In the summer of 2003, five years after the Good Friday Agreement ended the thirty-year bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, a man walking on Shelling Hill Beach spotted something in the sand—“a snatch of fabric,” as Patrick Radden Keefe puts it in his haunting book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. It was not just fabric, the man would discover, but clothing around a body. Over thirty years after her disappearance by the Irish Republican Army, Jean McConville—who had been at the time of her kidnapping a poor widow trying to raise ten children alone in West Belfast—had resurfaced.
The first time I heard this story, I felt it was instantly a haunting emblem of how the Troubles hadn’t quite ended. How the past, as Faulkner once wrote, is not dead, nor is it ever really past. No matter the incredible work of the peacemakers who signed the 1998 Agreement—and indeed, despite a series of further peace agreements in Northern Ireland since—the dead have not totally disappeared. Never officially mourned by the state, so many victims (on all sides of the conflict) and their families never felt the peace the politicians claimed as their great achievement. Just why there was no truth commission or even a truth process (other than a scattered set of initiatives, including the hampered Historical Enquiries Team under the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland) is itself a long story that reveals how perverse and nasty the conflict in Northern Ireland had become.
That is, in part, the deep story of Say Nothing, Keefe’s nonfiction account of what happened to McConville, who was responsible, and why the truth has been so difficult to discover. Developed from his New Yorker article, “Where the Bodies Are Buried,” Say Nothing borrows its title from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” and explores the toxic consequences of silences and silencing, with storytelling style that befits true crime fiction.
Northern Ireland has been a place ruled as much by silence as by the British. The silence of the Irish seems to have many possible sources. Like a lake fed by multiple streams, Ireland’s silence may have grown from British oppression, from the shame of being ruled, from cultural and religious institutions, and a culture of fear where paramilitaries ruled. After asking about his mother’s whereabouts, Michael McConville, the young son of the disappeared Jean, was taken by members of the youth wing of the IRA and stabbed in the leg. According to Keefe, they warned him, “Don’t talk to anyone about what happened to your mother.” McConville can’t escape the fact that he still lives in West Belfast, and occasionally runs into people whom he recognizes as the unmasked kidnappers who came to their apartment that fateful night in 1972. Whatever you say, say nothing.
If Keefe’s original story centers Jean McConville’s disappearance, Say Nothing dilates far beyond this particular atrocity to explore the widening layers of violence, complicity, and silence that have made telling the truth about the Troubles so difficult. Dolours Price, one of the Price sisters notorious for their involvement in 1973 IRA bombings in London, acts as sort of doppleganger to McConville. Price was a fierce and glamorous Irishwoman who, in response to her own predicament as a minority, attempts to bomb her way to freedom. She cuts a fascinating figure.“I’ve always been in politics, even when I had a gun.”
A true believer in the cause of Irish Republicanism to rid the island of British control, Price grows disenchanted with the movement and those in charge of it. Her ire is directed particularly at the charismatic but evasive Gerry Adams, the longtime leader of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. Adams’ refusal to admit his part in the IRA triggers Price, suffering from the effects of her sacrifices to the movement (and, undoubtedly, PTSD), to begin writing public letters against Adams. (The local joke is that the only person who doesn’t know Gerry Adams was in the IRA is Gerry Adams.)
Throughout, Keefe has a knack for narrative pacing, unfolding further and further perversities typical of the insurgency and counterinsurgency campaigns of the Troubles. The people in Say Nothing are fascinating and complex and deeply human. Of course, Keefe’s prodigious talent is not the sole cause, as the country is filthy with intriguing characters and stories. Anyone who has spent more than a weekend in Northern Ireland recognizes the way in which the people vibrate with personality and clothe themselves in legend. Given that the country is in fact so small (the size of Indiana), and yet so divided, perhaps the reticence of locals is a strategy of self-protection, the source from which so many myths and misconceptions flow.
One of the only weaknesses of the brilliantly told Say Nothing is that it sidelines Protestant Unionist characters and narratives. In this way, Say Nothing is akin to the classic 1990s depictions of the Troubles like In the Name of the Father and The Crying Game, which invite the viewer to partake in the intoxicating power of Irish Republicanism, only to wake up with a hangover over the consequences of revolutionary violence. These depictions, while unforgettable, make it seem as if the War (and for the Republican movement, it was always a war) were only between the Irish and the British government.
The fact that the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community gets disappeared by these narratives, paradoxically, plays into that community’s siege mentality—its fear that they will be removed or massacred by vengeful Irish Catholics, despite having lived and settled in the north of Ireland hundreds of years ago. After all, when the Home Rule Bill reached the UK Parliament in 1912, initiating the process of allowing Ireland to have a modicum of self-governance, nearly half a million Protestants signed the Ulster Covenant in protest. At least one of the signatures was said to have been done in blood. Since the Good Friday Agreement were signed, many loyalists have argued that the loyalist community in the working class neighborhoods of Belfast—already gutted by the global economic trends that shuttered the shipbuilding industry—actually lost the most from the peace, and may yet present the biggest obstacle to ongoing conflict transformation.
I’ve been traveling to Northern Ireland since 2011 as part of John Carroll University’s peacebuilding program, which brings students to encounter the players at the heart of the Troubles—those who fought and suffered on all sides—and those who have been building the peace. I’d come to the country primed by the Republican narrative of Irish oppression and rebellion. After all, my Irish-American grandmother disavowed her Irish heritage entirely, as if it were slightly shameful, averring only that Ireland was a sad place. I always wondered why, until I discovered while researching the family that her grandparents had come to America in the 1840s, fleeing the Famine. Her silence about the past, and the arrogance and injustice of British imperialism in India, Palestine, Iraq, and Ireland—stoked my sympathy for the colonized and inflamed my anger against the colonizers. What I found in Northern Ireland, when my anger dissipated as I listened to people, was a far more complex and layered set of narratives about the place and the people who have lived there for centuries.
Reading Keefe’s story, occasionally one gets lulled into the romance of the murder and mystery, and forgets the wounds that every victim and survivor continues to carry. Sometimes, these wounds get passed down and carried by the next generation, a phenomenon called intergenerational trauma. As a post-peace film like Five Minutes of Heaven so ably shows, that suffering belongs to perpetrators as well. Traveling in Northern Ireland, I thought a lot about both victims and perpetrators, sometimes meeting them on successive days, and how I wanted to hold them all in my thinking and feeling about this place, a place where history walks the streets every day, even if it doesn’t immediately surrender its story. Today, I’m thinking about Martin and Clive, two people whose stories should be told together.
In June 2013, a Sinn Fein secretary ushered us into a plain conference room in Stormont Assembly, where we would await the legendary Martin McGuinness. The room was thick with anticipatory quiet, our group from John Carroll University who’d come to study the Troubles and the peace. After all, McGuinness was the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, essentially the co-president, the political representative of the minority Nationalist community in this consociational government structure. He was also running, we’d learn in a few months, to become President of the Republic of Ireland. Though the Presidency is largely a ceremonial post, it was part of the Sinn Fein’s all-Ireland strategy to make waves in the Republic.
McGuinness was more than a politician. When the media dubbed First Minister Ian Paisley and him the Chuckle Brothers, for the oddly jocular friendship that bloomed when they were co-leading Northern Ireland after the St. Andrews Agreement, they were unwriting the long dark history of both men. Paisley was a firebrand Protestant preacher who’d stoked loyalist fears about Catholic rule and inspired many to join paramilitaries during the Troubles, the 30-year period of civil strife that began in 1969 and didn’t end until everyone had exhausted every other option. McGuinness, for his part, was allegedly a former commander of the IRA. Rising through the ranks first as the leader of the youth wing of the IRA during Bloody Sunday, and then to the top of the IRA northern command structure, McGuinness was alleged to have had a hand in the bloody Enniskillen bombing in 1987, which killed 11 and injured over 60. It was the horrific violence of the Enniskillen bombing that led the IRA to rethink their strategy.
Peace may require that the dealers of death have a place at the table of political power. Otherwise, there is no way to ensure that conflict remains only—and much more safely—on the plane of politics. So here we were, in the seat of power in Northern Ireland, awaiting a former terrorist turned statesman. McGuinness had spearheaded the IRA’s decommissioning of its weapons, and like others in the Sinn Fein party, he saw the political process as a way to achieve the long-desired goal of Republicanism—a united Ireland. Yet no matter the possibilities of the future, some would never forget his past.Peace may require that the dealers of death have a place at the table of political power.
The door swung open, and McGuinness strode in, moving with purpose and gravity to his seat at the center of the table, greeting us with a wave, his curly, sandy-blond hair receding on the way to white. It was astonishing to realize later that he was a small man, because he seemed coiled with energy and force restrained, larger than life. His serious tone, and the way he moved his head, made me wonder whether he bore an unseen weight. I could only imagine McGuinness’s behind-the-scenes struggles to assure comrades who’d risked their lives, who’d taken others, and who’d seen their friends die, that this process was worth the sacrifice.
“We’ve been in conflict for something like eight centuries,” he said, rehearsing the Republican narrative of the long struggle against British rule, “and this has brought that to an end.”
McGuinness was careful to turn to look at everyone in the room—from the faculty to the students in our delegation visiting from Cleveland—and his presence filled it.
He’d made a long journey to be here among the other stakeholders of Northern Irish politics. The long journey wasn’t only his to take. It had to be walked by both sides of the conflict. When Nelson Mandela invited McGuinness and other negotiators from Sinn Fein to South Africa in 1997, Unionist politicians were outraged. They refused to travel on the same jet, stay in the same hotels, or eat in the same pub as those they saw as murderers and terrorists. Ian Paisley, the fiercest of the pro-British unionist and loyalist politicians, wouldn’t even sit at the negotiating table, staging walkouts whenever Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, was allowed to participate.
“No one believed that Ian Paisley would work with us,” he said about the other Chuckle Brother, one of the principal naysayers of Sinn Fein’s inclusion in the peace process, who would famously say, about any cooperation with the Republic of Ireland (or with any Catholic, for that matter): “Never, never, never, never!” “But,” as McGuinness told us, “he is.”
After the Good Friday Agreement, McGuinness said, “everything has changed, and changed utterly.”
How Irish to quote a poem to describe the peace process.
In “Easter 1916,” William Butler Yeats refers to the astonishing, fearsome sacrifice of the Easter Rising, when IRA rebels proclaimed the Irish Republic and took over the General Post Office and other downtown buildings in Dublin before the British Army brutally crushed the uprising, executing the leaders; this was Yeats; “terrible beauty born.” Perhaps in its own way, this peace, for men like McGuinness, was as astonishing and frightening as the Easter Rising was for Yeats.
As McGuinness told the story of the Troubles, which he saw as a war of liberation, it was clear he believed the political option had become the best route to achieve their aims. Since neither the British nor the IRA could arrive at anything approaching victory, McGuinness said, there were really only two options: “Conflict in perpetuity or a political solution. I’ve always been in politics, even when I had a gun.”
I screwed up my courage to ask him a hard question. It’s difficult, as guests of this nation, to probe beyond the rehearsed narrative landscape into the unspoken territories where the truth may be found. It threatens to turn someone’s hospitality into hostility.
Yet many people saw McGuinness as a mass murderer, called by some “The Butcher of Derry.” Under his leadership, it is estimated the IRA was linked to fully half the killings of the Troubles, over 1,700 people.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll be meeting with a victim of the Enniskillen bombing. Many people died during the Troubles. What would you say to him? Was the violence worth it?”
He answered as if he had thought long and hard about this, and had held the hardness in his whole body.
“I would be a liar if I said that there were things in the past I didn’t regret,” he said.
He favored a proposal to create an international tribunal for truth recovery, he said, but he wasn’t confident that the British would sign on, given their role in the conflict. His job, after all the fighting, “is ensuring that people benefit from the fruits of peace, to have a peace dividend.”
A few years later, McGuinness met with our group again. After the usual welcomes, Matt, one of our students and a former soldier in the US Army, asked him about their shared interest: fly-fishing. Apparently, McGuinness loved to fly-fish.
McGuinness lived abstemiously, avoiding alcohol, attending Mass regularly. Yet those traveling with him from place to place reported that he would often point at streams from his car and remark about how much he wanted to stop and fish. Of all people, he had his reasons for wanting to disappear into nature, to be buoyed in the water and its constant dream-like passing.It is difficult to explain the strange fascination that overcomes an ordinary person when they are face to face with the powerful.
McGuinness talked about the fight of the brown trout, how good it felt having the fish tugging on the end of the line. Brown trout, Matt shared with me, are stubborn fish, the toughest trout. They are notoriously difficult to reel in, fighting twice as long as a rainbow trout. Matt wondered if it said something about McGuinness as a man, that he loved a challenge. He wasn’t fishing for the rainbow. He wanted the fight.
In his poem, “The Fisherman,” Yeats reflects on his desire to write poetry that might speak to people like an old fisherman he meets in Connemara. In the first stanza, he recalls the man’s face, but finds himself distracted by his feelings, writing the reality of men who had failed to live up to that patient fisherman. In the second stanza, after a year scuffling about, unable to write anything,
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”
Something about the fisherman coming to the cold stream at dawn inspires Yeats to try to write the sort of poem that would be like that place, in which one becomes like a dream.
Our time with McGuinness was short. That day, Stormont was thrumming with activity, and a mandatory vote was imminent. We said farewell to this unusual political animal, and even before taking a group photo, he was shuttled out of the room and into the country’s future.
Everyone was abuzz after he left. It is difficult to explain the strange fascination that overcomes an ordinary person when they are face to face with the powerful. No matter our rank or status in life, people seem almost in awe of those who hold political power. Is it something we project on the powerful, or something they have in themselves, that draws us to them?
I thought of McGuinness’ fishing as a metaphor for the kind of man he was—someone who loved the challenge, what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult”—what he brought to war, he brought to the peace as well. But when I shared the story with my wife, she interpreted it differently. McGuinness’s fishing, she thought, showed his dark side. That there was a predator in him that enjoyed toying with his prey. But I hadn’t wanted to see him as merely a killer, because I could see that he carried the weight of what he’d done. That he’d hurt many people. But I could understand why she might see it that way, and why others did.
The day after meeting McGuinness, we gathered in our humble common room at the dorms at Queen’s University to host two men from a victim’s group. Both Joe and Clive had been victims of IRA attacks. Joe told the story of his brother’s murder at the hands of the IRA. Both he and his brother were Catholic police officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles. They were an unusual minority in a police force that was nearly all Protestant. Joe’s story unfolded with alacrity and clarity, as he shared his profound guilt about asking that his younger brother—who’d just joined the force—be reassigned from his border post to something safer. That safety turned out to be illusory.
“I don’t think I’ll be as articulate as our Joe here,” Clive said, trying to find a way to tell his story. He was bald on top, with a white, well-trimmed goatee, wearing a clean white oxford rolled at the sleeves, and blue jeans, his face framed by chunky brown glasses.
Clive was born in 1971, and his father had been a policeman. They were Presbyterian, church-going folk, and they lived in Enniskillen. Off-duty hours, his father Ted had been a bodyguard for Harry West, a prominent Unionist politician who’d lost his seat to Bobby Sands while the latter was famously on hunger strike in 1981.
Their next-door neighbors were Paisleyites, and one day, Clive saw them shouting at the Catholic children passing their house coming home from school. His father saw that, and said, “‘If I ever catch you doing that, I’ll knock you up and down the block.’ I was brought up to respect everybody.”Cethlenn was a mythic goddess who was wounded in battle by an arrow and drowned while trying to make it to the other side of the River Erne.
“My mother would have primarily brought me up,” Clive told us. “My father, anytime he was off, him and I would be fishing together. I spent a lot of time in a wee boat.”
Enniskillen is a sleepy town in the southwest corner of Northern Ireland, in County Fermanagh, and sits on the shores of Lough Erne. Its Irish name is “Inis Ceithleann,” the Island of Cethlenn. Cethlenn was a mythic goddess who was wounded in battle by an arrow and drowned while trying to make it to the other side of the River Erne. In death, she gave the place its name.
It’s easy to imagine these two, taking off before dawn to the quiet waters of the Erne. To young Clive, his father was “larger than life. A big man, six foot one.”
They’d spend a good chunk of a day waiting for the tug of a catch. But they rarely came home empty-handed.
“Whatever fish we used to catch,” Clive remembered, “we’d divide it out among the neighbors, making chutneys and jellies and the like.”
In the halo of memory, Clive’s father appears almost saintly, sharing his own miracle of the fishes.
But on September 4, 1985, the IRA attacked an Enniskillen RUC police station with mortars. It was a training station that housed about 30 trainees. Many would have died in their beds had the bombing been timed differently. Though no one was killed, Clive’s father fell into severe depression, showing symptoms of PTSD. He was on leave for nine months.
Amazingly, Clive saw a bright side to his father’s cloudbound suffering. “He actually found Christianity, and started going to Church every Sunday.”
It was the eighth of November, 1987, Remembrance Sunday, and Clive was 16. His mother had walked into the church to deliver sandwiches, and Clive and his father stood at the war memorial cenotaph to watch the parade. Next to Clive was his friend Stephen, and Stephen’s father.
Sitting there before us in the common room, he leaned to one side, resting his finger at his temple, as he sought to find the right words.
He talked slowly, and then quietly. “And the first beat of the drum had just started, and then bang. Dust. And silence. And yells. You couldn’t see in front of you.”
He paused. There was something in his timing that felt like a performance, but the look on his face suggested otherwise. He was watching it all again, on some interior screen.
“It was just incredible,” he said. “I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t know where I was. I had no glasses on. Me in my Sunday best ripped to shreds. Dust and dirt everywhere. And I find myself on a pavement which was sort of herringbone-patterned. I looked down, and got up. There was a British soldier waving his rifle. He didn’t know what. Was. Going. On. It was apparent he was in complete panic.”
Clive was whispering now, his eyes rimmed with emotion, his body stiff with memory.
“After that, someone or somebody or some people got me up and put me in the back of a Ford Transit van, like a mini-bus. And all I could hear was this woman wailing. I was sitting there going, ‘would you just shut the fuck up.’ I wouldn’t say it in Church, a Churchgoing boy, but it was really annoying me.”There was something in his timing that felt like a performance, but the look on his face suggested otherwise. He was watching it all again, on some interior screen.
Despite his pain and confusion, Clive knew his father would be okay. After all, he was an RUC officer, and they’d been standing shoulder to shoulder. In the hospital, the minister came in and checked on him, and he went to see his mother “covered top to toe in dust.”
His mother asked, “Where is your father?”
Clive replied, “He was just beside me.”
He paused, shifted on the couch.
“Eventually,” Clive said, his voice still lower, “the minister come back and said, ‘Daddy’s dead.’”
Of the 11 people who died in the bombing, one was Clive’s father, and another was Stephen’s. The bomb threw Clive’s father 300 feet. Clive himself had been blown out of his shoes, breaking his foot in the process.
“I couldn’t carry the coffin,” he recalled. “I was still on crutches.”
The family received much support from the community, he remembered. “Our house didn’t empty for THREE MONTHS… a hub of well-wishers and support, and cakes and endless cups of tea. It was just incredible.”
“It’s not Catholic people’s fault this has happened. I know it’s not. It’s hardline extremists. The IRA done this, and everybody knows they done this. For what purpose, don’t know,” Clive said. “Still don’t.”
Two weeks after the funeral, Margaret Thatcher visited Enniskillen, and told the families of the victims that “No stone will be left unturned until we find who has done this.”
But no one was ever charged. Clive had his suspicions, a suspicion shared by the Unionist community.
“Martin McGuinness was seen in Pettigo the weekend of the bombing,” he said. Pettigo was 30 minutes from Enniskillen.
Joe, who’d been next to him the whole time, interjected, reaching out to Clive on his isolated island of pain. “I didn’t know,” he said, his face full of wonder. “We’re part of a wee victims group and meet up on a regular basis but we never get deep as that.”
The victims issue has been swept aside,” Clive said. “It’s only been in the last couple of months that it’s been rearing its head. Victims like Joe and myself coming up to speak.”
We thanked Clive for his testimony, which had wrung him out. We paused, and passed around tissues.
“What would you imagine could bring you peace?” I asked him, trying not to push him too hard.
Clive paused before he spoke. “I don’t think I’m in a place to meet the perpetrators. There was the Ames-Bradley Commission a couple years ago. The most important thing is my family, my two girls, that they have peace, a good education. I don’t want to meet the perpetrator. At the end of the day, the justice is not there. If he is caught, they will spend no time in prison… The thing that kept me sane is that they have to answer to their God. They will get their comeuppance someday. But the hardest thing for me was to tell my oldest daughter what had happened. My youngest daughter doesn’t know, and that’s…” His voice trailed off.
Two years later, we met Clive again with a new group of students, to check in with him on his journey through grief.
“Can youse all hear me okay?” he said.
When Clive told his story again, the details were unchanged, its force not lessened. If anything, the hurt seemed deeper, the grief wider and stronger.
This time, he talked about how other victims responded to the Enniskillen bombing, including Gordon Wilson, whose public repudiation of violence made him a hero of the Troubles. Wilson, whose daughter Marie had been killed, called the press to say that he said he forgave the killer. Wilson had become famous for saying to the bombers, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”
What would it take for a person to forgive their daughter’s murderer?
Forgiveness is an unusual and individual journey, through a thicket of grief and grievance. No victim can ever be required to forgive another, since it is a profound act of the will. Wilson’s daring vulnerability is the exception, not the rule.
Clive said, “I didn’t forgive them. I don’t forgive them. But I know these people will never be seen in the light of day. I will probably never see justice or truth.”
As he finished telling his story, Clive seemed vulnerable, his nerves raw, so we invited him for a pint. On the way to the local pub, the Botanic Inn just down the road, a man careened toward our group and stopped short, rocking in the wind of his buzz. “Where youse from?” he said. We explained. A light gleamed in his eye. As if we became his audience, this pub-bound actor began to wax poetic about this country, which he called “Norn Iron.” It was a magical land, this Norn Iron, where drunks could become prophets and fishers could become killers. “In Norn Iron,” he slurred, “we been fighting forever. All we have in common,” he said, winking, “is our drunkenness.”When Clive told his story again, the details were unchanged, its force not lessened. If anything, the hurt seemed deeper, the grief wider and stronger.
At the Bot, as he nursed his pint and we talked of lighter things, Clive seemed to relax. But he hadn’t put away his narrative. “In some strange way,” he said, circling back, “telling my story is quite cathartic.”
But doesn’t catharsis lessen the pain? I wondered. It wasn’t clear that his pain had lessened, not in all the years of telling it. If someone tells their story the same way every time, aren’t they trapped in it? I wished for him the freedom to tell the story differently, or another one entirely, the one where the son would not be shackled in the darkness of his father’s murder. I wanted to dream up another world where Martin and Clive and his father would have been able to fish on the same banks of the same river.
At the table next to us, our students were playing charades with their phone, one person holding the phone to his forehead so that he couldn’t see the word, and flipping it one way if he guessed it and the other way if he wanted to skip it. Their voices rose higher and higher, laughing at the ridiculous guesses, gesticulating wildly to provide the clues.
We got Clive to take a turn, holding the phone and its mystery words to his head. And now there he was, trying to guess at words, losing himself in what was so close to him that he could not see it.
The next day, we were to meet Martin McGuinness, but there appeared to be a problem, and we’d been left off his schedule. There was hope he would be able to make it anyway, but he never did. He’d be dead, of amyloidosis, a rare illness that stiffens and damages the heart, in two years.
In 2017, Clive went public about his grief and grievance for the first time, on the 30th anniversary of the bombing. Just last year, he was interviewed by a journalist for a story about the “Poppy Bombing,” with an appeal to the Catholic Church to allow them to build a memorial on church land, where the bombing took place. Under his photo, it lists him as “Clive Armstrong, son of Ted Armstrong.”