The eyes on the cover of this book are some of the most expressive I have seen although only half of the person’s face is exposed. As they stared back at me from the cover, I felt a chill because I knew they were the eyes of someone who did not fear death. I did not know who the person was but I found myself compelled to learn more. As I opened up the book and began to read, I soon learned the name of the woman on the cover whose story is one of several that are interwoven. Her name was Dolours Price (1951-2013) and this truly is a story of murder and memory.
The story begins with the abduction of a widowed housewife raising several children named Jean McConville (1934-1972). She is taken away and never seen alive again. There is no explanation given by her captors and her children are forced to fend for themselves without any adult supervision. This incident sets the theme of the book and her murder would come to haunt those involved for years to come. We are soon introduced to Dolours and her sister Marian, who attend a rally in support of the movement for a united Ireland. Mayhem ensues as British troops and loyalist forces push back agaisnt the protestors. The experience leaves the sisters jarred and they make the decision to join the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”). From this point on, their lives are never the same and the story becomes even darker.
I have to assume that most readers who pick up this book will have some familiarity with the conflict. But for those who do not, I strongly recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916: The Easter Rising , which provides a thorough discussion of the uprising and seizure of the Dublin Post Office. The events contained therein would later result in the founding of the Irish Free State and the paritioning of the six counties within Ulster Province that compose Northern Ireland. For the Catholics in Ulster, life became a constant battle to resist discrmination by the Protestant majority and proclaim Northern Ireland part of the Irish Republic. And in this struggle, the IRA became the loudest voice for unification through acts of force and through the voices of figures such as Gerry Adams Brendan “The Dark” Hughes (1948-2008) who are firmly entrenched in the story at hand.
As Dolours and Marian become deeper involved in the Republican movement, they are given more important task including one that shocked London on March 7, 1973. In the aftermath, the sisters along with their conspirators, were sentenced and incarcerated in a British prison. Back in Ireland however, the British were ramping up their efforts to break the IRA chain of command and Keefe takes us back to the story of Adams and Hughes, both of whom join the most wanted list of IRA members. Adams repeatedly denied being a part of the group and readers can make their own assessments. What is clear is that both sides were playing for keeps and not adverse to using deadly measures to prove their point.
While moving through the book, I noticed that the book is really several smaller stories compiled into one. There is the disappearance of McConville, Adams and Hughes, the Price Sisters, the Good Friday Agreement and Belfast Project. They are all interconnected and Keefe connects them towards the end of the book with the right amount of suspenses and everything comes full circle. There are others who enter the story as well, in particualr Bobby Sands whose win in parliament and participation in the second hunger strike made him a martyr in the eyes of the IRA and its supporters. And for those readers curious about Sands’ life, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s The Life and Times of Bobby Sands, which is by far the definitive biography of Sands’ incredible story. Each story on its own is gripping and full of eye-opening events. But it is when they all come together that the complete picture is formed and one of the darkest secrets of the IRA comes to light.
Fittingly, the end of the book makes a return to the beginning as McConville becomes the focus once again. Hughes and Dolours Price are now deceased, and unable to make any statement in regards to Keefe’s work, but before their deaths they spoke at length in private interviews and some of they revealed is discussed unraveling the mystery surrounding McConville’s final moments. And when readers learn what did happen, some will be staring in disbelief while others will be shaking their heads. Had it not been for the actions of Edmund “Ed” Maloney and the members of the Belfast Project, the death of Jean McConville might have remained a deeply buried IRA secret. Undoubtedly, there are probably some parts of the story that remain hidden to this very day.
The author did provide another aspect of the conflict which I have not seen in other books and that is the issue of the men and women on the Republican side who disappeared during the Troubles. Jean McConville was one of many who simply vanished after taking the final ride to their deaths. Keefe revisits a few of the most notorious cases which did result in the closure sought by the victim’s surviving famly members. However, other families were not as fortunate and have never fuly healed. It is often said that war is hell. For the McConville family and others hurt or killed in the conflict, these words are hauntingly accurate.
Opinion of the IRA will certainly vary according to who you ask. After finishing the book, I have come to see that the IRA, while committed to its goal of a united Ireland, also suffered from internal rivalries, paranoia and in some cases outright murder. The seriousness of their mission and the infiltration of British spies raised tensions putting all on edge. The MRF intelligence unit of the British Army has its role in the story and previously, I did not know about its existence. The revelations regarding the group’s work and who the informers were within the IRA will leave some readers spellbound. It is simply an unbelievable account of the IRA struggle in the North of Ireland. However, for the children of Jean McConville, the conflict is a wound that may never heal.
The conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” remains the focus of intrigue as more books are published regarding a dark time in Irish and British history. And while the violence of the past has subsided, divisions between Protestants and Catholics remain in place to this day. But perhaps at some point in the future, Ireland will be unified and the IRA will no longer have a reason to exist. Highly recommended.