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

“Watch the children until I come back,” Jean McConville tells her eldest son, Archie McConville. Those were the last words Archie would ever hear his mother speak.

Archie spent most of his life wondering whether he would ever see his mother again, growing more pessimistic with each passing day. Jean was a 38-year-old widow and mother of 10. She was taken by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in December of 1972. McConville’s remains wouldn’t be found until 2003, three decades after she was abducted from her Belfast home.

Patrick Radden Keefe is a bestselling author and award winning journalist who currently writes for The New Yorker. His articles also appear in other publications, most notably The New York Times Magazine. Keefe’s breakout book, Say Nothing, earned a spot on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books in 2019. Keefe also hosts the podcast Wind of Change which secured the number one spot on The Guardian’s top 20 podcasts of 2020

Recently, Keefe appeared in the bestsellers list again with his 2021 book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Keefe’s website lists all his books and numerous awards. 

Keefe’s 2018 bestseller, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory, tells two different stories of one event: the Troubles. 

The term “the Troubles” refers to the 30-year-long war in which the minority Irish Catholics rebelled against the protestant rule of Northern Ireland, a territory governed by the United Kingdom. Although Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland are familiar with British rule, it wasn’t until 1969 when British Military Police were deployed to Northern Ireland in response to increasing violence. 

Despite the continuation of political tensions, many refer to the Good Friday Agreement as the end of the Troubles. Signed on Friday, April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement created a new form of government in Northern Ireland where Unionists, those who support British rule, and Nationalists, those who detest British rule, share governing authority. 

Rather than focusing on the history of the Troubles, Keefe writes a more detailed account of how war-torn Northern Ireland affected the lives of those living within its borders. In an interview with Goldman Sachs, Keefe describes Say Nothing as a “story about these two very different women –– one of them a victim, one of them a perpetrator –– who are connected by this one act of violence.” 

The aforementioned McConville was a mother who seemingly had no involvement in the IRA’s fight for independence. Although there was never any objective confirmation, the IRA suspected McConville of offering information to the British. This suspicion led to her abduction and inevitable murder. 

On the other hand, Dolours Price was a key member of the IRA, carrying out some of the most significant attacks in IRA history. In 1973, Price led a group of IRA soldiers on a mission to carry out a car bombing in London. The mission was successful and became the first major IRA attack on British soil. Price and her sister were later captured and sentenced to serve time in a London jail. Claiming she was a prisoner of war, Price demanded to be sent back to Northern Ireland to finish her sentence. In protest of the British government’s refusal to grant her demand, Price and several other prisoners refused to eat. The strike gained media attention and put pressure on the British government. Price was so committed to the hunger strike, doctors in the jail had to violently force feed her for 167 of the 205 days of her strike. Price was revered in the IRA for her dedication and managed to only serve seven years of her original sentence of life imprisonment.

Price’s work as a member of the IRA is legendary among the militant group. In fact, her “outlandish, dramatic life” is what initially piqued Keefe’s interest in the matter.

The title of the book holds great significance in Irish culture. Not only was Keefe greeted with a “wall of silence” on his numerous trips to Belfast while conducting research, but the title Say Nothing derives from Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”

Perhaps the most relevant topic of the book is the Boston College Tapes. In 2001, Boston College launched the Belfast Project in an attempt to create an oral history of the Troubles. Despite the value of silence among the IRA, interviewers were able to gain information from many members of the IRA, including Price. 

Although the evidence the tapes provide pose no legal threats to some IRA members, the confessions gave closure to many Irish families. In fact, in an interview with Ed Moloney, Price confessed that she was involved in McConville’s murder. As a condition of participating, Price demanded the interview only be released after she died. Moloney upheld the agreement until Price’s death in 2013. 

Much of what Keefe wrote about in Say Nothing still affects modern Irish society. In an article for the New York Times reviewing Keefe’s book, Irish novelist Roddy Doyle claims, “the names of people, places, and events carry huge emotional clout that can still silence a room or start a fight.”

The consequences of Brexit and the resulting social unrest are eerily similar to the prelude of Northern Ireland’s three decade war. Doyle had his own thoughts about the situation brewing in Northern Ireland in connection to Keefe’s book, claiming, “Say Nothing is an excellent account of the Troubles; it might also be a warning.
In the opening pages of the book, Keefe includes a quote from author Viet Thanh Nguyen which sums up Keefe’s message in Say Nothing: “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” In this case of Northern Ireland, memory might be the match which reignites lethal flames.

Book Information

Title: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2018)

Author: Patrick Radden Keefe

Genre: Nonfiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: