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.