Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe*****

The Irish have fought against oppressive British rule for centuries, but for many the most interesting—and for some of us, emotionally charged—period is that known as The Troubles, which unfolded in 1969 as Irish youth, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the Civil Rights movement in the United States, sought to carve out some rights for working people living in the North of Ireland and concluded in 1997 following the ceasefire agreement struck between Sinn Fein, which was then the political arm of the revolutionary Irish Republican Army, and the British government. Keefe’s intense, compelling narrative is the most readable that I’ve seen, and the revelations it holds affected me more deeply than any literature I’ve read since I began reviewing books five years ago. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, which I read free and early. You can buy it tomorrow, February 26, 2019. 

The history unfolds in three sections and is bookended by the quest of Jean McConville’s family to find her body and if possible, to learn who killed her and why. It’s an interesting choice given the number of dead the conflict produced, many of whom have never been found and identified, but the mystery and the ambiguity of her activities—was she merely a mother of ten as her children say, or working quietly for the IRA, or a double agent working for the British—is emblematic of the tension and secrecy maintained on both sides. We begin with Jean’s abduction in the first section, titled “The Clear, Clean, Sheer Thing,” move on to the meatiest and most tragic part of the struggle, “Human Sacrifice,” in which young hunger strikers and many others die, and conclude with “A Reckoning,” in which the ceasefire is signed and many Irish people that were involved in the guerrilla war are held accountable—and as usual, the British are not. The entire thing is carefully documented. 

Keefe notes that during the 1980s there was a good deal of “ambient” support for the IRA in the US, and this I know to be true. I participated in fund raisers for humanitarian aid to the six counties during that time, and I attended a presentation by Bernadette Devlin, an iconic leader of the struggle who for some reason barely bears mention in this work. It’s my only complaint about the book. 

The middle section left me shaking an in tears. I had not read Brendan Hughes’s claim about the deaths of the hunger strikers and the role almost certainly played by Gerry Adams, and it was a week before I could pick the book up again. I am still raw from it. I can recall seeing headlines in 1981 when Bobby Sands died, and at the time I was a practicing Catholic. When I saw the news, I picked up the phone and requested a special mass be held for him at my parish in the Midwestern city where I lived then. The parish priest thought it was a lovely idea but he needed the approval of the bishop. The bishop squashed it like it was a bug. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. 

The final section discusses The Belfast Project, a series of interviews done under the promise that they would not see the light of day until the subjects were dead and buried. The names of the interviewees were coded as a further layer of protection, and the whole thing was stored in the vaults of the Burns Library at Boston College, where it was believed that the British government would never lay hands on it. Never say never. 

This book is a masterpiece. The writer is a journalist on the staff of The New Yorker, and this project took four years of steady effort by the author and his assistants, and a good deal of travel as well. The documentation is meticulous. Nevertheless, there are a number of details that are impossible to nail down, and the book’s title gives the reason for this. The only way to be sure a secret remains a secret is to keep your mouth shut, and that’s precisely what most of those involved in the struggle have done. A great many details that could doubtless condemn large numbers of working class Irish to lengthy prison sentences are buried with the bones of those that could have told. And although the author doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s obvious from the fate of the interview tapes that there is never any other guarantee of confidentiality; the code of silence still held to by the survivors of The Troubles has been all the protection that Irish participants have ever had. The vow to keep information private was decimated time and time again by the horrifying physical and psychological torture on the innocent and culpable alike by British jailers, none of whom will ever be brought to justice. 

Those that didn’t follow this fight in real time will likely not be as shattered by the things this book holds as I was. The author paints a vivid scenario—imagine coming home and noting that there’s a British soldier in uniform, gun drawn, in the rhododendrons in the front yard, for example—and peppers the account with well-chosen quotes. The slow deaths of Irish youth held in virtual dungeons are hard to read about, but then, war stories usually are. It’s fascinating stuff, though but necessarily material for bedtime, depending on your level of sensitivity. 

Highly recommended. 

Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor *****

collectedstoriesWhat an unpretentious little book, and who would have dreamed it would be so full of first-rate short stories? Mr. O’Connor wrote from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and may be one of the finest writers Ireland has produced, which is saying a great deal. Thank you and thank you again to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the ARC. It’s been a real joy to read!

O’Connor’s early life was marked by alcoholism and domestic violence, and he tosses these into the stewpot of his stories that is so congenial, so resonant, that we little know the pain he went through before he wrote them. The quality of the writing is consistent throughout, which is even more remarkable given its length, which clocks in at over 700 pages! At times poignant and wrenching, and at other times witty and a little naughty, though never breaching the bounds of good taste, Mr. O’Connor delivers.

His protagonists are ordinary people, all of them in Ireland. They live in small villages for the most part; some are wives and mothers, some are brave young lads; there are noble priests and those who are not as noble, but all of them are believable and create an instant bond with the reader. His overarching theme is to remind us, in his folksy, understated way, that all of us are human. He lets us know that whether we believe in God or whether we don’t, for the moment we are all each other has.

O’Connor lived through revolutionary times, and was no stranger to the Irish struggle, which is near and dear to my own heart. His famous opening story, Guest of the Nation, focuses on a card game that takes place between Republican soldiers and their prisoners. Its blend of the ordinary with the wrenching emotion that ran high at such a time makes it immortal. The soldiers’ ambivalence and humanity lends it much of its authenticity.

One of my own favorite quotes appears early in the collection in a story titled “The Luceys”, in which Charlie visits his uncle, a priest. Charlie thinks his uncle is eccentric and cannot fathom how the man thinks:

“One conversation in particular haunted him for years as showing the dangerous state of lunacy to which a man could be reduced by reading old books.”

May we all suffer similarly!

I loved the references he made to “a gang of women” outside of Mrs. Roche’s house in “The Drunkard”. I also laughed at his reference to “…the mood of disillusionment that follows Christmas”. And in “Darcy in the Land of Youth”, I liked how Mick traveled to work in England and “He found the English very queer as they were supposed to be, people with a great welcome for themselves and very little for anyone else.” Here I would hasten to add that I am descended of both Irish and English, though I tend to lay claim more to the former than the latter; Mr. O’Connor’s gift is in wryly touching upon the cultural nuances that sometimes lead to misunderstandings, and others to genuine disagreement, culture or no.

I could continue quoting marvelous passages, but I think it is better for you to ferret out some of your own, and let’s face it, if I haven’t sold you on this book right now, I never will.

Except for this one last bit, which is really a commentary on all strong short story collections: this time of year, many of us will have guests in our homes. If yours is a family that reads, you may choose to set something out in your guest room, and short stories are especially lovely for them to have, because whereas one may not finish a great thick book during a visit over the holidays, one can pick up a short story at bedtime and finish that story before turning out the light.

And the glorious thing is, guests don’t expect a book that is left for their perusal to be brand new; they can enjoy a well-thumbed book without worrying if they inadvertently crease a corner. Right now, you have the chance to get the book for yourself, finish it, and then leave it for company.

That’s a good thing to do, because in the end, all we have really is one another.

Rebel Streets, by Tom Malloy *****

This is the first novel I have read about what are referred to in Belfast as “The Troubles”. The protagonist, Jimmy Fitzgerald,is a Catholic youth and a member of the IRA. Virtually all the young men in the Catholic (i.e., working class)neighborhood there belong. And in the opening scene, Jimmy is being tortured. He is being treated in ways that the Geneva Convention was created to prevent, yet it doesn’t. He is a “terrorist”, and so he can be treated any way they like, proof or no proof. The scene goes so far as to have him placed in a helicopter after the beating is over and he has regained consciousness. They drop him from the helicopter…and he goes only ten feet before he hits the ground. He is broken. After spitting in their faces, after beating after beating in which he will only swear at his interrogators or say “I love Ireland”, he is broken. He only wants to live, and to be gone, and we might hope that the information he gives them is false…but it isn’t. He gives up safe houses. He gives up friends. He does it with the condition that his closest friend since boyhood, Louis Duffy, will be spared.

When it’s over, he is assigned to be an informant.He must meet with Detective Ian McDonald, whose perspective we also gain later in the book. He is outwardly an ordinary man, a man who can look himself in the mirror and like what he sees every morning, one who is responsible for enforcing the law, upholding order, and stopping the Irish attacks on the British troops that make their lives hell. He has a wife and a little boy he loves, and he thinks that he is a good person. Some might see him as merely cynical. I went into this book with a bias, and I see a monster there. I hope that others who read this book will think so, too.

Catholics are considered a lower class, Finian dirt on the floor of Belfast. We learn early on of a job Jimmy and his “Da” were given cleaning out the coal cellar of a Protestant family. The family, clearly enjoying a much higher standard of living, is converting to gas central heat, but they warn Jimmy and his Da that they have inventoried and expect everything to be there when they are done. Jimmy and his father are horrified and seething at the suggestion that they might walk off with their one-day-employer’s coal in their pockets. This kind of rage beats in the hearts of most native Irish (as opposed to the Orangemen imported generations ago by the Brits to give some credence to the lie that Belfast is majority Protestant).

Later, much later in the story, after British cops have kicked in doors all over the neighborhood looking for IRA members, after the family furniture in one residence (and we can infer, many others) has been shredded, mirrors broken, the family’s only television set smashed, an Irish mother turns to her small son and asks, “Who was it put your Grandpa in prison?”
The lad replies,”The Brits”.
“The Brits.”
“Aye…Who wants to get your Da and lock him away?”
“The Brits.”
“Why did they do this to ye?”
“Because I’m Irish.”
“An’ who is it that hates the Irish, who is it robs the Irish, who is it murders the Irish?”
“The Brits.”
(first person, quoting author here)”She took his head in both her hands to whisper, “An’ who will protect yer mother from the Brits when he’s a strong young man?”
“I will.”
“Because I’m Irish.”
The mother calls her son a “wee man” and a “brave Belfast boy”.

This novel spoke to me deeply. I was a supporter of Sinn Fein during the hunger strikes of the 80’s, and I, along with many other Irish Americans of whatever generation, gave money for humanitarian aid. Two-thirds of the funds that paid for Irish independence came from Irish American pockets. The same has held true for the cause of making Ireland free and united once more.

Not everyone will appreciate this novel as I did. The IRA has had press that likens them to serial killers when “The Troubles” took place, and very few rejoinders sent to large newspapers ever saw the light of day.

But if your heart beats for one united Ireland, or if you enjoy one helluva ride and you are neutral or undecided on the Irish Question, then buy this book. Read it. You haven’t read anything like it lately, I promise.