Columbia Forum

“The Troubles” in Mind

Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe ’99 seems able to tackle — in depth — any subject he chooses. As a staff writer for The New Yorker, he has covered the Sackler family’s role in the U.S. opioid crisis, the arrest of “El Chapo,” and TV producer Mark Burnett’s role in shaping President Trump’s political career, to name just a few. Several of his articles have been nominated for National Magazine Awards; he won for his 2014 feature “A Loaded Gun,” a portrait of mass shooter Amy Bishop. Thanks to the free rein afforded him by his legendary employer, “I don’t have a beat, which I love. I’m a generalist, so I can write about anything.” And what do his wide-ranging articles and books all have in common? “Secret worlds,” he says simply.

In Radden Keefe’s third and latest book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday, $28.95), the landscape he unveils is the murk-shrouded fen of the “Troubles” — the guerrilla war between Irish nationalists (usually Catholic) and unionists (usually Protestant) that roiled Belfast for three decades at the end of the last century. Radden Keefe examines that time through the lens of a single dramatic crime: the abduction of Jean McConville, a young widow with 10 children who “disappeared” in 1972. The mystery comes to stand for the covert violence done in the name of revolutionary progress, and the blood-drenched silence that still hangs over Northern Ireland. The book’s title comes from a famous Seamus Heaney poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” a phrase used in an IRA poster featuring a gunman in a balaclava that was posted on local walls.


Aided by new interviews and unpublished documents, Radden Keefe recounts the events behind McConville’s kidnapping, as well as London bombings and cross-border executions. As the years pass and the revolution matures, political maneuvering gradually replaces the violence. Some of Radden Keefe’s vivid characters — young and fiery IRA revolutionaries like glamorous “bomb girl” Dolours Price or guerilla commander Brendan Hughes — change from perpetrators to victims. As the years pass, they try in vain to blur guilty memories in a dense fog of liquor and prescription drugs.

The construction of Radden Keefe’s narrative is painstaking. Thread by thread, fact after fact, unexpected scenes and patterns emerge. He credits University Professor Simon Schama, the noted historian for whom he worked as an undergraduate research assistant, with teaching him how to narrate. It was Schama who influenced him to write in a way that appealed to a mass audience, with prose that was accurate but also seductive. He says his time at the College was “galvanizing,” an era when he came into his own intellectually.

After graduation, Radden Keefe dreamed of pursuing a writing career, but instead took side trips through academia, earning master’s degrees from Cambridge and the London School of Economics before moving on to Yale Law. His writing breakthrough came after 9-11, when he recognized that the “obscure” master’s thesis he had written about the NSA and global eavesdropping would now be especially relevant. Repped by a top agent, his first book, Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, was published in 2005. Radden Keefe was finally launched.

What still enthralls him about his chosen profession is that rare time he calls “the Eureka moment.” “You spend so much time digging and trying to make sense of a mystery,” he says meditatively. And then, perhaps, someone with whom he’s conversing will let slip an offhand piece of information, or a document will reveal a clue, shifting every plane in his mental picture of events.

Late in the process of writing Say Nothing, after years of spadework, one of these moments took place. While poring over an interview, Radden Keefe uncovered a lead to the identity of the person whom he thinks shot McConville. He explains in the book that the jolt of knowing made him sit bolt upright. “Suddenly I stumbled across a missing piece and could see, for the first time, the whole picture,” he says. “On the one hand, it was a dark moment: I was very conscious that this isn’t just a fun murder mystery — it’s the story of a war crime. On the other hand, just in terms of sheer discovery, it was the most exhilarating moment of my life as a writer.”

— Rose Kernochan BC’82

Albert’s Daughters

WHEN DOLOURS PRICE WAS a little girl, her favored saints were martyrs. Dolours had one very Catholic aunt on her father’s side who would say, “For God and Ireland.” For the rest of the family, Ireland came first. Growing up in West Belfast in the 1950s, she dutifully went to church every day. But she noticed that her parents didn’t. One day, when she was about fourteen, she announced, “I’m not going back to Mass.”

“You have to go,” her mother, Chrissie, said.

“I don’t, and I’m not going,” Dolours said.

“You have to go,” Chrissie repeated.

“Look,” Dolours said. “I’ll go out the door, I’ll stand at the corner for half an hour and say to you, ‘I’ve been to Mass.’ But I won’t have been to Mass.”

She was headstrong, even as a child, so that was the end of that. The Prices lived in a small, semidetached council house on a tidy, sloping street in Andersonstown called Slievegallion Drive. Her father, Albert, was an upholsterer; he made the chairs that occupied the cramped front room. But where another clan might adorn the mantelpiece with happy photos from family holidays, the Prices displayed, with great pride, snapshots taken in prisons. Albert and Chrissie Price shared a fierce commitment to the cause of Irish republicanism: the belief that for hundreds of years the British had been an occupying force on the island of Ireland — and that the Irish had a duty to expel them by any means necessary.

When Dolours was little, she would sit on Albert’s lap and he would tell her stories about joining the Irish Republican Army when he was still a boy, in the 1930s, and about how he had gone off to England as a teenager to carry out a bombing raid. With cardboard in his shoes because he couldn’t afford to patch the soles, he had dared to challenge the mighty British Empire.

A small man with wire-framed glasses and fingertips stained yellow by tobacco, Albert told violent tales about the fabled valor of long-dead patriots. Dolours had two other siblings, Damian and Clare, but she was closest with her younger sister, Marian. Before bedtime, their father liked to regale them with the story of the time he escaped from a jail in the city of Derry, along with twenty other prisoners, after digging a tunnel that led right out of the facility. One inmate played the bagpipes to cover the sound of the escape.

In confiding tones, Albert would lecture Dolours and her siblings about the safest method for mixing improvised explosives, with a wooden bowl and wooden utensils — never metal! — because “a single spark and you were gone.” He liked to reminisce about beloved comrades whom the British had hanged, and Dolours grew up thinking that this was the most natural thing in the world: that every child had parents who had friends who’d been hanged. Her father’s stories were so rousing that she shivered sometimes when she listened to them, her whole body tingling with goose bumps.

Everyone in the family, more or less, had been to prison. Chrissie’s mother, Granny Dolan, had been a member of the IRA Women’s Council, the Cumann na mBan, and had once served three months in Armagh jail for attempting to relieve a police officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary of his service weapon. Chrissie had also served in the Cumann and done a stretch in Armagh, along with three of her sisters, after they were arrested for wearing a “banned emblem”: little paper flowers of orange, white, and green, known as Easter lilies.

In the Price family — as in Northern Ireland in general — people had a tendency to talk about calamities from the bygone past as though they had happened just last week. As a consequence, it could be difficult to pinpoint where the story of the ancient quarrel between Britain and Ireland first began. Really, it was hard to imagine Ireland before what the Prices referred to simply as “the cause.” It almost didn’t matter where you started the story: it was always there. It predated the distinction between Protestant and Catholic; it was older than the Protestant church. You could go back nearly a thousand years, in fact, to the Norman raiders of the twelfth century, who crossed the Irish Sea on ships, in search of new lands to conquer. Or to Henry VIII and the Tudor rulers of the sixteenth century, who asserted England’s total subjugation of Ireland. Or to the Protestant emigrants from Scotland and the North of England who filtered into Ireland over the course of the seventeenth century and established a plantation system in which the Gaelic-speaking natives became tenants and vassals on land that had previously been their own.

But the chapter in this saga that loomed largest in the house on Slievegallion Drive was the Easter Rising of 1916, in which a clutch of Irish revolutionaries seized the post office in Dublin and declared the establishment of a free and independent Irish Republic. Dolours grew up hearing legends about the dashing heroes of the rising, and about the sensitive poet who was one of the leaders of the rebellion, Patrick Pearse. “In every generation, the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom,” Pearse declared on the post office steps.

Pearse was an inveterate romantic who was deeply attracted to the ideal of blood sacrifice. Even as a child, he had fantasies of pledging his life for something, and he came to believe that bloodshed was a “cleansing” thing. Pearse praised the Christlike deaths of previous Irish martyrs and wrote, a few years before the rising, that “the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.”

He got his wish. After a brief moment of glory, the rebellion was mercilessly quashed by British authorities in Dublin, and Pearse was court-martialed and executed by a firing squad, along with fourteen of his comrades. After the Irish War of Independence led to the partition of Ireland, in 1921, the island was split in two: in the South, twenty-six counties achieved a measure of independence as the Irish Free State, while in the North, a remaining six counties continued to be ruled by Great Britain. Like other staunch republicans, the Price family did not refer to the place where they happened to reside as “Northern Ireland.” Instead it was “the North of Ireland.” In the fraught local vernacular, even proper nouns could be political.

Before bedtime, their father liked to regale them with the story
of the time he escaped from a jail in the city of Derry.

A cult of martyrdom can be a dangerous thing, and in Northern Ireland, rituals of commemoration were strictly regulated, under the Flags and Emblems Act. The fear of Irish nationalism was so pronounced that you could go to jail in the North just for displaying the tricolor flag of the Republic. As a girl, Dolours donned her best white frock for Easter Sunday, a basket full of eggs under her arm and, pinned to her chest, an Easter lily, to commemorate the botched rebellion. It was an intoxicating ritual for a child, like joining a league of secret outlaws. She learned to cover the lily with her hand when she saw a policeman coming.

She was under no illusions, however, about the personal toll that devotion to the cause could extract. Albert Price never met his first child, an older daughter who died in infancy while he was behind bars. Dolours had an aunt, Bridie, one of Chrissie’s sisters, who had taken part in the struggle in her youth. On one occasion in 1938, Bridie had been helping to move a cache of explosives when it suddenly detonated. The blast shredded both of Bridie’s hands to the wrist, while disfiguring her face and blinding her permanently. She was twenty-seven when it happened.

Against the projections of her doctors, Aunt Bridie survived. But because she was so incapacitated, she would require care for the rest of her life. With no hands or eyes, she couldn’t change her clothes or blow her nose or do much else for herself without assistance. Bridie often stayed for stretches in the house on Slievegallion Drive. If the Price family felt pity for her, it was secondary to a sense of admiration for her willingness to offer up everything for an ideal. Bridie came home from the hospital to a tiny house with an outside toilet, no social worker, no pension — just a life of blindness. Yet she never expressed any regret for having made such a sacrifice in the name of a united Ireland.

When Dolours and Marian were little, Chrissie would send them upstairs with instructions to “talk to your aunt Bridie.” The woman would be stationed in a bedroom, alone in the gloom. Dolours liked to tiptoe as she ascended the stairs, but Bridie’s hearing was extra sharp, so she always heard you coming. She was a chain-smoker, and from the age of eight or nine, Dolours was given the job of lighting Bridie’s cigarettes, gently inserting them between her lips. Dolours hated this responsibility. She found it revolting. She would stare at her aunt, scrutinizing her face more closely than you might with someone who could see you doing it, taking in the full horror of what had happened to her. Dolours was a loquacious kid, with a child’s manner of blurting whatever came into her head. Sometimes she would ask Bridie, “Do you not wish you’d just died?”

Taking her aunt’s stumpy wrists into her own small hands, Dolours stroked the waxen skin. They reminded her, she liked to say, of “a pussycat’s paws.” Bridie wore dark glasses, and Dolours once watched a tear descend from behind the glass and creep down her withered cheek. And Dolours wondered: How can you cry if you have no eyes?

From SAY ANYTHING by Patrick Radden Keefe. Copyright © 2019 by Patrick Radden Keefe. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.