OHC’s Inaugural Book Club: A Not-So-Oral History Conversation About “Say Nothing”

As oral historians, we’ve heard a lot about the Belfast Project, which collected interviews with people who were on both sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the implications that it had for ethics, transparency, and best practices for our work. Interviews were recorded, confessions to crimes were made, and the transcripts were archived at Boston College. And then they were subpoenaed, spurring endless questions and conversations about what we can and can’t promise to our narrators. (For more details, this paper outlines the history of The Troubles and the case in detail.)

But, in the summer of 2019, Patrick Radden Keefe published Say Nothing, a book outlining the case and the use of oral history, challenging what many of us thought we knew. Here’s the description from his publisher, Penguin Random House:

“In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Say Nothing
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Not-So-Transcript of the Not-So-Oral History of Our Conversation About Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Shanna Farrell: Let’s start with your favorite parts of the book.

Amanda Tewes: For me, it’s always really fascinating to hear about history from a memory perspective. This book reminded me of an extension of Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli and the idea that there are all these events but everybody disagrees on what happened. They remember it differently, but he’s bringing together a story based on not only the history, but also the memory, and how that clouds perception even today.

Martin Meeker: Admittedly, I listened to it and didn’t read it.  That’s actually one of my favorite parts—listening to it—because the gentleman who read it has this amazing Irish accent. It’s quite enjoyable. 

Roger Eardley-Pryor: It’s so good. His accent is beautiful. It put another layer of enjoyment on it. 

Meeker: But, what I really liked was that this is a story that I think a lot of oral historians think they know something about. It became clear pretty early on that it’s not only the story the oral history project, but one that really needs to be put in the context of the larger Troubles in Northern Ireland. Even though they move the project to the United States, they couldn’t they couldn’t move The Troubles out of it.

Eardley-Pryor: One of the things that I really loved about the book was the memories that it inspired in me. I studied and lived in Ireland in 1999. It was a year after The Good Friday Agreement was signed and Gerry Adams was on TV a lot representing Sinn Fein and forming this Peace Coalition. I remember walking through Belfast and one street had tri-colored Irish Flags painted on the curbs and flags that run between buildings, so you’re clearly in a Catholic space. And then you’d turn the corner and the roads are all painted red white and blue with the Union Jack with British flags flying between the houses. And, what I also loved about this book is how you follow individual characters through their own journey with The Troubles. That was just so Illuminating. 

Meeker: Shanna, did you have a favorite part of it? 

Farrell: My favorite thing about this book was the pacing of it. I really liked how he doled out the stories, which is something that I like in fiction a lot. One chapter tells one story and then you pause and go to another character. 

Meeker: I noticed how it unfolded, too, which worked really well for a nonfiction book. The historical actors are not usually characters, right? They’ll appear, they’ll make their contribution to history, and then they’ll disappear. But the people in this book get woven back into the story. You’re introduced to Dolours Price and Ed Moloney and Brendan Hughes early on and then they’ll come back in. You really get us a sense of their role in this long, unfolding history that covers decades. It’s really artfully done. 

Farrell: It really engaged me. It was definitely a page turner.

Meeker: It would be interesting to talk to the author, Patrick Radden Keefe, to figure out how he came up with the process of integrating the story of the tapes into the book. Did he decide beforehand that they would be a pivotal part of the story? You rarely get a nonfiction writer to spend that much time talking about the research methodology. But as it turns out, the research is a big part of the story. 

Farrell: Yeah, and super dramatic. I think that’s why it’s part of the story. That was actually one of my questions. Could this have been a book without oral history and the existence of the Belfast Project?

Tewes: With this particular book, no, because he does seem really taken with the idea of memory and the differing accounts of who said what when. The same person could have several different accounts. It seems to have been an important part of the book. So oral history, I think, made it that much richer. I’d like to know like how he decided to use oral history and at what point he decided to drive the narrative by adding dialogue to these characters, which he’s really taking it out of previous conversations and oral history. 

Meeker: That’s really fascinating to me. 

Eardley-Pryor: I was surprised at the end where they describe the sources. I thought he only had access to Brendan Hughes’ and one other person’s actual transcripts, right?

Farrell: That one of my big questions. I wasn’t sure whose oral histories he had access to. That brings me to my next question: what did you know about this case or project before the book, and how did this challenge what you thought you knew?

Tewes: As Martin said, I think this is something a lot of oral historians think they know. I remember when the case happened in 2013. I had taken my IRB test in 2015 and it was already part of the curriculum about why this was a problematic approach to doing oral history. So, I’d read a few articles and thought I understood what was going on. But, clearly there was a lot more happening behind the scenes and the politics in Ireland were just as important as what I was reading about in Boston College’s approach to the project. I feel like the way oral historians had discussed this was really divorced from the larger context. 

Meeker: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I think that my perspective around the mainstream oral history discourse about this seemed to be: “How dare they try to take these sacrosanct interviews that are under seal? We need to marshal our resources and fight.” Oral historians tended to link it to academic freedom, which I always thought to be a strange argument, but, I followed it. This book shows that the story is far more complex than that and the behavior of those who were running this program was pretty reprehensible. It is a really important case study, I think, for graduate students or anyone interested in oral history dealing with anything that’s sensitive to know that you can’t promise anonymity in this way. 

Eardley-Pryor: I had the same reaction to how this book flipped my understanding of the ethical issues involved in the oral history case. Initially, I thought how dare the British government come in and take advantage of this project when the people who participated in it were protected.  The ethical flip is actually that the project itself was structured in a way that they couldn’t protect the narrators. The real challenge was how the project was organized, not how the British government demanded access to it. 

Tewes: The book outlines what the people were promised, but where’s the official document?

Eardley-Pryor: They had different points of view, right? The Unionist interviewer thought for sure that everything was sealed tight until everyone was dead. The IRA interviewer, McIntyre, seemed to say it’s when the individual dies that we can release their transcripts. That’s totally different for people involved in the same project, right? 

Farrell: Right. It was a little fuzzy if they were going to release the project when everyone interviewed died, but when Brendan Hughes died they released his tapes and that seemed to be a violation of what they were told. But one passage [on page 286] says, “The men had also never decided just who would be allowed to access the interviews. The conversations had always been about ‘the future students of Boston College.’ But the history department at the college had not known, until the publication of Moloney’s book, that the project was happening at all. In fact, the archive had been so secret that almost nobody at Boston College, apart from [Tom] Hachey and [Bob] O’Neill, knew that it existed.”

Meeker: This brings up an interesting point. The project was always with the library, not the History Department. I’m not sure the History Department should even be brought into it. I would hate if there was an ethical problem in our office and someone from the History Department was interviewed about it. They’d say that they are the historians on campus and didn’t know about it.

Tewes: I just wanted to point out that they did not actually release the tapes when Brendan Hughes died. They released a book written about the transcript of the tapes. When we start getting technical about subpoenas for transcripts and tapes, it’s like there was always an edited version they were presenting.

Eardley-Pryor: Just as this entire book is an edited individual subjective take on the topic. They only had access to three oral histories of the whole project. All of the storytelling in this book is based on Keefe’s own research interviewing the actual people who worked on the project. He interviews Anthony McIntyre and talks about having dinners with him and his wife.

Farrell: Yeah, there were two interviewers on the project, one was who was supposed to interview the British Loyalists.

Eardley-Pryor: The British Terrorists.

Farrell: And the other interviewed the Republicans, so it was the IRA versus the RUC. 

Eardley-Pryor: McIntyre did the Irish interviews and it seemed like the author of this book had a real buddy-buddy relationship with him, sitting down to dinner with him and his wife, having cocktails together, asking pointed questions like “This is my theory, but what actually happened?” Keefe writes that McIntyre wouldn’t say yes or no, but wouldn’t deny things.

Meeker: But was there a record of exactly what the project leads said to the people who are being interviewed? I vaguely remember there being something in this book about that, but he does talk about the ambiguity. He says [on page 286], “in fact, there were quite a few fairly important points upon which their original conception of the project had been ambiguous. For instance, Wilson McArthur, Anthony McIntyre’s counterpart, who conducted all the interviews in the loyalist community, had been under the impression, as he was gathering the oral histories, that none of the interviews would be made public until all of the participants had died. He was caught off guard by the news that Moloney intended to publish Voices from the Grave just a few years after the last interviews had interviews had concluded, thereby revealing the existence of the archive when the first participants had died, rather than waiting decades until the last ones had.” I wonder if there were forms or if this was just ‘this is how we’re going to do the project’ and maybe they forgot to mention part of it.

Farrell: Well, there was a legal release. But I think one of the arguments that people make against the people who organized the project was that they weren’t trained oral historians. And that’s a huge problem. 

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a big problem. 

Meeker: It’s also interesting to think about sources. Gerry Adams wouldn’t talk to him.

Farrell: That’s not a surprise. He had to rely on the members of the IRA who served alongside Gerry Adams. He had the complete unredacted transcript of the Brendan Hughes interview, which Keefe said became an indispensable source. But apart from that oral history, no one would share any of the interviews with him. He never had access to the oral histories of Dolours Price. 

Eardley-Pryor: So he only had access to Brendan Hughes’s oral history and that’s it? 

Farrell: That’s it. Everything else was like telephone through McIntyre.

Tewes: Another researcher did an interview with Dolours Price, so he got the transcript from her.

Meeker: He did do interviews on his own. He interviewed the McConville kids.

Eardley-Pryor: And people who did their own memoirs. My sense from reading it was that he had done a ton of outside reading of other people’s own stories within the IRA.

Farrell: Here’s an interesting follow-up from the “Notes on Source” section: “Several years ago, Boston College started informing people who had participated in the project that they could have their interviews back. The university, burned by its own carelessness in handling such incendiary material, wanted to jettison its responsibility as custodian of the tapes. Many of the participants took the university up on it. One of them was Ricky O’Rawe. One day, he received a box from Boston College containing the recordings and transcripts of his conversations with McIntyre from more than a decade earlier. At first, O’Rawe could not decide what to do with them. Then he had an idea. He took the CDs and transcripts into the study in his house and lit a fire in the fireplace. Then he opened a nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured himself a glass…O’Rawe tossed his testimony into the flames. Then he drank the Bordeaux and watched it burn.” This is very descriptive. 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s why I love his writing.

Tewes: That’s crazy because Ricky [O’Rawe] wrote his own book [Blanketmen]. So yes, he had his own perspective, which was maybe pared down a bit, but he clearly was comfortable sharing some level of his interview. 

Eardley-Pryor: What was in those tapes that he wasn’t comfortable with?

Tewes: Right? 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s the curious part. 

Meeker: I think it’s also like the title of the book: say nothing. Both the IRA and the Loyalist sides were sworn to secrecy under the penalty of execution, which was the whole reason that Jean McConville got in trouble to begin with, true or not. All of these people were shown to be talking about secret things and recording them. 

Tewes: I’m glad you brought that up because we’ve been talking about the legal and ethical problems on the project, but as a narrator, I’m wondering if they felt comfortable with the person who is interviewing them and what their intention for participating in this project. For Dolours Price, I am a little bit convinced that there is some sort of self-destructive purging of the sins that she hoped it would come out. In many ways, she seemed to be tempting fate, even at the end, before she passed away. 

Meeker: Like she would admit to a murder? 

Tewes: Yes

Farrell: Because she did on tape.

Tewes: Yeah.

Eardley-Pryor: In the second interview especially. There’s a desire for truth.

Tewes: I felt both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price were upset by people saying nothing. Gerry Adams was no longer part of the IRA and now there are different version of history. 

Eardley-Pryor: And they are Catholics, too. I wonder if there’s some sort of confessional aspect to it as well.

Farrell: Or Like atonement?

Meeker: Oh, interesting.

Farrell: It’s confession. 

Tewes: Quite literally.

Meeker: Yeah, there wasn’t a mention about relationship between interviewing and confession. 

Farrell: No, but that would have been really interesting. 

Meeker: I’ve always thought about that connection. That’s so Foucault: the pleasure of the interview as confession. 

Tewes: I don’t know if this is a question that you were thinking about Shanna, but I was really struck as an interviewer trying to understand someone like McIntyre’s thought process behind the interviews. Keefe mentions that McIntyre was not an impartial person in this situation, and he was never meant to be. I wonder what would have happened if there had been an impartial interviewer, or at least someone a bit outside the system, in that room with them. Would those stories have come out? Would this have become a legal case?

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a really good question. Could the Belfast Project have happened if there were impartial participants doing the interviews?

Meeker: I think that’s an important question. Would any of these people have agreed to be interviewed in the first place? 

Farrell: Has this book changed the way that you think about oral history?

Eardley-Pryor: It changed the way I think about narrating a story using oral history. This book was great. I thought Keefe told a great story that was a page-turner based on really great research.

Tewes: I have a greater appreciation for the IRB process. I was on the other side of this debate before reading this book, actually. I thought the IRB review was defunct for oral history because it didn’t understand what we do and we have our own set of ethics. But, if an IRB panel had heard any of this from Boston College, I know they would have shut it down. They could have prevented a lot of the issues that came up after. I realized it’s not only for people who aren’t familiar with oral history, but for people who are trying to work outside the system that is set up to protect our narrators, and ourselves, legally.

Meeker: This contributed to thinking that I’ve been engaged with about oral history and the feeling I’m getting from a lot of my interviews lately. I feel like there is an increasing concern with image. People are unwilling or uninterested to discuss more controversial things or things that could possibly be controversial at some point in the future. Some of my interviews, despite my best efforts, are turning into public relations exercises. That’s not the kind of work that I want to do.

 Farrell: It’s made me think a little bit more about the agency of oral history and the power of being a narrator, what that experience is like for them. It’s almost like oral history was a character in the book because it had such strong agency to create a lot of these things. It’s more powerful than I think sometimes we give it credit for, mostly because this is what we do every day. It made me take a step back and think about the potential of projects that we could do here at the Oral History Center.