In 1972, Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, was dragged from her home in Belfast, never to be seen alive again. Her disappearance is among the most notorious crimes of the violent, 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Her body was recovered in 2003, but many questions remain, which New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe seeks to answer in Say Nothing (Doubleday, Feb. 2019), his investigation into McConville’s death and the history of the Troubles.
You wrote about Jean McConville’s death, and the Troubles, for the New Yorker. What brought you to the story?
I first sparked to this story in 2013, when a woman named Dolours Price died and I read her obituary in the Times. She had lived an absurdly dramatic life: she came from a family with a long history in the Irish Republican Army and in the early 1970s, when she was scarcely out of her teens, she joined the IRA. She led a bombing mission to London, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, went on hunger strike, defied Margaret Thatcher, got out of prison and married an Irish movie star, and eventually disclosed the sensitive details of her IRA career in a secret oral history project at Boston College. Price had also played a role in one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles: the disappearance of Jean McConville. As it happened, my boss, David Remnick, read the same obituary, and soon I was off and running on a big article about Dolours Price and the Jean McConville case.
What made you decide to expand into a book-length investigation?
I spent 10 months on the piece, but even as I was finishing it, I felt as though there was a deeper, more profound story to be told about the ways in which the lives of a handful of characters intersected over the course of the Troubles.
In a conflict marked by such violence and so many disappearances, why is this crime so haunting?
Jean McConville was a widow and a mother of 10, so with one squeeze of the trigger, her killer orphaned 10 children. Even in the context of the Troubles, where so many lost their lives, this crime had assumed an iconic dimension.
What did you hope to achieve in writing this book, and how did those goals evolve?
I wanted to weave together the stories of both the victims and the perpetrators on either side of a terrible murder, and to tie in a series of other questions, about the uses of espionage and intrigue during the Troubles, and the fraught issue of how to make sense of the past. Say Nothing starts in 2013, with a couple of Belfast homicide detectives traveling to Boston College to seize the oral history transcripts of Dolours Price. They were investigating the murder of Jean McConville. So this one death from 1972 continues to reverberate, in a very real way, in the present day. In fact, what I did not realize when I embarked on this project is that I would end up discovering the identity of the individual who actually pulled that trigger in 1972—and identifying that person, for the first time, in the book.