We have two books this week on part of Irish history called the Troubles, the armed conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Troubles is the expression used about the irregular war between these two religious groups that begins in earnest in 1916 with the Easter Uprising and officially ends with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The fighting was sporadic and intense for almost eighty years. The first book has just been published called Say Nothing: A a True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, a journalist at The New Yorker. It is the very well documented story of the murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 children who was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972. Her bones were finally found in 2003. The second book is Troubles, a winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize. J.G. Farrell published his book in 1970 and drowned in 1979. This historical fiction won its award in 2010 as a special edition of the Man Booker Prize awarded to books not eligible in 1970 due to a rules alteration. The plot begins in 1919 following The Great War when Major Brendan Archer goes to Ireland to see his assumed fiancée Angela Spencer. It is described as a dark heartbreaking comedy. And yes, that is an oxymoronic description.
Keefe in his book called Say Nothing documents much of the 20th century conflict as told around the disappearance and subsequent murder of Jean McConville. Jean was a Catholic woman who had been married to a Protestant. She is accused by the IRA of being an informer, hence the reason for her murder. The term ” The Disappeared” refers to people who disappeared at the hands of the IRA. Usually the IRA would dump a dead body on a back road as a warning, but eighteen people disappeared with no clue as to where their remains were to be found. As of today, fourteen of the eighteen bodies have been recovered as part of the peace process. Informers were especially punished as well as their families whether they knew the disappeared was an informer or not. Keefe writes, ” Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearances as an instrument of war is that denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.” In discussing Jean’s ten orphaned children, Keefe says, “The whispers about Jean had started not long after her death, the notion that she might have been executed for being a tout (informer). As if it were not misfortune enough to be orphaned at a young age and cast into austere and predatory Irish orphanages, the children had come of age bearing that incendiary stigma.” And these traumatized children grew up to be traumatized adults- such a sad part of this sad book. Jean’s body was recovered in 2003, and her remains were identified by a large diaper pin she always wore on her clothes in case one of the ten children needed it. Around this story of Jean and her family, Keefe weaves the life stories of the IRA members responsible for her disappearance including Gerry Adams. The people responsible had long family ties with the nationalist Catholic IRA movement which wanted Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and be an independent and unified country. Several of the IRA members guilty of Jean’s death had family involved in the Easter Rising of 1916 which gave rise to the separatists party and political arm of the IRA, the Sinn Fein. Their stories are equally as riveting as Jean’s.
Farrell’s book, Troubles is set against the Irish War of Independence which started in 1919. Major Archer thinks he is engaged to Angela Spencer because they corresponded throughout World War 1. He goes to their home which is the Majestic Hotel to formally ask for her hand, and things just do not go as planned. The major gets caught up in the crazy dysfunction of the Spencer family, which is a privileged Anglo-Irish family which once was very wealthy. The hotel has an assortment of odd-balls who live there along with the Spencer family and now the major. The hotel serves as a metaphor to the armed conflict taking place in Ireland. A review in The Guardian says, “Farrell’s portrayal of the fast-decaying Majestic Hotel and England’s even more rapidly crumbling rule in Ireland surely adds up to one of the best books…” As I read Troubles, I pitied the poor shell-shocked major who struggles to have a clear thought. And here he is all tangled up and enmeshed in the bat-crazy Spencer family.
While we are on the subject of Ireland, there are about a dozen films that have been made about Ireland and the Troubles. One I really enjoy is called The Journey which I saw at the Fairhope Film Festival in 2016. It is historical fiction surrounding the negotiations between Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant preacher and politician and Martin McGinness, the Sinn Fein politician who forged an unlikely political alliance and friendship. These two men in real life formed an Irish government in 2007 with Paisley being the First Minister and McGinness being the deputy First Minister. The plot of the movie is about a fictional “road trip” these two enemies embark on as they negotiate the future of Ireland. There is humor, yes, but the power of reconciliation between two very different and very ingrained belief systems is a powerful message for our country today.
PONDERINGS: 3532 people were killed during the 30-year Troubles with 52% of them being civilians. The number of injured people is close to 50,000. Sarah Nelson, a social worker and author, writes about the bombings, riots, food and housing shortages, and unemployment that came about because of the Troubles, and she says, it caused a “breakdown of the normal fabric of society, allowing for paramilitaries to exert a strong influence in certain districts.” One of the Margarets in my beloved book club says there are still walls separating neighborhood streets in Northern Ireland. Sadly, Brexit is stirring up some issues about Ireland, especially the future of Northern Ireland. Too complicated for me to address here, but google it to educate yourself and put it on your radar to follow.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!