Jean McConville had just taken a bath when the intruders knocked on the door.
The rasp of knuckles at a West Belfast flat would jar many people at night in 1972. That sound for so many – fathers, young men, teens, a mother of 10 – marked the moment when lives were upended, families plunged into fear.
The mystery of a mother’s fate, told in spare, vivid detail, is just one of several lives stitched together in Patrick Radden Keefe’s arresting story, “Where the Bodies Are Buried.” In 15,700 words, he steeps readers in the daily terrors and psychological destruction wrought by decades of guerilla warfare in Northern Ireland. Readers understand by the story’s end that the grinding violence of the Troubles is not a historical conflict, but one that still fumes, indeed sometimes bursts to life, in the brick alleys and warrens today.
The Good Friday peace accord was supposed to snuff out the violence between the Irish Republican Army factions, paramilitaries loyal to the British crown and various police and military forces. But the agreement didn’t end the fighting and distrust that has tainted Northern Ireland’s politics, or even stop the murders. Nor did the document help to find the “Disappeared,” the people accused of disloyalty, executed and buried in unmarked graves. In many ways the revered peace pact endures in name only.
Keefe, an author and National Magazine Award winner, told me in a conversation that he was drawn to the McConville murder and Northern Ireland’s troubled history after reading an obituary in The New York Times. Dolours Price, a fiercely loyal member of the IRA who had served prison time for her role in a 1973 London bombing, had died in January 2013. She had stunned people in Britain and Ireland when she claimed years earlier that she had followed orders from Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein party leader who has long denied his IRA membership despite evidence to the contrary. Since 2011, police had been fighting to get access to a recorded interview stored at Boston College detailing her work in the IRA.
Price was one of several revolutionaries and loyalists who had agreed to be interviewed by two oral history researchers documenting the Troubles for the college’s archives. Each interview, conducted in secret, was supposed to remain sealed until that participant’s death. But British investigators argued that the recordings were material to McConville’s murder investigation. The researchers fought back, but ultimately the college turned over the files in September 2013.
Keefe could have structured the story along several frames. There was the fight over the interviews, as well as the revived investigations into several murders. He could have delved into Adams’ reputation among his former revolutionaries and the fate of the peace agreement. He probably could have explored the entire history through the life of Price, the ultimately bitter revolutionary. But the BC case had been well told by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The police investigations are still brewing. Until the investigators popped open a big discovery, an exploration of Adams culpability might have been limited.
Keefe chose the emotional draw of the biggest unsolved mystery of the Troubles, that of the Disappeared, people who were accused of colluding with the enemy, whisked to their deaths, their bodies buried in unmarked spots. No case haunts the territory quite like the McConville murder. Hauled from her home by masked men and women in front of her screaming children, McConville’s body was found 31 years later. Her murderer and the abductors have not been convicted. In the years that followed her disappearance, McConville’s children were ignored by neighbors, rebuffed by republicans and left to watch abductors whom they recognized drive around freely. For years they hoped their mother would walk through their apartment door.
With the steady collection of detail, Keefe explains how the disappearances and killings corroded the territory, making some residents wonder if some people deserved what they got. Keefe mined books, news clippings, interviews and documentaries, using quotes and detail to recreate the fear of that violent age. To introduce a section on Price’s biggest operation, Keefe opens with the heart-stopping moments before a strike. A woman answers the telephone at the London Times in March 1973. She hears “a man reciting, in a soft brogue, the descriptions and locations of several cars that were parked in the city. ‘The bombs will go off in one hour,’ he said.” One man died and 200 were injured in two blasts. But Keefe reminds us that this was a new front in the war, and Price was arrogant about the carnage, determined as any militant to inflict harm. “In Belfast, we gave fifteen-minute warnings,’’ a revolutionary quotes her as saying. “In London, we’d given them an hour.”
Beyond the central spine of the story, the McConville murder, Keefe explores the politics and tactics of Irish warfare, a landscape where militants used every means against the Queen’s automatic weaponry and watchtower stations. Keefe dips into snitches, the perils of bomb making, weapons smuggling, peat bog graves, force feedings during the hunger strikes, and the “rebel chic” sexual allure of the IRA’s women. In guerilla warfare, you use what’s available, who’s available, collateral damage be damned.
Investigators, aided by the college recordings, are pursuing murder cases with new zeal. There have been new murders in the north, no doubt fueled by old grudges, and furious residents have blamed Adams, saying he is dishonest when he insists that the IRA’s crimes have ceased. Days ago, police officials said members of the Provisional IRA, a paramilitary group seeking a united Ireland, aided the public execution earlier this month of one of their former members. The deceased had been accused of murdering a former IRA colleague in May.
The bodies are still buried up north, layered under peat, and many secrets are buried too. The peace agreement that was supposed to end the conflict, Keefe seems to say, is a false one, just one door knock from disappearing.