I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland, enough to have what I consider to be extended family there. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to stories (Irishmen tell stories as well as any Bush pilot or Alaska state trooper, which is saying something). The thing about Ireland is best exemplified by the Faulker quote (which Keefe himself resurrects in the text), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Those words encapsulate my experience on that lovely little island in spades. My Irish talk about Michael Collins as if he’d died the day before, they’ve still got a picture of him on the wall, and they are to a person ambivalent as hell about reuniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of.
This book explains why. It is a history of the Troubles, that hideous, bloody conflict between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998. It is told through the lives of two women: Jean McConville, Protestant, widow of a Catholic man, mother of ten, and one of the disappeared, and Dolours Price, a child of rabid republicans who went on to become a member of the Provos (Provisional Irish Republican Army) and a loyal follower of IRA/Sein Fein/whatever (your brain will swim from the effort of trying to disentangle all the factions) leader Gerry Adams.
In December 1972, masked intruders break into Jean McConville’s home in Belfast and literally rip her from the arms of her clinging, crying children. They never see her again. Decades later, after the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA admits they killed her for informing on the IRA to the British Army, then occupying Northern Ireland, and reveal the location of her body.
After she was kidnapped, her underage children were put into care, if you can call it that (you can’t), and which was just another part of the continuing nightmare the family suffered through from that night on. One of the worst parts of this story is that they still live in Northern Ireland, they know the people who kidnapped their mother, and they still see them.
…some of the children could no longer remember what their mother had looked like, apart from the one surviving photo of her, but they still recognized the faces of the people who took her away. Once, Helen took her children to McDonald’s and found herself staring at one of the women who she knew had taken her mother. The woman was there with her own family. She shouted at Helen to leave her alone…On another occasion, Michael climbed into the back of a black taxi on the Falls Road, only to look up and see that the driver ws one of Jean’s abductors.
Dolours, in the meantime, along with her sister Marian, do all the dirty work Gerry Adams dreams up for them, including planting four bombs in London. They are caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. They go on a hunger strike, nearly die, are more or less pardoned by Margaret Thatcher, and go home to Ireland. Dolours there lives a glamorous lifestyle, albeit with the physical consequences of hunger striking (not pretty) as well as a steadily growing sense of disillusionment over the cause (and the leader) for which she committed so many unforgivable acts. Which is of course far too late to do Jean McConville any good, and it doesn’t get the British out of Northern Ireland, either.
Gerry Adams, meanwhile, denies he was ever a member of the IRA and doesn’t know a thing, not a thing about any of the war crimes committed in his name.
<i>Dumpng bodies in unmarked graves was not an accident. It was a policy.</i>
A policy Adams enforced. He goes on to a storied career in Parliament, and while arrested for Jean’s murder is never charged or tried. (‘Battle for freedom wherever you can/And if not shot or hang’d you’ll be knighted.’ Here’s hoping the McConvilles are spared that.)
The reason the IRA killed informers was as a lesson to others not to do the same. It didn’t seem to be all that effective a deterrent. It was later estimated that 1 in 4 IRA members informed on their own to the British, including two of their chief executioners. There is, however, no shred of evidence to prove that Jean McConville was an informer, although, as Keefe writes
<i>Of course, even if one were to concede, for the sake of argument, that McConville was an informer, there is no moral universe in which her murder and disappearance should be justified.</i>
The British Army, in cahoots with the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, aka the local cops), only exacerbated the conflict, behaving as badly or worse than the Provos.
“We were not there to act like an army unit,” one former British officer who served in the MRF later acknowledged. “We were there to act like a terror group.”
Keefe is a good storyteller himself and a world-class researcher. He says it took him four years to research this account and to discover who killed Jean McConville. Given that the title of the book pretty much exemplifies life as it was and sometimes still is lived in Northern Ireland
<i>”O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a poem about the troubles called “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”</i>
that is something of a minor miracle. All his sources are meticulously cited, and you close the book knowing that you’ve come as close as anyone ever has to reading a definitive history of that awful time. Jean and Dolours were products of that time and place. One was a victim, the other a villain, but Keefe never forgets that they were both human beings, with all the wonderful, awful complexity that entails. A riveting read.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.