The brilliant nonfiction book "Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland," by Patrick Radden Keefe, begins with a description of the John J. Burns Library on the campus of Boston College, stating "With its stone spire and stained glass, it looks very much like a church."
This description is apropos, knowing the secrets and confessions housed there. The Burns Library holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political history in the United States. One of its librarians was actually sent to prison after trying to sell an artifact to Sotheby's for auction.
Buried inside the Burns Library is the Treasure Room, a special enclosure, heavily secured, which houses transcripts so secret that only a handful of people have access to them. One day, in 2013, two detectives from Belfast made the journey to Boston to collect a few of these files as evidence in an unsolved murder.
Jean McConville was a widowed mother of 10 children, who was struggling to make ends meet in Belfast in 1972. Living in the Divis Flats, a public housing complex where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) routinely launched attacks toward the British Loyalists, some dissention arose between Jean and her neighbors when rumors began circulating that she was sharing sensitive information with the British Army.
One night around dinner, Jean had just slipped into the bath when there was a knock on her front door. When the door was opened, the family found eight to 10 people gathered, most with masks over their faces and holding guns. The night that posse took Jean McConville, she became one of the Disappeared, a group of people who were mysteriously taken from their homes and presumed dead during a time that became known as The Troubles.
One well-known figure of Irish nationalism during the time was the beautiful Dolours Price. Raised in a family fiercely committed to Irish republicanism, she grew up listening to tales of relatives who were martyrs, served jail time and knew how to make pipe bombs. As she grew up, she joined the family ranks in demonstrations and unrest, and in 1969, Dolours and her sisters joined some protesters on their 70-mile march from Belfast to Derry to protest discrimination against Irish Catholics. As they neared Derry, area Protestants pummeled the protesters with large stones. It was then that Dolours Price knew her destiny lie with the IRA. It was there that she met Gerry Adams, the leader of the political group Sinn Fein for 30 years.
Dolours went to training camps, learned about weapons and ideologies, and was eventually tapped to participate in a plan to bomb one of the court buildings in London, the Old Bailey. In fact, she helped plan a series of bombs at London government buildings that day.
She, her sister and several men were arrested while trying to board a plane to Ireland. They were tried and convicted, then sent to prison for lifetime sentences. This was changed to 20 years, and Dolours served seven and a half years before going on a hunger strike and making demands to be moved. When she got out of prison, she rekindled a friendship with actor Stephen Rea, and they later married. The officiant was the chaplain from her time in the prison in Armagh, who had lobbied for her release.
After many years of tragedy and several ceasefires, Gerry Adams led the efforts to bring accord to Northern Ireland. A new committee was formed to investigate The Disappeared, the people who were taken against their will and never heard from again. The problem was that no one wanted to talk about it. Citizens who did know something were terrified of retaliation by the IRA.
Boston College began collecting information about The Troubles for their John J. Burns Library. They hired Belfast journalist Ed Moloney to serve as director and curator of the collection. He had firsthand knowledge of The Troubles, having demonstrated in some of the riots and knew Dolours Price and Gerry Adams.
College officials had hoped that Moloney could gather information, as an insider. It was his idea that they begin accumulating oral histories from the combatants who were involved in the disputes in Belfast. Because this could be considered material with which to indict, he worked out a plan that called for extensive and private interviews that would be kept in secret until the informant's death. He convinced officials at Boston College to hire two ex-militia men, one from the IRA and one from the British Army, to serve as the interviewers. This became known as the Belfast Project. Gradually, Moloney and his interviewers secured meetings with top personnel from The Troubles, the London Bombings and The Disappeared.
These included confessions from Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, with lots of fingers being pointed at the Sinn Fein leader and former IRA soldier Gerry Adams. Adams, who has recently left his post as a political leader in Northern Ireland, has denied all accusations. But the Treasure room in the Burns Library at Boston College may know otherwise. As recently as 2011, British police have subpoenaed the material as part of their continuing investigation of The Disappeared. A spokesman for the college stated that "our position is that the premature release of the tapes could threaten the safety of the participants, the enterprise of oral history and the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland."
If you enjoy true crime nonfiction, especially those titles with historic significance, then "Say Nothing" should be on your reading list. With lots of details, a timeline that jumps from the present to the past, and a whole slew of fascinating characters, this book keeps the reader entertained, regardless of the devastating subject matter.
With glowing reviews, the author's reporting exposes the lasting effects of The Troubles and how the consequences still play a part today.
Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, ebooks, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.