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Transcript

Episode 21: "Say Nothing": Patrick Radden Keefe on The Troubles

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix:
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that examines a single piece of writing from the world's greatest writers as a way to help you do your best work. I'm your host, Paul Kix. Today, I'm joined by Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the best-selling book, Say Nothing, a narrative nonfiction account of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Patrick, I just absolutely loved this book and you and I will be discussing a single chapter of it that is to my mind at least not only representative of the 40-year saga, but surprising, and at times fun, and above all just one of the most bone-chilling experiences that I've seen put on the page. So first and foremost, Patrick, thank you for coming on the show.

Patrick Keefe:
Oh, thank you for having me.

Paul Kix:
Let's set the stage before we go into the particulars of the story we're going to discuss. What compelled you to write this book now?

Patrick Keefe:

Well, I came to it in the context of my day job at The New Yorker. I wrote a piece back in 2015 which was prompted by the death of a woman named Dolours Price who's a big figure in the book. She died in 2013 and I wrote an obituary. I'd never heard of her, but she lived this very dramatic life which in a way kind of spanned this long significant period in Irish history. So she joined the IRA in the early 1970s, and her story really tracked through to pretty much the present day, and got into sort of questions of the way in which people who were involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland felt when they looked back on those years, from the vantage point of recent years now, looking back on some of the things they'd done when they were younger, and then to me that seemed like a very resonant issue to pursue. And so I spent the next four years working on this project. 

Paul Kix:
I remember that piece and have been a fan of your work for some time, and thought to myself, man, that could one day make a great book. And it's almost in some sense like, I think that you have the acknowledgement is something where it's like, "War is battled twice the first time on the field and the second time in memory." And the way that just that New Yorker piece was laid out, I was like, wow, I could see already how that could make a book. That's interesting to say that that's what compelled you to do it. You must have thought there was more there to it.

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. It's funny, my last book also started as a piece in The New Yorker, and you write these pieces and you spend, in my case, often four or five, six months, sometimes a year on a piece, and it's generally the case that when I finish these pieces I'm done, I'm ready to move on. I feel like I've said what I have to say. And there are a few exceptions and this was one of them where I got to the end of what was quite a long magazine article. It's a 15,000 word-piece and I felt like that I'd really just scratched the surface.

Paul Kix:
So you grew up in Boston. I lived for of the best years of my life in Boston. I'd go sometimes to some of my favorite pubs in Jamaica Plain or near downtown and I'd hear these rumors, "Oh, this pub ran guns for the IRA or oh, this one held fundraisers for guys who were sympathetic to the Republican cause." When I was hearing these rumors, this was well more than a decade after the peace treaty. The history seem very much still alive at that time and I'm wondering to what extent were the troubles part of your own childhood?

Patrick Keefe:
They were there. They were always there. I grew up in a neighborhood called Dorchester which if you've spent time in JP you'll know which is its biggest neighborhood in the city of Boston, and a big diverse working-class, middle-class urban neighborhood with some pretty intense Irish American pockets. The notion that there was this conflict happening on the other side of an ocean and that it connected in weird ways to people around me was always there. There was fundraising at the Irish bar down the street from my house where my dad used to go. There were Boston gangsters who were associated with the IRA, and I never knew any of these people in a first-order way, but one of my first mentors who I had a job with in Boston when I was in college, his cousin had been a Boston gangster, worked for Whitey Bulger, and was involved in running guns.

And so these stories were always there in the background. Having said that, I didn't feel necessarily any sense of personal connection or investment. or even as though I had a side per se. It was just something that was out there in the atmosphere.


Paul Kix:
One of the things that I absolutely loved about this chapter we're going to discuss is the dispassionate nature of it. It's some of the most amazing anecdotes, some just amazing reporting and yet you're able to split it all the time and you never reveal any personal leanings, and it seems as though that's because there weren't really any personal leanings to it. So I'm wondering if we could actually just sort of begin to home in on the chapter we want to discuss here. 

I'm wondering if we can do it almost like how George Lucas introduced us to Star Wars with sort of that screen where there's an overview of what's going on. So briefly it's 1972, can you tell the listener what's the official IRA, who are the Provisionals, and why are they at odds with each other?


Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. I mean George Lucas did it briefly. I have to figure out if I can do that. So much of the challenge of this book was this process of distillation and how do you not overwhelm the reader with what feels like necessary exposition, so here goes. So there had been a conflict really dating back hundreds of years in terms of the origin, kind of an Anglo-Irish conflict, a perception by many people in Ireland that the British were an occupying force on the island of Ireland. Eventually you get the partition of Ireland in the 1920s in which after the Irish war for independence what we today call Ireland, the Republic of Ireland which is the south, enjoys independence but in the north there were these six counties which remained part of Great Britain. 

And there was a great deal of persecution and discrimination against Catholics in the north for decades. And those tensions kind of waxed and waned over the decades but they really sharpened and ratcheted it up in the late 1960s. And by the early 1970s, this had really boiled over, I'm really mixing my metaphors here, into outright war. They never called it a war, but it was definitely a war. A situation in which you had different Republican paramilitary groups trying to throw out the British. You had loyalist paramilitary groups who were loyal to the British crown, who were fighting them.

You had the police in Northern Ireland who were very strongly identified with the Protestant population and so not really seen as a neutral party. You had the British Army which came in ostensibly to kind of maintain order, but ended up essentially fighting with the Republicans. And then even within the Republican groups you had a split. So at around this time you had a split down the middle of the Irish Republican Army between the official IRA, which was the kind of traditional IRA. 

And then a more violent aggressive offshoot called the Provisional IRA, the Provos. And so you had the officials and the Provisionals, and they're fighting loyalist paramilitaries, and the police, and the British army, but they're also fighting each other. They actually started fighting one another. And so this is the context in 1972 which is the most violent year of the conflict in Belfast. You have all these battle lines drawn, but it's not straightforward at all. It's kind of a multi-variable situation with all these different vectors of the conflict.


Paul Kix:
The official IRA, I mean because it is really... It's difficult in some sense to separate well they for sure want this and the Provos for sure want that, but it's generally accepted that the official IRA perhaps did not condone this sort of violence that the Provos were in favor of. Is that fair?

Patrick Keefe:
The perception certainly at the time when the split happened was that you had this these kind of younger more aggressive group of paramilitaries who thought that the officials were too political. And also interestingly that they were too socialist though there were many socialist Provisionals as well. And so it's not that the officials weren't violent themselves, but yeah, you had these younger hard-line types who split.

I mean I should say there's an old joke in Ireland that captures this idea that everybody's always dividing and subdividing these groups, turning themselves which is that at any meeting of Irish Republicans the first item on the agenda is the split. So it was maybe inevitable that these guys would end up splitting apart and clashing.


Paul Kix:
Okay. So we're going to focus in this episode on four major characters of the Provos, of the Provisionals, the the young guerilla types. And four members who served outside roles in the IRA and the troubles in your book. The first is Gerry Adams, and he is 23 when we meet him. Well, he is the real leader of the IRA even though he may not carry that exact title at the time. He's intelligent and he has a predilection for violence. When we meet him at this point in life, he is thrown in prison. Why was he thrown in prison?

Patrick Keefe:
So there's a complicated thing that was going on here which is that one of the things that the British government did was internment without trial. So this was an emergency tactic that they employed, a tactic which I think you could safely say backfired pretty spectacularly, but the idea was that they had this emergency power which they could snatch anybody off the street without any charges, without any kind of due process, and throw them into prison indefinitely. And so that was one thing that would happen, but there were also things that they would charge people for criminally, and it gets a little confusing. 

But you end up in a situation in which Gerry Adams who was a Republican paramilitary ends up in prison, which was fairly typical for young people in the IRA at that time is that they would get snatched by the authorities, the authorities were trying to figure who the leadership was, and they didn't even need a basis for throwing you in prison at that time. They would just pick you up in a way you went and you didn't really know how long it would be until you were released unless you were actually charged with a crime in which case there was a sentence which would have a specific duration.


Paul Kix:
And I found this to be fascinating. Where exactly is this prison?

Patrick Keefe:
So the place that I start the chapter is on a ship called The Maidstone which was this big hulking British naval vessel which was actually a World War II vessel that had been recommissioned as a prison in Belfast, in a harbor there. And so the chapter starts with Gerry Adams being brought into The Maidstone. And he's not actually there for long. I mean this is at the risk of revealing some of the sleight-of-hand that happens in this chapter. He's not there for long. He's only there for a few pages, but I really wanted to talk about the environment on that ship just because it seemed so strange and interesting to me.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. It's so strange and it's so fascinating to just imagine somebody being bound on this ship just, what, a couple hundred yards from land itself and looking [crosstalk 00:12:40].

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. So Gerry does something fascinating to impede the investigation. He denies that he's Gerry Adams and he knows that by doing this he's going to stall any questioning that the British might have of him and ultimately they beat him up. They beat him up pretty severely for this. So Gerry goes to see the prison doctor and he's... And this is something that I just want the listeners to hear, Patrick is I just love this. Gerry goes to see the prison doctor and he's complaining of tender ribs. "Is it sore?", the doctor asked. "It's sore when I breathe", Adam said. "Stop breathing", the doctor said and without a flicker of a smile.

So this book to me, Patrick, it just brims with these perfect little moments like that. I love the stop breathing line. Not just for the fact doctor says it, but because you have that little additional passage there without a flicker of a smile. So I'm wondering how the reporter in you, how do you know that that's the way that the doctor responded, and maybe just even a broader point like to what extent are you always searching out for these little moments when you come across them?


Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. I mean, to take the first part first and that's a pretty easy answer. So Gerry Adams wouldn't talk to me for this book which was a challenge. I mean, there were four major characters in this book, Gerry Adams, Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes, and Jean McConville. And when I started, three of them were dead and the fourth wouldn't talk to me. So it's tricky in terms of the reporting. The good news with Adams is that he had written a bunch of different memoirs, and he's given a thousand interviews, and I was able to interview lots of people who knew him and work for them in the IRA over the years and that detail is actually from one of his memoirs.

So that didn't take any great feat of reporting on my part. And it's funny because there are details in those memoirs that I think are my contention of the book is that Adams is not the most honest guy particularly when talking about the past. But that's a detail that really rings true to me. I can see it. Frankly, the fact that he... We could talk about this later, but the fact that he denies that his name is Gerry Adams is actually I think inadvertently such a revealing detail that it's not the kind of thing you would make up and put in your book. It's [crosstalk 00:15:07].


Paul Kix:
Yeah, exactly.

Patrick Keefe:
So the second part of the question, to me that's the whole deal is finding moments and turns of phrase and visual images that resonate. And kind of finding those gold threads. And it's incredibly low yield work. I just think it takes a long time to, at least for me to find them. Again, just sort of telling details. But certainly as a reader I respond the most strongly to books and articles where I feel like somebody's kind of put in the time to produce a piece of work that is mostly those kinds of moments, because I know how hard they are to come by.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. I found the same thing... When I was reporting my book, or when I've been reporting a lot of different pieces, you come across histories that are just so very bland and dull because they give you a sense, sometimes even a really detailed sense of a moment in time or a region or whatever, but it's just like come on. I'm just taking the information from this. And this is a history. This is a complete history of the troubles, but at the same time I wouldn't classify it as a history because it's just like page after page is just anecdote and story and how these stories connect to one another. That's a big part of the reason. I know we're discussing just this one chapter but for anybody who hasn't read Say Nothing, please do because this one chapter is representative of so much of the book.

Patrick Keefe:
Oh, thank you. I'm glad to hear you say that because it was very much the intention when I got started that to not write a standard history book. In part, because there are many, many, many histories of the troubles and in part because I actually think a lot of the time... I mean I can walk out about this stuff all day but I think that there are sort of certain things that happen in almost any history of the troubles that have a way of crowding out the great material, and part of what I was trying to do is distill, and distill, and distill so that you really... So that those individual moments could really sing.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. The prison on the... This is another moment I want to get to hear. The prison on the ship is closed and it's closed in part because of what seven inmates faithful to the IRA carry out. And can you just explain this because this is a book and this a chapter in particular that's really serious that is at times mortifying to read, and at the same time what these seven guys did just had me laughing out loud as I read it. So could you tell the listener what was going on here?

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. I mean, it's such a kind of antic crazy story, but there was a prison break. The IRA were famous for these daring prison breaks, and there was a prison break from this ship, The Maidstone. What happened was that the ship was there and in the harbor, and it was winter. Actually, it was cold and the guys were worried that they... I interviewed one of them. The guys were worried that there was electric wiring, I think it was, sort of down around the ship. So to prevent anybody from swimming off. They looked at one day and they saw a seal navigating in the water around that wiring. They realized that the seal was fine.

Paul Kix:
I think they got a file and they were below decks in these kind of prison bunk houses, and early one morning they, I think, filed through a bar, basically a steel bar over this little round portal. Then they took their clothes off down to their underwear and slathered their bodies, their naked bodies with butter and black shoe polish because they were going to be getting into very cold water and they thought it would insulate them from the cold. And then one by one they squeezed through this little portal, dropped into the water, swam a couple hundred yards to the opposite shore.

Patrick Keefe:
And when they got to the other side they had no real plan, but they all climbed out of the water, and you sort of have to picture them they're in their underwear slathered in butter and shoe polish. And they wanted to hijack a vehicle and the first vehicle they hijacked was a bus, like a city bus. The driver is there and then suddenly these naked guys covered in shoe polish come in. The IRA was a paramilitary force that was drawn from the local community, and it was mostly people who'd had humble working-class jobs prior to becoming these violent revolutionaries.

As it happened one of their number, one of the seven had been a bus driver before the outbreak of the trouble. So he's driving and they drive right into the center of Belfast, and the word has spread that this escape has happened and eventually what happens is that the British Army sends in I think 600 troops to try and find them. But what they do is they drive into a Republican neighborhood and up to this one pub, and there's been no pre-planning for this, but they just figured that they might find friendly folks there.

And so these guys, again, naked except for their underwear in the middle of the winter get out of the bar and walk into this crowded pub, and people in the pub just took one look at them. Nobody even needed to say anything and everybody starts taking off their own clothes to give to the escapees... Somebody throws them a set of keys to a getaway car and says, "Away you go." And they end up getting out of Northern Ireland and driving south into the Republic where they give a press conference about how they've done this escape and the press anoints these guys as the Magnificent Seven.


Paul Kix:
When you come across something like that, what is your reaction? Is this something you're like, "I absolutely have to find a way to work it in," or is it like, "Only if it fits, am I going to fit in an anecdote like this."

Patrick Keefe:
Well, it's interesting because most of the time in the book I had a rule which was there has to be some connection, some first-order connection to my characters, again, because of this sense that I wanted it to be more like a novel than a history book. I didn't want to just tell you a bunch of stories just because they're good stories, I wanted it to feel somewhat connected. But there were places where I cheated a little bit and this is one of them.

Paul Kix:
But I would argue that it's fairly... I don't know if I'm just taking your side here, but it's fair to say that part of the reason they closed that prison ship is because of what these guys did. So you could-

Patrick Keefe:
And it's also part of the reason that when Gerry Adams who is one of the central characters comes in security is extra tight because he comes in just after this has happened. I mean these are these places where, again, it's a cheat but I think it's a permissible cheat because I think most readers don't notice, but from a narrative point of view in a perfect world this escape would have happened after Gerry Adams came on, but in a pinch you can start the chapter with Adams boarding the ship and then the security is tight and why is it tight? And then you backtrack to the fact that not long before, there had been this escape.

I think a big thing for me in writing the book was that the... As you said, when you posed the question, the troubles is inescapably a tragic story with a huge amount of darkness and this particular story I'm telling in this book is a dark one by and large. What that meant is that I had to really cling on to these more rousing moments of adventure and humor. And I did that for two reasons. One was that I think that for the reader if it makes it a sort of less unremittingly dark experience, and if you have prison breaks and chase scenes, and all these kind of set pieces which is really what they are, it makes the whole thing more digestible and an enjoyable.

The other thing though on a deeper level is that part of what I was really trying to capture in this book is that it's a book about terrorism, but it's also a book about young people in their early 20s who went out to fight what they saw as a revolution. And for them then it was glamorous and fun, and romantic. I think that I was fair in trying to capture that in the first half of the book because I do show you the hangover in the second half of the book that the glamor didn't last. So that's another reason that I wanted to get these moments is that for these guys, who did this, this was one of the great moments of their lives.


Paul Kix:
Yeah. It completely carries through throughout the whole book. I mean, I'm with these guys because it is romantic and they are... Excuse me, because they are ideal in these episodes come across as fun and they have these romantic notions of what is right and what is wrong, and are really firmly committed to it. 

Let's go back to Gerry. So he's transferred to another prison. It's called Long Kesh which a lot of inmates liken to a concentration camp and in fact it even kind of looks like one. It's got barbed wire exterior. It's got sentry towers. It's got floodlights. One day the British tell Gerry, he's free to go. At first, he thinks is a joke and then that he thinks he's being set up, but the British are serious. So this is kind of fascinating to me and it shows the power that Gerry had. Why is it exactly that Gerry was free to go?

 

Patrick Keefe:
Well, he's very young at the time. I mean unless I'm mistaken that he's 22.

Paul Kix:
He's like 22, 23.

Patrick Keefe:
But he was this very... Not formally educated. He'd been a bartender in what college, but a very, very shrewd analytical sophisticated thinker even as a young man. And so he had risen through the ranks of the IRA, to a leadership position in Belfast and he was perceived as one of the real bright lights of the next generation. And so there were these secret peace talks happening in London, and it was essentially a condition of the Provisional IRA, "We'll go and talk with the British government about the idea of a ceasefire, but we're only a go if Gerry Adams is released from prison and is able to was able to take part in these talks."

Paul Kix:
So the British set them up in this nice hotel in London, and the Irish do something that to me seems really cunning. They decide to intentionally underdress for their meeting. And this was a moment that was kind of revealing to me as well about class. Why is it that they decide to underdress and what does it represent to them?

Patrick Keefe:
Well, I think that these guys... I mean, they talked about it in advance and they basically said, "We've always been cowed by the British and shamed by the British. And we are this kind of ragtag band of revolutionary socialists. These guys had all come from jobs where Gerry Adams was a bartender. One of the other guys had been a butcher's assistant. And what they said is, "We're going to go in there and we're going to underdress. We're going to wear sweaters. We'll dress like the working man." And rather than be made to feel out of place or like we don't belong in some grand British house with these guys in their Savile Row suits, let them feel uncomfortable. Lets us be us, and let them realize that we have no respect for the kind of errors that they might put on, and any sort of an effort that they might make to have us feel out of place.

Paul Kix:
Gerry doesn't say much when these negotiations begin but the British... It's fair to say that they realize, "Oh, he is somebody who is a formidable opponent."

Patrick Keefe:
Yes. So he's quiet during these... These peace talks are botched, and basically what happens is that the guy who's the head of the IRA at that time comes in and basically presents a bunch of ultimatums to the British, and they sort of said, "We thought we were having a negotiation here. You're dealing is that you've already fought us to a standstill." So the negotiations are unsuccessful, and Adams just sits there quiet and watchful throughout this. But we know from some of the British interlocutors who were in the room that he was perceived as... I mean, it's interesting. He was perceived as a guy, and this really captures Adams in all these contradictions. As a guy who you could do business with. He was kind of reasonable and collegial, and almost erudite. But at the same time they registered even then when Adams is 22 that also made him extremely dangerous, because he had a silver tongue and he was able to turn on the charm, and he's kind of reading the angles in a way that some of his contemporaries were.

Paul Kix:
Just real quickly. So they fail because the IRA is saying, "We want freedom basically. We want to be recognized as... We don't want the British in Northern Ireland anymore, and we want the same sort of rights as our neighbors to the south have."

Patrick Keefe:
That is right. In fairness to the British, from their perspective what happened is that the IRA basically says, we want total withdrawal on a timeline by British forces but not just the British forces, but in fact you know that the British state would withdraw. And the issue even then I think was that you have a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, and I always thought, he had people that said this to me the British probably if it was up to them the English would be happy to cut Northern Ireland loose. The problem is there's all these Protestants in Northern Ireland who very strongly identify as British and the fear is that if you abandoned them they would kind of be subsumed by Catholic Ireland. And so essentially the point of view of the British negotiators was we can't just pull out like that. And you don't have enough military leverage to dictate those kinds of terms to us.

Paul Kix:
While these negotiations are going on there had been a ceasefire and after those negotiations Gerry basically sends out word that the ceasefire has ended. And when the ceasefire ends we are introduced to the second of our four major characters that we'll discuss today and that is Brendan Hughes. I like Brendan Hughes. I don't know what that says about me. Can you tell the listener who Brendan Hughes is?

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. Brendan Hughes was a another IRA member, a very, very close friend of Gerry Adams. And if Adams was the strategic thinker, Brendan Hughes was the tactics man. He was kind of an on-the-ground military commander. He was short and wiry, and very, very charismatic. Not a great intellect in the way the Gerry Adams was, but a real kind of soldier, soldier. At that point in the conflict is just out there carrying out operations left and right, and some of them very violent operations. And so he was somebody with, I think, a great deal of charisma. Many of the people who worked with him in the IRA were very, very devoted to him but also somebody who's who's setting bombs in public places.

Paul Kix:
Yeah, and that's the thing where he's really a complicated man because of that and one of those is a series of bombings in Belfast that takes place one July day in 1973. Why did Brendan to organize these bombings and what happened the day of the attack?

Patrick Keefe:
So the IRA always maintained that when they set bombs, their objective was not to kill people. So that's distinct from say Al-Qaeda or ISIS where the point is to murder civilians. With the IRA, the argument was always we have a way that we do things. We will put bombs in public places because they'll create destruction, they'll create fear. You'll have a lot of economic damage, but prior to the bombs going off we will call in warnings so that you're going to put a bomb in a store, you call in a warning an hour before and say, "There's going to be a bomb that goes off an hour."

And that was what they said, and the tricky thing there is that with a bomb in a public place there's no real margin for error human or otherwise. And so on this one day which became known as Bloody Friday, this one July day in 1972. They set almost two dozen bombs across Belfast. Set to go off one after another after another. And what ended up happening was that there were warnings called in, but they got garbled and there were too many bombs basically see you'd have a bomb called into one place and everybody runs out of that place to the adjacent bus depot, but it turns out there's also a bomb on the bus depot.

So what ends up happening is that these bombs start going off one by one and they end up killing and maiming a whole bunch of people. And Brendan Hughes watches this happen in real time. And there's this moment where he's out on the street and his men hear the bombs start going off. And they're cheering, and he says, "Wait a second. Now, there's too many of them. They're happening too close together." And he realizes you're going to kill a lot of people here, which is what ended up happening.


Paul Kix:
So it was later written that, and I think some of the newspapers in the days following that Belfast hadn't experienced a level of destruction like that since the German blitz in 1941. To me this episode highlights the tension that the book explores, and you mentioned it a second ago, and this is also something that my own book and something I always find fascinating in other books tend to deal with when they talk about guerrilla warfare, which is the almost indistinguishable line between freedom fighter and terrorists. And I'm wondering for you Patrick to what extent did this tension intrigue you as you were reporting and writing the book?

Patrick Keefe:
It did very much really from the outset. I think that the literature on the troubles has been it's remarkable there are many, many, many books written about the troubles, but it's often the case that to my way of thinking the IRA tend to be treated either as kind of two-dimensional terrorists that is purely evil, out to kill lots of civilians or two-dimensional freedom fighters, romantic figures who really shouldn't be blamed for any of the carnage that they created. 

And to me the truth is somewhere in between. And so part of what I wanted to try and do with the book was capture some of what I perceive to be the moral complexity of these stories, and to do that by getting as intimate and close with these individuals as I could. When you said, you like Brendan Hughes and you don't know what that says about you. Dozens of readers have said that to me over the last six months that essentially I found myself rooting for Brendan Hughes and then I became really uncomfortable with the idea that I had done that. 

And to me that's that's hugely validating to hear because if you weren't feeling some degree of sympathy and emotional identification with these people then I haven't done my job. But if you're feeling a level of identification that you're fine with and you're fine with all the things you're doing then I also haven't done my job.


Paul Kix:
Yeah. So I could tell you how, say the French resistance fighters justified attacks on their own cities during the war based on the reporting that I did, but I'm wondering how did Brendan Hughes justify for himself those series of bombings?

Patrick Keefe:
Well, I mean he didn't in the end. Part of what I was trying to do in the book was follow, almost do a kind of a longitudinal study of terrorism. And so you meet these people in their early 20s and you see them doing these things, but then how do they feel 15, 20, 30 years later as they look back on it. And in Brendan Hughes his case he felt wracked by guilt. He felt as though in the final analysis he'd done some terrible things and innocent people died who shouldn't have.

At the time, the argument was one that I'm sure would be familiar from other context. It was we're fighting an asymmetrical battle with a superpower and they controlled the battlefield and have all the advantages. And so we need to resort to unconventional warfare in order to make any sort of impression on them. I mean, I will say that even the IRA had trouble justifying the deaths of unaffiliated Catholic civilians. And so in those cases what they would say is always... The word was always it's regrettable. Here Gerry Adams us famous for his use of the word regrettable. It's regrettable that this happened. But what he would say is, "But let's remember, there's this whataboutery where the tendency is always to say, but let's remember the many more people that the British government has killed.


Paul Kix:
To crack down on episodes like this, the British had a secret squad, almost like a black ops squad that was called MRF that almost everyone including other British military and paramilitary officials in Northern Ireland, they didn't know about it. So what was MRF and what exactly did they do?

Patrick Keefe:
So the MRF was a small unit within the army. It was a plainclothes unit. They gathered intelligence. They conducted clandestine operations. I think there's there's pretty good evidence. They were involved in... They were essentially functioned as a state sanctioned assassination squad. And they did this in ways that turned out to be really nefarious. So some of it was clever intelligence gathering going undercover around Belfast trying to figure out who the paramilitaries were.

But for instance one of the things they would do is they would go out dressed as civilians and when they did attacks, they would use weapons that were known to be... They were not British army weapons, they would use weapons that were known to be used by the paramilitary groups specifically by the IRA so that if there were killings that happened or shootings that happened the army would have plausible deniability. And in fact people would point fingers at the paramilitary groups.


Paul Kix:
Not only would they point fingers, but then the MRF and its leadership was clever enough to go to reporters and basically reveal what the reporters were led to believe were these classified army documents. So they would go with that in the press and then you get the reporters... With the benefit of hindsight you get the reporters talking about how they realize they were being duped, and it's a black moment in their own career. So the whole thrust of it from the way that they would use the weapons that the IRA would use all the way through the way that they would execute it as a propaganda campaign, this is just some of the most fascinating material that I came across in the book. It's just stunning research and reporting. So I can't imagine in a book that's called Say Nothing that this was easy to get. Was it?

Patrick Keefe:
Some of it was, some of it wasn't. I mean, the MRF has been written about over the years. I think parsing out the MRF's role in these very murky cases was tricky to do. In some instances you get even as a reporter... I mean, it's funny. So the writer quite a famous writer Simon Winchester...

Paul Kix:
Is that the same Simon Winchester... I'm sorry if this derails it, but I'm just curious is that the same Simon Winchester who's written a few best-selling books?

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah, the very same. [inaudible 00:41:14] He was a young cub reporter with the Guardian in the early '70s and he was one of these reporters who got duped, and I interviewed him about it. He's very candid about it today that he would... After there'd been an incident what would happen is the British Army would invite him in, invite in the young Guardian correspondent and say, "Oh, we have intelligence on that person who was killed. Oh, yeah that guy was a quartermaster for the IRA." And that he later realized he was basically just being used. He was fed misinformation and used as a mouthpiece.

Look, I mean the intrigue in the story, again, there were... It served a number of functions. One, was just purely in terms of trying to make this good and interesting read. I grew up reading John le Carre. All the spy versus spy and double-cross stuff. I just gravitate to as a genre and as a an opportunity for a certain kind of storytelling. But it's also the case that a big part of the story that I'm telling here is about how the Army and the British forces, and the paramilitary groups turned the society inside out. They just created so much suspicion and hostility that it became a very difficult place for people to live. Even today, because you don't know who's an informant, you don't know who's going to double-cross you, you don't know who to trust.


Paul Kix:
Yeah. Is that in part where Say Nothing comes from as a title? Did that inspire it?

Patrick Keefe:
It did. I mean, I always knew... There's this famous poem by Seamus Heaney, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. And Heaney was from the north, and he wrote that poem about the troubles. I knew right from when I started the book that would be the time... For a long time, I actually thought the title would be Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. And then my very clever book editor said that's a mouthful, and we shortened it. And I think he was right. I think it's a better title. I mean when I was going to do a longer title my colleague Philip Gourevitch is somebody who... It's a treat for me that he's somebody who I grew up reading and revering. And his book on Rwanda has a mouthful for a title.

Paul Kix:
It's like three full lines. Can you recite it from memory because I know I can't?

Patrick Keefe:
We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. But that book was a real touchstone for me when I was working on this and I spend a lot of time talking to Philip as I was working. Originally I thought I would do one of those long titles, but my editor soundly thought otherwise.

Paul Kix:
I have a question about just Irishness in general. Did it help you in any way in your time in Northern Ireland that again your name was Patrick Radden Keefe. I say this only because even in my own experiences when I lived in Boston people of Irish descent, they come up to me when I was working on a story and I'd be on the Capitol building or doing some story on business, some businessman or something and they'd kind of look at me funny. They'd like, "Huh, Kix? What kind of name is Kix?" So there is this like tribalism to Boston. I'm wondering if in your own experience where you're dealing with really tribal cultures in Northern Ireland, did that name help you as you're reporting this?"

Patrick Keefe:
I thought it was going to make much more of a difference than it did. Having grown up in Boston, I know exactly what you're talking about and in some ways I think it's a very Irish American thing and maybe a very Boston Irish thing, but you know my father is always... My whole life, my father has been kind of, "Quigley, huh? Irish name." It's this [inaudible 00:44:59] and everything is read through that that particular lens. What I found when I got over there is that I think there are these incredibly strong affinities that Irish Americans fill with the Irish, but in Ireland I think there's more of a sense that these are two different people. They may have names that sound alike. But that Irish American, there's far more Irish Americans than there are people in Ireland and we are kind of our own creatures at this point with our own culture.

After centuries of immigration and assimilation, there are a lot of differences. And so I think I went over there thinking that people would say, "Oh, Patrick Keefe," and it might be a problem if I was talking to a Belfast Protestant, and it might help me if I was talking to Belfast Catholic because Keefe is a name that would read as Irish Catholic. But it didn't make much of a difference. I think when people heard me speak, they heard a guy who wasn't from that island, it was from somewhere else. And generally it didn't account for me or against me quite as much as I thought it would.


Paul Kix:
Huh, that's fascinating. So the British aren't the only ones with this black ops group. The Provos themselves which is already, by the way, somewhat secretive arm of the IRA. They had a group that even other Provos didn't know about, and that group was called The Unknowns which is just a chilling name. What did The Unknowns do?

Patrick Keefe:
The Unknowns were a secret unit that ultimately reported to Gerry Adams. The IRA was very hierarchical. You had these brigades and these battalions, and companies. You could org chart it all out in those years, and The Unknowns didn't really fit on the org chart. To this day we don't know exactly how many people are in the group, but there may be about a dozen. And they did wet work. I mean, they did top secret clandestine dangerous stuff. So they did bombing missions, they targeted certain people for execution, and they were shadowy even by the standards of the Provos.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. And two of The Unknowns most notorious members were a pair of sisters, Dolours and Marian Price. And these are the last of the four characters in the episode that we'll discuss today. And honestly, Patrick, in my mind we could have spent our whole time together just talking about these two. Why are they so fascinating?

Patrick Keefe:
Well, Dolours as I mentioned at the top was the reason I got into this project in the first place. I think she's fascinating for a bunch of reasons, but these two girls were raised in an Irish Republican family going back on both sides, their parents, their grandparents, generations, their families had been involved with the IRA. When they were little girls, their father Albert would sit them on his knee and tell them stories about how he'd once led a bombing mission to England and he had friends who've been hanged by the British. He would actually tell them the recipe for mixing improvised explosives when they were little girls. And they ended up being the first women to join the IRA as frontline soldiers.

This is in the early '70s, and they weren't going to you know fill an auxiliary role where they would be helping hide explosives or doing other stuff like. They actually wanted to be out there carrying guns and leading missions, and they did. Dolours ended up joining The Unknowns along with her sister. They led a bombing mission to London. They bombed the Old Bailey. They went to prison. They went on hunger strike. And late in her life Dolours ended up looking back on the things she'd done when she was young with some real misgivings.

And so all of that to me was interesting. Just on paper she had a very dramatic life. She seemed to have lived many lives. She was a very iconic figure kind of a radical chic figure in the IRA in the 1970s. And then I was very drawn to the fact that her thinking about the things she'd done had really evolved and so to me that seemed like a way to tell a story that wasn't just rooted in the '70s but a story actually it's kind of about the present day and how you make sense of the past.

 

Paul Kix:
Did either of them give any sense to you of those early years when they're doing these secret and quite dangerous missions of any level of fear that they had as they're carrying them out because they are... At least on the page they come across as people. They come across as two women who are not only hanging tough with the guys, but are doing stuff that the guys won't do. I'm just wondering if privately they talked with you at anyway about, my god, that was scary.

Patrick Keefe:
I should say I didn't speak to either of them because Dolours was dead by the time I started.

Paul Kix:
Oh, that's right.

Patrick Keefe:
And Marian for a variety reasons wouldn't talk with me. I mean, my sense is that they were young and very impetuous and it must have been terrifying. It could only have been terrifying, but I also think that part of what I was trying to capture in the book was the idea that when you're in your early '20s you feel invincible, and that there's a kind of romance of armed struggle that you can get a bit drunk on and I think they did.

Paul Kix:
The Price sisters and other members of The Unknown, around the time that Brendan Hughes is setting off his bombs in Belfast, they're asked to investigate a case within the IRA. Could you, Patrick help the audience understand what that entailed?

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. I can try. This is one of the hardest chapters to write and part because it's so convoluted and...


Paul Kix:
But it comes across as like... I mean, it is... That's amazing because even as I was listening to it... I listened to it on Audible. I was just like, "Man, I would love to have Patrick on this podcast and to discuss this chapter in particular." So that's really fascinating that you really struggled with it.

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah. It's all about telling it in a way that that doesn't just make people's heads spin, and figuring out when and how to present the information. But basically there was... Let me see if I can do this in a somewhat abbreviated way. There was a a guy named Joe Lynskey who was a friend of Dolours Price. He was a member of the IRA. People called him the mad monk because he trained as a monk before joining the IRA. And he was the intelligence guy in Belfast. And the way the story goes, one night there was another guy, Joe Russell who was also a member of the Provisionals. H was home one night when a guy came to the door of his house and shot him. It's actually the case that he came to the door he's holding a baby. The guy wanted to kill him, a young guy wanted to kill him, but lost his nerve because when Joe Russell came to the door he's holding a baby. So the guy shot him in the stomach, shot him in the gut.

Word goes out, and Brendan Hughes finds out about this and the question comes up who would have shot Joe Russell? Who shot our guy, our fellow Provo? And they asked Joe Lynskey, the intelligence guy and Joe Lynskey says that he thinks it might have been the official IRA, which is that other faction [crosstalk 00:52:53].


Paul Kix:
Another wing basically, the political wing for lack of a better phrase.

Patrick Keefe:
So these guys all go charging over to this unlicensed drinking club called The Cracked Cup which is known to be an official IRA hangout, and the idea is they're going to go in there and interrogate people, and find out who shot Joe Russell. So Brendan is not there and actually neither is Joe Lynskey but this group of young gunmen goes over and it later emerges that these guys, these young gunmen may have been drunk when they go and they barge into The Cracked Cup, this drinking club. They bar the door. They branch their weapons, and they start questioning people.

They get everybody up against the wall. And it so happens that there's a man there who is not a part of the IRA official or provisional, just a regular guy. He's out celebrating Mother's Day with his wife and his mother. His mother is 70 years old. And as these young gunmen are roughing up this guy's wife and mother, the guy makes the mistake of resisting and basically saying like, "Hey, don't rough them up," and a gun goes off, and a bullet pierces his leg. And normally what you would do in this situation is call an ambulance, get the guy medical attention and probably he would have been okay if they'd been able to do that quickly.

But these young IRA gunmen were worried about the British army being out on the streets and the police. And so they say nobody calls an ambulance and nobody leaves. They barred the door and everybody is stuck in there. They're just hostages. As this guy who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time slowly bleeds to death on the floor. Word gets back to Brendan Hughes and he's trying to figure out what happened here. Wow did this happen? This random civilian is dead and trying to kind of piece this whole thing together, and he launches an internal investigation. And he discovers that it wasn't the official IRA that shot Joe Russell in the first place. That was all a mistake.

In fact, something else had happened, which is that Joe Lynskey, the mad monk, the intelligence guy had actually been secretly having an affair with Joe Russell's wife and Joe Lynskey sent a young gunmen to go and kill Joe Russell his love rival. Gunman got there, panicked when he saw the baby, shot Joe Russell in the stomach and then ran off. And when the word came out and they were trying to figure out who done this, Joe Lynskey points Brendan Hughes in the wrong direction and says, "Oh, it was the officials." So they go off to The Cracked Cup and this innocent guy ends up losing his life. 

And this is where you end the chapter is that Brendan Hughes learns about this treachery by Joe Lynskey, and a decision is made by the IRA that Joe Lynskey needs to die. And this brings it back to Dolours Price because somebody has to take Joe Lynskey down into the Republic of Ireland or he's going to get killed, and the job ends up falling to The Unknowns and specifically to Dolours who was his friend.


Paul Kix:
She had known him for quite a while like going back to their childhood?

Patrick Keefe:
Not that far, no, but she'd known him certainly since she joined the IRA and felt very [inaudible 00:56:29].

Paul Kix:
Okay. So Dolours and Joe Lynskey are friends. And what happens when she goes to his house?

Patrick Keefe:
So she went to pick him up, and I mean in keeping with the theme of Say Nothing she didn't tell him why she was there. She told him that she needed to take him to a meeting in the south, and so Joe Lynskey came down the stairs and he was carrying a little overnight bag that he'd packed, and she said later, "It looked as if he was going off for a weekend in the country." And he got into the car with her and they started driving, and at a certain point she realized he knows. He knows he's not going for a meeting in the south. He knows he's not coming back and she started crying.

Paul Kix:
Did he say anything to her to acknowledge that or for her to pick up on the fact that he knew what was about to happen to him?

Patrick Keefe:
No. She just knew, she knew. And she she had this thing where she wanted to just drive him. What she thought to herself was why doesn't he beat me up? It's just me. Why doesn't he overpower me? And she thought... And this gets to the thematic heart of the book. She had this thought which she thought, I should just drive him to the ferry over to England, say that he ran off, let him get away. But she didn't do it because she'd been given an order to bring him down. And part of what the book is about is people whose humanity is kind of on a collision course with the orders that they're given in a paramilitary conflict, and this was one of those instances for Dolours Price. So she brings him down. There was a team of guys, local guys waiting south of the border to take him onward. She shook his hand and she said, "I'll be seeing you, Joe." She got back in the car and she drove back to Belfast and she cried the whole way.

Paul Kix:
Wow.

Patrick Keefe:
Yeah, it's intense.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. I don't know about you, but I've always seen... We've talked about this a little bit. I've always seen guerrilla fighters, these people fighting for their freedom, it's a just cause. It's always been in a somewhat heroic light. But what Brendan Hughes carries out how the glamorous Price sisters, the glamorous but zealous Price sisters I guess you could say, how they help to disappear people. Say Nothing disabuses it of this romantic notion. Did your idea of the troubles change at all as you reported this book?

Patrick Keefe:
I guess it did. I mean, again as I said before I didn't have really intensely romantic notions myself. I was just surrounded by people who did when I was growing up. It certainly deepened my sense of just the sheer tragedy of it all, and I think part of what I was trying to do... And I confess, I mean, I've written a lot about crime, I've written about war, I've written about a lot of scenarios in which people do terrible things to other people. But part of what I was trying to capture was that... And if you have an act of violence, it's a tragedy for the victims, and I wanted to honor that and tell that story. But it's also often a tragedy for the perpetrators. And I think that was part of what I was really trying to capture.

Paul Kix:
The music for Now That's a Great Story comes from Jeff Willett. If you liked this episode please remember to rate and review it wherever you listen to podcast. Patrick, this has been a great conversation. Thank you for coming on the show.

Patrick Keefe:
Thanks so much for having me.

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