I recalled the soggy Celtic romanticism of my youth while reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s astonishing new book, Say Nothing — not because the book is remotely soggy or romantic, but because to this day so many Irish Americans retain a simplistic, binary view of the auld sod. Subtitled “A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” Keefe’s sweeping, switchblade-sharp narrative explores the terror and abiding grief at the heart of sectarian violence. To his credit, Keefe doesn’t attempt a traditional history of Ireland’s woes. Instead, in Say Nothing he has produced a nonfiction masterpiece about, in his own words, “how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause” and how individuals and societies make sense of political violence “once they have passed through the crucible.”
I spoke with Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a National Magazine Award winner, about how an American writer approaches a topic as fraught as the Troubles; what he makes of the uncanny silence at the heart of so much of Irish life; and whether Brexit might offer, at long last, an unlikely path to a united Ireland — or spark a new era of conflict. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
BENEDICT COSGROVE: I’d like to begin at the end, if that’s okay. You mention in the last chapter of the book that while you grew up in a family with Irish roots, you could never relate to “the clover-and-Guinness clichés” of that world. Did your association with Ireland, or with your own Irishness, grow more intense or more personal when writing Say Nothing?
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: I think so. Yes. But at the same time, I don’t know that it became more intense in a way that ties specifically to my Irishness — if that makes sense.
It does. Sort of. Can you go a bit further?
Sure. My last book, The Snakehead, was based in New York’s Chinatown, and specifically among Chinatown’s Fujianese population. I go back there all the time, I have friendships there, and there’s always going to be a part of me that feels tied to that community. The connection that I feel to Ireland, North and South, is probably more akin to that, where a place just really gets under your skin.
But if there was one thing I knew intuitively while growing up — and this was reinforced as I worked on the book — it’s that the Irish and Irish Americans are fundamentally different. There’s a tendency among Irish Americans to want to collapse those worlds and think that we’re all the same. But in reality, we have utterly different lived experiences.
I want to ask you about the structure of Say Nothing. It moves back and forth in time, from the present to the 1960s to the Easter Rebellion of 1916 to the 1990s, and you tell the tale through the lens of four figures: Jean McConville, a Protestant mom who was “disappeared” from her home in Belfast in 1972; two IRA foot soldiers, a man and a woman; and Gerry Adams, the longtime leader of Sinn Féin. It’s a dynamic narrative, but never confusing. Did you map it out beforehand, or did the structure of the book emerge while you wrote?
I’m glad to hear you say that about the dynamism, because that was very much the intention. Look, there are a lot of great books about the Troubles, but many of them are very, very dense. They can be encyclopedic in a way that is tough-going for the casual reader.
Narrative momentum was a kind of North Star for me. I wanted to keep the reader turning pages while I was presenting lots of information, and I realized that structure was the answer. I’m a fiendish outliner. I outline like crazy. As it happened, in 2016 I got a fellowship to go to Italy for three weeks, without my kids — the longest I’d been away from them in their lives. I cracked the structure of the book while I was there. I didn’t actually write a page of prose. All I did was think, “How many chapters? Where do you come into the chapter? Where do you go out? How do you arrange events in such a way that they’re clear but convey the complexity of the story?”
I made lots of amendments later. But the skeletal structure, down to the rough number of chapters, was created in Italy. It was three weeks, 50 to 60 hours a week, of sitting there arranging information and figuring it out.
Let’s talk about Gerry Adams, because he plays such a central role in the book — even though he refused to speak with you. He is a towering figure in the Irish imagination, and one of the most divisive. What was it like writing about him, and hearing from people who have known him for years, but not being able to talk to the man himself?
Gerry Adams is an incredibly compelling personality, and the contradictions of his personality are part of what drew me to this story. I didn’t get to spend time with him, but easily half of the big pieces that I’ve done for The New Yorker are write-arounds where I don’t have access to the central figure. So I’m not cowed by the prospect of writing about somebody who won’t give me access. And with Adams, of course, I had the benefit of the interviews that he’s given to other journalists over the years. He’s also written at length about his own life.
The role Adams has played in Irish history, and where people come down on that question, is a thread that runs through the book. He led Sinn Féin for three decades, and today he has that nice gray beard and has that grandfatherly vibe. But plenty of people consider him a sociopath, a terrorist, even a traitor to the Republican cause. How is it possible to reconcile that? Or can we?
From the start I felt that here was a character that a novelist would be hard-pressed to invent. What I wanted to do was be comprehensive enough in my reporting that I could bring Adams to life and make readers feel like they knew him, to the extent that it’s possible to know him — but also to lay out the contradictions and allow readers to make up their own minds.
For many people, Gerry Adams is a saint. Some people I’ve known for years, and have high regard for, have made the case to me that he’s an Irish Nelson Mandela and is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. Then there are those who see him as the Antichrist — a hated, hated figure. I wanted to embrace the nuance and three-dimensionality of everyone who appears in the book. For people who have skin in the game when it comes to Ireland and its future, that might mean I’ve presented an unsatisfying portrayal of Adams, the IRA, the Ulster paramilitary forces, and all the rest, because none of it is unremittingly positive or negative. With Adams, especially, that will be vexing for some people.
Right. One minute you see the risks he has taken in his life and the political moves he’s made, and he seems brilliant and savvy. Seen in a different light, his whole career appears craven and self-serving. That prismatic nature is vexing in the extreme. But that’s his genius, too.
It is. You know, writers are sometimes drawn to subjects in whom there’s a great deal of moral clarity. This is not one of those projects. Part of what I’m trying to show is messy reality. So the degree to which you’re feeling one way about someone in one chapter, and then something rather different the next — to me, that’s a sign of getting it right.
In the book and in an opinion piece you recently wrote about Brexit, you point out that for so many people in Northern Ireland, history is not past. In fact, events that happened decades or even centuries ago are discussed as if they happened last week. Why is history, as you put it in the book, “alive and dangerous” in Northern Ireland?
Part of the problem is that there has not been a reckoning with the past, the way there has been in other places that have seen sectarian violence. One explanation is that the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, for all of its virtues, didn’t come up with a mechanism for how to look at the past. The parties who agreed to that deal basically punted on that question, because there was no way they could have come up with an arrangement that anybody would agree to.
I had a conversation with a guy who had been a Republican prisoner, and had also spent a lot of time in South Africa. I asked why Northern Ireland never had a South Africa–type truth-and-reconciliation process, and he laughed and said, “Well, in South Africa, there was a winner.”
But there might be something deeper going on. The book is called Say Nothing, and there is certainly a culture of silence in Ireland and among Irish Americans. It’s funny, because for all of the clichés about the Irish being chatterboxes, the gift of the gab and all the rest, silence is very much a part of that world. You see it in the context of the Troubles, and you see it in the abuse scandals in the Catholic church, where so many people had inklings — or hard knowledge — of the awful things that were going on, but somehow thought it best not to speak up.
A friend of mine, a political editor in Ireland, suggests that this might have started as a social instinct, going back hundreds of years, when large families were crammed into small dwellings, and not discussing certain things could keep the peace, in a way. He’s arguing that this silence may have to do with the anthropology or sociology of Ireland. But I don’t want to get too culturally essentialist here. Other cultures have secrets, too, of course. Still, I think there’s an overlay of Irish culture that allows for certain things to go unspoken.
Let’s talk about Brexit. Ireland’s future and the Irish border are essential parts of that endless conversation in the United Kingdom. Can Ireland survive Brexit? Or could Brexit be the best thing that’s ever happened for those who dream of a united Ireland?
I think in the near-term Brexit is likely to be a disaster. The integration of North and South in terms of trade over the past few decades has been so complete that any kind of divorce could be cataclysmic. Beyond economics, the hard reinscription of the border is just a very, very dangerous prospect.
Do you tie that danger to the unresolved grievances we discussed earlier?
Yes. I do. As I was working on Say Nothing, I would sometimes talk to people, in the United States and the United Kingdom, who assumed I was writing a history book. “That’s kind of all over, right? Everything’s great now.” And I would remind them that there is still a lot of tension, and the memories are still fresh. Every day there’s a story in the papers in Northern Ireland about something that happened 30 years ago, and how it should or shouldn’t be dealt with.
Before I ever heard of Brexit as a concept, I was aware of a kind of amnesia about the Troubles and, specifically, the problem of the Irish border. And then you get Brexit, which in a sense is that amnesia taken to its logical extreme. So I go back and forth on how worried to be. I tend to be optimistic. I don’t want to adopt the most alarmist scenarios about a real return to violence. But it’s also impossible for me to imagine a scenario in which reintroducing the border won’t exacerbate tensions that already exist.
Watch and hear Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney read a stanza from his great poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” (“Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us.”)
Benedict Cosgrove has worked as a writer and editor, online and off, since the mid-1990s. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.