Yorker magazine. A skilled craftsman when it comes to words, he probes the underbelly of a society torn apart by politics and religion. Keefe’s far ranging list of characters touched by the McConville slaying includes a tight-lipped Gerry Adams, who resolutely denies his IRA past; Tom Hachey, an Irish historian at Boston College (formerly with Marquette University in Milwaukee); and youthful assassin Dolours Price, a bombmaker barely out of high school; plus an extended roster of detectives, undercover agents, turncoats, politicians, military and ordinary people.
Say Nothing is a gripping read about bullets, shrapnel, fear, murder and silence, one far removed from faux rebel folksongs and dreams of a happy-go-lucky Ireland that never really existed. His references and footnotes cover more than 70 pages, attesting to Keefe’s attention to detail and thoroughness.
In his comments below to The Irish American Post, Patrick Radden Kelly shares thoughts about his own Gaelic heritage, the writing of Say Nothing, the importance of journalism and what history teaches us all.
IAP: What is your family backstory?
Keefe: My father's great grandfather, Cornelius Keefe, came from Cork and arrived in Brooklyn during the Famine years; the Gibbonses (my father's grandparents on his mother's side), came from Clonmany, in Donegal, and moved to Boston at the turn of the last century. The Raddens are also very much a part of my story -- but that is my mother's family, from Australia.
IAP: Were any of those relatives in journalism, or were other creatives in the family?
Keefe: My mother, Jennifer Radden, spent her career teaching philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, in Dorchester, where I grew up. She also wrote (and continues to write) books. Both of my parents put a lot of stock in an elegant turn of phrase, which was an inspiration for me from childhood -- and a bit of a challenge, as well!
IAP: Where did you grow up? Did your folks support your drive to become an ‘ink-stained wretch’?
Keefe: I grew up in the city of Boston, in the Ashmont neighborhood of Dorchester. It was a wonderful place to grow up, and a part of the world I still feel very connected to, not least because my brother and his family and assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, and old friends still live there. I went to high school at a place that was geographically close to Dorchester, but in some ways very different -- Milton Academy, a New England prep school that is a 10-minute drive from my childhood home. Milton put a lot of emphasis on the arts, as did my parents; I grew up drawing and reading and singing in the choir at a church down the street. My parents were certainly supportive of my aspirations to become a writer, though they wondered how precisely I would make a living at it. (This may be part of the reason I went to law school before becoming a full-time writer.)
IAP: How did you celebrate your Irish heritage as a kid; was your family really into ‘being’ Irish? Are there other ethnic roots to the Radden Keefe family tree?
Keefe: I grew up with a double-barrel Irish American name in an Irish American corner of a heavily Irish American city, so inevitably, there was a sense of identification with my Irish roots. That said, when I visited Ireland with my family, I became distinctly aware that to be Irish and to be Irish American are not necessarily the same -- the affinities are there, but the lived experiences are quite different. I was also keenly aware that whereas my father's family came over from Ireland a century ago, my mother came to America from Australia herself, leaving behind her mother and three sisters, a whole life. So my connection to Australia was more proximate in that respect.
IAP: What were your first journalism jobs/assignments; what keeps you involved in the profession? Do you get a good rush when finishing a tough assignment?
Keefe: I always knew I wanted to write; the challenge was figuring out how to make that work. I didn't know any magazine journalists and couldn't figure out how to break into the field. So after college, I stayed in school: I did a masters degree, and then another, and finally a law degree, all the while trying to crack the code on how you make a writing life. During law school, I looked up a literary agent and persuaded her that I had a non-fiction book in me. Much to my surprise, she called my bluff, and we ended up getting a deal for my first book, Chatter, which was about government eavesdropping and the National Security Agency. It was only once I had the book deal that I started getting magazine assignments.
IAP: Was Say Nothing your most challenging work? How did you convince a publisher that this story was important? Who selected the title?
Keefe: Say Nothing was the most challenging piece of writing I've done, in that the reporting was difficult, because of the culture of silence surrounding certain aspects of The Troubles. But the other great challenge was in the writing itself: The Troubles can be a daunting subject, and yet the stories and the characters are so dramatic. As a reader, I had often found myself bogged down in books about The Troubles, struggling to keep track of the complexity of the history, the profusion of figures and groups. I wanted to write something that would be rigorous, but also highly accessible, with the sort of narrative momentum that would keep you turning the pages. That created a structural challenge, because the story is quite complex, so a great deal of effort went into teasing apart the many narrative strands and then determining the most compelling way to braid them back together. I knew almost from the start that Say Nothing would be the title, though I went back and forth on whether to use the whole phrase from Heaney's poem, "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing." I think in the end the shorter title was the right call.
IAP: On your book tours, do attendees recall much about the McConville case? What questions are asked from the audience?
Keefe: Part of what has been fascinating about touring with the book is encountering people who have only a dim grasp of this history. Like I did, prior to commencing this project, they had an ambient, impressionistic sense of the conflict and the peace, but not much appreciation for the deeper mechanics, or the particular stories like Jean McConville's, or even the atmosphere in Belfast during those years. What I was trying to do in the book was collapse that distance between someone who is reading now and those events from decades ago, and it has been encouraging to hear from people -- particularly Irish Americans -- who feel like they are engaging with some of this history for the first time.
IAP: How has the book been received in Northern Ireland and the Republic; is it different than in U.S. academic historian/circles?
Keefe: I expected that there would be a novelty in this narrative for many American readers. What surprised me is that in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, many readers have expressed the same feeling: I've gotten many notes from readers in England and Ireland who felt only distantly aware of these events. In Northern Ireland it's different, because this history is their history -- they lived it and still live it -- and the figures in the book are more familiar. But it has been gratifying for me to hear from dozens of readers who might not agree on much -- ex-British soldiers and ex-Republican prisoners, community activists and politicians and cops -- and hear that they've learned something, and that they feel I got it right. There is no one constituency that will embrace the book without reservation, because it tells the story as I see it, and does not represent any one "side" in the conflict. But I've been touched and encouraged by the degree to which people with very different political outlooks have embraced the book.
IAP: Do you think Gerry Adams will ever talk with you?
Keefe: I wish he would! He's a fascinating and important historical figure. Unfortunately, I think Adams is very invested in the construction and maintenance of certain myths about The Troubles and their aftermath, and part of what I've tried to do in the book is document the truth in a dispassionate manner. In that respect, his silence about the book, and his steadfast refusal to speak with me while I was working on it, are very telling. But I don't take it personally -- after all, he's in politics -- and I hope that I have done justice to the great complexity of the role that he has played.
IAP: What do you do to relax: jog, go to movies, walk the dog, eat, sip Jameson’s?
Keefe: I've got two young boys and a wife who I adore, so I'm at my most relaxed when I'm out on the soccer pitch watching my boys play (after the World Cup last summer, they both became fanatical), or cooking them all dinner with a glass of red wine in my hand. In the Irish whiskey department, my big discovery lately was Connemara, which is pretty sensational, though as one friend pointed out on my last trip to the Republic, it's so redolent of peat smoke, "you could be drinking Scotch."
IAP: Who are your favorite Irish authors, favorite Irish films/actors?
Keefe: It's strange to say Stephen Rea, as he's a character in Say Nothing -- he was married to one of the central figures in the book, the IRA member Dolours Price -- but I've always loved him. Richard Harris, too (The Field!). And I adore Saoirse Ronan and Fiona Shaw. I could go on. As for authors, I grew up on Joyce. I can vividly remember reading Dubliners in high school and reassessing what you could do with language. I even remember the phrase that did it, from Araby: "I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds." In college, I fell hard for the novelist Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy knocked me out. John Banville, Edna O'Brien, on and on. I've been reading Colum McCann with admiration since his first story collection, and was hugely pleased when he offered a generous quote for Say Nothing. Anna Burns' Milkman is extraordinary -- so very different from what I did with Say Nothing but touching on similar issues. And next up for me is Sally Rooney, who I'm embarrassed to say I haven't yet read, but am looking forward to.
IAP: Have you read Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen, about a NY Irish cop who goes back to the North in the 1970s? Or any other novels about The Troubles – do you have any other suggestions for a good read about The Troubles, whether novel or from real life?
Keefe: Haven't read it! I could recommend so many, but to pick just three: Bear in Mind These Dead, a book about the human cost of the Troubles, by the journalist Susan McKay; Proxopera, a novella by Benedict Kiely; and the short story "Guests of the Nation," by Frank O'Connor.
IAP: Were you supported by any Significant Other who was a first reader of the Say Nothing manuscript, or brought you coffee, go with you to Ireland, help with research?
Keefe: My wife Justyna has a busy job of her own (she's a lawyer) but managed to juggle our children and her other responsibilities while I took seven trips to Northern Ireland over four years. She's my first reader, skeptical when she needs to be, poking and prodding an idea in her lawyerly manner, and taking absolutely nothing for granted. She's the greatest champion I could hope for.
IAP: How would you describe your office or writing space? Your writing regime? How do you deal with writers’ block, if that’s ever a challenge?
Keefe: I write in a cramped home office, and at my desk at The New Yorker, and in coffee shops and on trains. One great lesson I've taken from David Remnick, my boss at The New Yorker, is that you don't want to get too fussy and become an inhibited prima donna, trying to arrange things just so and hoping that the muse will alight. Better to approach the job like a job: get your butt in the seat and start typing. Inspiration will follow.
IAP: Do you joust with any of your editors or have a generally smooth working relationship. Did Doubleday editors want any change in direction with the Say Nothing story?
Keefe: I've been very fortunate to work with both the same magazine editor and the same book editor for over a decade. As with any relationship, you sometimes see things differently, but there is a huge store of trust and mutual respect in these relationships. Bill Thomas, my editor at Doubleday, grasped the emotional logic of Say Nothing from our first conversation about it, and was hugely supportive throughout. It's been wonderful, but also a bit surprising, to see this book about war crimes during The Troubles wind up on The New York Times Bestseller list. Bill always thought that despite the dark subject matter, this story had strong commercial potential, and I'm grateful and a bit gobsmacked to acknowledge, now, that he was right.
IAP: What is important about journalism; how to you respond to claims that journalists are ‘enemies of the people?’
Keefe: On the one hand, this is a tough time to be a journalist: newspapers and magazines are shuttering as the industry contracts, the President of the United States calls journalists "the enemy of the people," and fake news proliferates online. On the other hand, journalism has never been so important. I do what I do for fundamentally selfish reasons -- I love the process of reporting, of uncovering the truth and then working out the most compelling way to tell it. But I also believe that journalism is a fundamental good, and an indispensable check on power and corruption. These are scary times, in that respect, but exciting times, as well.
IAP: What do you think of Northern Ireland today and the potential of a hard border again between North/South after Brexit; we have your New York Times from March 31, 2019, do you have anything to add to those comments?
Keefe: I'm hugely worried about Brexit. As I worked on Say Nothing, I would tell people that it wasn't really a "history" book, because this history was so alive in Northern Ireland, and in some ways, I think this is the reason that Brexit happened: British voters forgot about The Troubles, they forgot that the Irish border was such a flashpoint.
I wrote a month ago in The New York Times that with tensions escalating, we might see a return to violence -- not the full-blown violence of The Troubles, but occasional incidents that could potentially escalate. It was deeply upsetting to get the news in April that the terrific young Irish journalist Lyra McKee had been shot in the streets of Derry. I don't have much faith in the political leadership in Northern Ireland at the moment, but my hope is that the people, who know how bad things have been in the past and do not want further violence, can manage to keep a lid on things, even as Brexit, inevitably, escalates tensions.
Keefe Says a Lot in Say Nothing, His Tragic Tale of Disappearance/Death
By: Martin Hintz
Special to The Irish American Post