In 1972, Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of 10 in Belfast, was taken from her home, in front of her kids, and never seen again. This being Belfast in the 70s, her disappearance was assumed to be related to the Troubles. She was at the time rumored to have informed on the IRA to British authorities, and that was pretty much the worst thing a person could do. And, given those circumstances, no one would share what they knew.
This book is not so much about McConville’s murder as it is about the circumstances and political landscape that allowed such as murder to happen and remain unsolved for decades. Author Patrick Radden Keefe describes how the Irish Republican Army (most specifically the Provos) operated in Northern Ireland, as they sought reunification with the Republic of Ireland and the end of British rule. It is a complicated history, much of which I was not familiar with, but O’Keefe focuses on a handful of principal players, showing how they got involved with the movement and how their participation evolved as time went on.
There is very little about Jean McConville herself in the book. In fact, if the book could be said to focus on a specific person above all others it would be Dolours Price, whose face is on the cover. Dolours and her sister Marian were members of the Provos and part of a 1972 car bomb attack in London, for which she was imprisoned. After a lengthy hunger strike, followed by anorexia, she was granted compassionate release from prison. Another key figure in the book is Gerry Adams, the former leader of the Sinn Féin political party who many claim was an IRA leader. (Keefe seems to take this view, although Adams denies involvement and was not interviewed for the book.)
Much of what the IRA did was shrouded in secrecy. Even long after the Troubles, people who were involved were reluctant to share what they knew. But a group of scholars from Boston College, with the help of historian and former IRA member Anthony McIntyre, collected a series of oral histories. Those interviewed agreed to share only if their stories would remain sealed until their death. For me, this part of the story was especially fascinating. There’s the desire to get a secret off your chest, a desire perhaps to place blame where it belongs, and a desire to avoid retribution (whether social or physical). The Boston College archive seemed like a perfect solution. But, for families like the McConvilles, how could those secrets possibly remain in an archive, especially when those secrets might help them put their mother’s lost body to rest, finally?
I’m sure there’s a lot of subtext and political complications that went over my head, as a reader with little more than a rudimentary knowledge of Irish politics. But this book did fill in some of the gaps in my understanding. And, because Keefe focuses on the experience of people at the heart of the conflict, I could follow the narrative he lays out well enough. There are some mysteries that aren’t entirely solved, some facts that are disputed, and ethical question on top of ethical question. There are some clear moral wrongs in this book (I don’t think there’s any question that Jean McConville’s death was among those clear wrongs), but there are also a lot of grey areas. It seems like a book on this period that doesn’t have grey areas would be getting it wrong.