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Book on conflict in Northern Ireland contains a plot twist that surprised the author


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Nearly 50 years ago in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a young mother hears a knock at the door. She's taken away, murdered and buried on a remote beach.

A new book about this murder case, set during the tragic conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from the '60s to the '90s, shows that the wounds of the past are still very raw.

William Brangham has the latest installment of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

William Brangham: When you're reading Patrick Radden Keefe's new book, you have to keep reminding yourself, this is not fiction. "Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland" begins with the famous 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville. She was the widowed mother of 10 kids living in Belfast.

McConville was just one of the roughly 3,500 people who lost their lives in what's known as the Troubles, the brutal decades-long sectarian conflict over control of Northern Ireland.

But "Say Nothing" is much more than a whodunit. It's also the story of the lingering traumas of political violence and how the past just refuses to stay in the past.

Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer at "The New Yorker," and he joins me now.


Patrick Radden Keefe: Thank you.

William Brangham: You write in the book how, when you were growing up and as a young adult, you weren't really that concerned with your own Irish history and heritage.

So, I'm just curious, how did you come to this particular story?

Patrick Radden Keefe: In the course of my day job at "The New Yorker," in 2013, I read an obituary in The New York Times of a woman named Dolours Price, who had been a member of the IRA.

And she had lived this fascinating, dramatic life. She came from an Irish Republican family, so she had the IRA on both sides of her family going back for generations. And she was the first woman to join the IRA as a really front-line soldier in the early 1970s.

William Brangham: She was really like a radicalized teen.

Patrick Radden Keefe: Yes, very much so, and joined the IRA when she was just out of her teens, along with her younger sister, and led a bombing campaign in London, went to jail, was on hunger strike, and went toe to toe with Margaret Thatcher.

She very close with Gerry Adams, the IRA commander who became a politician. And when he pivoted to the peace process, she fell out with him.

And so, for me, this seemed like an opportunity to look at the Troubles through the story of a handful of characters. One of them is Dolours Price. Another other is Jean McConville, who you mentioned.

William Brangham: The Jean McConville case was obviously a famous case in Northern Ireland for many, many years.

And her kids, the 10 children who were left behind when she was abducted, they are hugely responsible in keeping her story alive, right?

Patrick Radden Keefe: Yes.

So, this is part of what was fascinating to me about the case, is, you have so many victims of the Troubles. And on some level, I could have written a book like this about any of the thousands of cases in which people were killed. Each one of those was a tragedy for their families.

But the Jean McConville case was so stark, because she was a mother of 10 and she was a widow. So, with one squeeze of the trigger, 10 children were orphaned. And that tragedy kind of plays out through the generations.

There was a real culture of silence during the Troubles, a culture of fear and a tendency not want anybody to ask too many questions or to talk about...


William Brangham: This is what your title refers to.

Patrick Radden Keefe: The title of the book is "Say Nothing," which comes from a Seamus Heaney poem and a line, whatever you say, say nothing, which is a phrase that he used to kind of evoke that culture at the time.

And the McConville family ended up defying that culture of silence.

William Brangham: I'm not going to give away the ending of the book, of course, but you have this remarkable moment where you -- maybe stumble is not the right word, but it sort of feels like you stumble upon the identity of the killer.

What does that feel like, as a journalist, as a writer, to have that happen in the course of your work?

Patrick Radden Keefe: It was a -- an intense experience. I have never -- I have never had anything like that happen in years and years of reporting for "The New Yorker."

I hadn't even really been looking for the identity of the killer.

William Brangham: It doesn't seem like that was what you set out to do.

Patrick Radden Keefe: No.

Look, this was an old case. Jean McConville was killed four years before I was born. And part of what was so shocking to me -- I made seven trips over to Belfast during the course of four years of reporting this book.

And I would go over there and I'd be asking questions about this crime that happened nearly half-a-century ago. And people would slam the door in my face. It was the sense that it was still very dangerous and alive.

But I always assumed that the person who actually pulled the trigger was just a kind of anonymous gunman, not somebody who was on my screen. And then, quite by accident, very late in the game, I had been given two different clues by two different people, and they fit together in an uncanny way.

And they pointed at somebody who was already a character in the book, somebody who I had been aware of and the McConville children had been aware of, but nobody had realized was linked to this terrible crime.

William Brangham: So the story that you're telling here -- you touched on Gerry Adams. And he's such a central figure in this book.

He participated, as we say, in the peace process, and was a very important part of that process. And you write how that peace process left so many people in Northern Ireland feeling stranded, that victims felt like that they weren't getting justice, and perpetrators who were engaged in these war crimes felt like, what was this all about?

Patrick Radden Keefe: So, for people like Dolours Price, here's somebody who did terrible, terrible things. She planted bombs in public places. She targeted people for execution.

And the whole time, what she told herself was, I'm doing these things because we're going to drive the British out of Ireland, and you will have a united Ireland.


William Brangham: And that is success for us.

Patrick Radden Keefe: And that's success. But it also is the ends that will justify all these terrible means that we have undertaken.

And what happened was that when Gerry Adams and others around him ended up crafting the Good Friday Agreement, in which Irish Republicans and the IRA essentially said, we will tolerate the idea that the British will continue to have dominion over Northern Ireland, that felt to people like Dolours Price and others like a great betrayal, because there was this sense that, I did all these things because I thought, one day, I would get to a point where, in success, we could look back and say it was all worth it, but you have robbed me of that justification.

William Brangham: The book is "Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland."

Patrick Radden Keefe, thank you very much.

Patrick Radden Keefe: Thank you.

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