This non-fiction account on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland was on many top ten lists for 2019. Since my knowledge on this subject might not even fill a thimble, and I like “true crime” as a genre, I decided this was a great New Year’s project for me.
Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and spent four years researching the book, in Ireland, Great Britain, and through the “Treasure Room” of the John Burns Library at Boston College. He uses the unsolved murder case of Jean McConville, a widowed and struggling mother of ten, as a starting point for examining the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. McConville was abducted from her Belfast home one night in 1972 and was never seen again; she became one of “the disappeared,” one of about a dozen persons taken, killed, and disposed of by the IRA for perceived or proven betrayals. (Many more people were killed by the IRA, of course, but usually their bodies were left to be found and claimed by loved ones.) McConville’s remains were finally recovered in 2003.
The book covers so much territory is hard to encapsulate in a short review. There are biographical threads about key IRA figures, such as Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, and the Price sisters; Keefe also follows the lives of the ten McConville children after their mother disappears. He covers key events and profiles key figures of the conflict right through to the present day. And of course, he unravels the known truths about who killed the disappeared and why.
As a librarian, what I found most interesting, however, was his history of the Belfast Project of the Burns Library at Boston College. It is a cautionary tale for archivists and historians, and has probably prompted academic libraries everywhere to reconsider their responsibilities in recording history, particularly histories involving violent conflict.
The Belfast Project was started in 2001 (after the Good Friday agreement). It contains recorded interviews with 46 former members of the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The interviews are lengthy, confessional, and candid; they are kept in the “Treasure Room,” sealed with key and code, with the interviewees names represented only by single letters.
The college promised to protect the anonymity of those interviewed until their deaths. But when the first interviewee, Brendan Hughes, died in 2008, his interview was accessed and details were made public. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Many different parties sought to gain access to the tapes for a range of purposes. There was a complicated and unintended tangle of consequences for the college that it is still in the process of sorting out.
The praise for the book is well-deserved; it is a powerful history well worth reading.
Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Libarian.
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