Blake Snow

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Book Review: Say Nothing by Patrick Keefe is riveting, ★★★★☆ writing

Earlier this month, I finished a gripping non-fiction and superbly reported book on the terrorist civil war that devoured Northern Ireland from 1969—1998 (aka The Troubles).

Written by Patrick Keefe, Say Nothing is a shocking, deplorable, and sometimes asinine account of two groups of Christians who looked identical, spoke in the same English accent, and only disagreed upon which country they did or should belong to (i.e. United Kingdom versus Ireland). That disagreement, amazingly, caused them to terrorize and kill each other to the tune of 3,500 people, most of which were innocent civilians. To get an idea of how crazy the conflict was, the Irish Republican Army (which was largely a guerrilla group of terrorists) would sometimes bomb civilian buildings, alert civilians a couple hours before the bombing so no one would get hurt, then absolve themselves of any “accidental deaths” because they weren’t responsible for any civilians that didn’t get the message to stay away.

That about sums up the logic behind The Troubles, which thankfully ended two decades ago. But man are the stories from the past as thought-provoking as they are tragic. May history never repeat itself. Four stars out of five. 

These were my favorite passages:

  • “We beat them with stones at first, and they had guns. Our people had to go and get guns. Wouldn’t they have been right stupid people to stand there? Our people got shotguns at first and then got better weapons. And then the British, who were supposed to protect us, came in and raided our homes. What way could you fight? So you went down and you blew them up. That was the only thing left. If they hadn’t interfered with us, there probably would be no Irish Republican Army today.”
  • “If we get a united socialist Ireland,” Albert Price concluded, “then maybe it will all have been worth it.”
  • “It was all rather sweet, really,” Steele later observed. “They wanted to depict themselves as representing an army and not a bunch of terrorists.”
  • In their effort to bring about peace, the negotiators had focused on the future rather than the past. The accord provided for the release of paramilitary prisoners, many of whom had committed atrocious acts of violence.
  • Patrick Pearse once wrote that “the man who in the name of Ireland accepts as a ‘final settlement’ anything less by one iota than separation from England is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime against the Irish nation…that it were better that he had not been born.” This kind of absolutism formed the marrow of republican mythology: the notion that any acceptance of incremental change was tantamount to betrayal.
  • Once, Helen took her children to McDonald’s and found herself staring at one of the women who she knew had taken her mother. The woman was there with her own family. She shouted at Helen to leave her alone.
  • Scappaticci would ultimately be linked to as many as fifty murders. If a spy takes fifty lives but saves some larger number, can that countenance his actions? This kind of logic is seductive, but perilous. You start out running numbers in your head, and pretty soon you are sanctioning mass murder.
  • In fact, there were more peace walls now than there had ever been at the height of the Troubles. These towering structures maintained some degree of calm by physically separating the city’s populations, as if they were animals in a zoo.
  • Tribalism and its trappings remained so potent in Belfast that the various sides could not agree on how to govern the display of regalia. When the Belfast City Council voted, in 2012, to limit the number of days that the Union Jack could be raised above City Hall, protesters tried to storm the building, and riots erupted throughout the city, with unionist demonstrators throwing bricks and petrol bombs.
  • Must it be the case that how one perceives a tragedy will forever depend on where one sits? The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed that, “for the majority of the human species, and for tens of thousands of years, the idea that humanity includes every human being on the face of the earth does not exist at all. The designation stops at the border of each tribe, or linguistic group, sometimes even at the edge of a village.”