Review: Keefe’s Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Patrick Radden Keefe

Where to even start with this book? This is the story of the tragic murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was taken from her home in the middle of the night. It’s also the story of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, and the lives of those who fought in them. It’s the story of what happened to the soldiers (primarily on the Republican side) in the years that followed the Good Friday Agreement, how the troubles changed them, and in many cases, ruined them. It’s about a civil war that was fought, street by street, in a small city in the North of Ireland. It’s about journalists who promises they could never keep and about a families seeking closure after years of mystery.

At base, it’s a book about trauma and as someone who grew up surrounded by stories of Bobby Sands and the Easter Martyrs it was deeply affecting. Though not without its problems, this is probably the best book I’ve ever read on the Troubles, and trust me, I’ve read more than a few.

Recommended.

There Are Scenes He Describes That Still Haunt Me — Coogan’s On the Blanket

On the Blanket: The Story of the IRA’s Dirty Protest

Tim Pat Coogan

If Tim Pat Coogan isn’t the world’s greatest authority on the I.R.A., he’s definitely on the short list. A reporter for years and year with close ties to catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland, he has the sources and knowledge few others can claim. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very compelling writer. His magnum opus history of the IRA is (as the wags would say) exhaustive and exhausting. The better book for the general overview is, I think, Armed Struggle.

But this, Coogan’s books focused on the notorious “dirty protests” of the IRA prisoners is another story. Perhaps because the subject matter is so compelling, or perhaps because it’s a relative tight window of events, the book is captivating.

There are scenes he describes that still haunt me.

The dirty protests, for those not raised amongst the stories of such things, was a protest by imprisoned IRA members. It began with a refusal to wear prison uniforms as a protest against their being considered criminals, and not prisoners of war.  But it soon escalated into a bizarre and grotesque protest movement that found the prisoners wearing nothing but a blanket, and smearing their cells with their own feces and urine. Startling in its visceral-ness, and moving in the dedication these men and women showed, the dirty protest caught the attention of the world and soon, many of those “on the blanket” would take things to the next level – hunger strike giving us the martyred saint Bobby Sands and others.

I was raised in an Irish Catholic home with mixed feelings about the I.R.A. Christmas was a time for uncles talking tough, and others cautioning restraint. When I was a kid, the dirty protests were one of those things the grownups would drop in conversation, with references so vague, I couldn’t really catch them. It wasn’t till I was an adult that I’d understand the hold they had on some people’s emotions. You can see why. These men and women were ready to give their first their dignity, and eventually, their lives, for the cause. That’s a powerful thing.

It’s a fascinating chapter in Irish history and, while I read this book more than a decade ago, I recall Coogan telling it well.  You should read it to see what some are willing to sacrifice, and how they’ll go about doing it.

Recommended.

Two IRA men

Two IRA men “On the Blanket”

Review: Evan’s and Pollock’s Ireland for Beginners

Ireland for Beginners
Phil Evans and Eileen Pollock

A comic book telling of the history of Ireland. This is from the early days of the “beginners” series, when the books were still still crudely drawn and had a distinctly left political character. This one lets its politics show by being largely sympathetic to the Irish struggle for independence and towards those who used violence to help bring about that independence.

Recommended for the enthusiast.