An American Reporter in Belfast: How a New Yorker Writer Got So Much Wrong in His Bestselling Book On The Troubles

Photograph Source: Kenneth Allen – CC BY-SA 2.0

About two-thirds of the way through Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s much reviewed, much lauded account of the IRA’s disappearance of Belfast housewife, widowed mother-of-ten and alleged British Army spy, Jean McConville, the author describes the day in 2011 that I learned that the US Department of Justice had served a subpoena on Boston College purportedly in a bid to find her killer.

The subpoena had been delivered on behalf of the British government and the police in Northern Ireland, and it sought access to an oral history archive that I had helped to create. Conceived in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the archive was devoted to collecting the memories of republican and loyalist paramilitary activists involved in the Troubles and it had been funded by, and was lodged at Boston College.

He wrote:

On a bright chilly (Spring) morning…Ed Moloney was at home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx when he received a phone call that filled him with alarm. Boston College had just received a subpoena.

Actually, I was not yet filled with alarm. I had beaten a Scotland Yard subpoena demanding my interview notes a few years before and if the same tactics were employed by Boston College to resist it – rallying public and political opinion behind the slogans of academic and media freedom, highlighting British hypocrisy and stressing society’s need to know what had happened during the Troubles – I believed the subpoena could be seen off. Alas, thanks in large measure to Boston College’s funk, that proved to be a pious hope.

Patrick Keefe does not write about what he did that day in May 2011. But if his normal routine was followed he would have driven to the Pentagon across the Potomac from Washington DC, probably around the same time as the subpoena arrived at Boston College, parked his car and made his way to his office in the depths of that unnerving building.

That was how his workday began in those days, as a special policy adviser to Defense Secretary and former CIA chief, Robert Gates, whose hire by Obama sent the message that employing one of George W Bush’s most loyal aides was testament to the first Black president’s loyalty to American values.

When Patrick Radden Keefe sought my assistance, first for a New Yorker article on Gerry Adams titled, ‘Where The Bodies Are Buried‘ and then for his recently published book Say Nothing, he made no mention of his service at the Pentagon. I discovered this only recently when a friend pointed it out.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I don’t believe that working in journalism one day and government the next is acceptable behaviour for any self-respecting journalist. I have spent most of my working life in a part of the world where most journalists kept a healthy professional distance from government, regarding officials and ministers almost as the enemy, the keepers of secrets, the peddlers of propaganda, the advocates of censorship and, too often, the tellers of lies. The idea of a reporter switching back and forth between government and journalism was foreign to me.

But I know that America is a different country and the values of journalism can vary from place to place. If Patrick Keefe had told me of his history at the Pentagon I would certainly have asked him some hard questions and I might have been slower to give him all the help he needed, not least the substantial assistance I gave in his writing of Say Nothing’ But I would not necessarily have shown him the door.

But he didn’t tell me. Moreover, he has kept that chapter of his past from the readers of Say Nothing. His potted biography on the dust jacket of Say Nothing, published in Ireland and the UK by William Collins and in the US by Doubleday, entirely omits this two-year long chapter in Keefe’s career, denying the book’s many readers a pertinent piece of information.

And what about his sources in Ireland?

Many of the people he spoke to in Ireland had spent large chunks of their lives resisting the British government’s uniformed forces in Ireland; quite a few had spent many years in jail or internment camps. Some of those who had shared their life memories with Boston College now faced the prospect of going to jail thanks to the subpoena which the US government had served on behalf of their ally in the never-ending Global War On Terror.

Didn’t the people Patrick Keefe sought out in Ireland have the right to know that the journalist who wished to dip his pen into the inkwell of their memories, had worked in the Pentagon when the subpoena was served? If he didn’t tell me, I must assume he didn’t tell them. And he didn’t tell them, I suspect, because he knew full well that distrust and hostility to the security world, of any government stripe, ran so deep that they would not talk to him and his book would be stillborn.

The key question that arises from this excised chapter in his life story is whether it influenced his approach to the story of the disappearance of Jean McConville and the key, still hotly debated question: was she really a British Army spy? 

Unlike myself, Patrick Keefe is nominally agnostic about whether Jean McConville was on the books of British military intelligence when women from the IRA’s female wing, Cumann na mBan, invaded her home in west Belfast’s Divis Flats, took her away and persuaded her to confess. He has said in more than one post-publication media interview that he does not know; but he advances more arguments against her being a spy than for.

He cites the lack of privacy and paper thin walls in the vast Divis Flats public housing project in west Belfast where she and her ten children lived, as casting doubt on the IRA’s claim that a pocket radio found in her apartment could have been used to communicate with her military handlers.

Everything she would say on the radio could be heard by neighbors, he writes, apparently unaware of what life in public housing projects like Divis Flats is really like, where noise pollution ranks alongside broken elevators and defective garbage chutes as the residents’ most persistent complaint. A whispered conversation over radio waves would be completely drowned in the cacophony of crying babies, the shouts and cries of adults and the blare from hundreds of television sets.

And he wonders how she could have seen anything of value to British military intelligence, perhaps not realising that in those early days the IRA operated quite openly in places like Divis Flats, sending out armed patrols to roam the corridors, their members vulnerable to a neighbour’s prying glance.

Indeed, the now deceased IRA commander in the area, Brendan Hughes, told me way back in the late 1990’s that this was how Jean McConville was discovered to be spying on his comrades. One of her children, he said, remarked in the earshot of one such IRA patrol that a pocket radio carried by one of its members looked the same as the one used by their mother. The IRA raided her apartment, he said, and it was found.

Hughes let her off with a stern warning on that occasion but, according to Dolours Price, a member of the IRA’s ‘Unknowns’ unit which killed and buried her, she resumed her spying and was identified, hidden behind an army blanket in a police barracks adjacent to Divis, as IRA suspects were paraded before her.

Slits at eye level enabled her to give the thumbs up or down as the suspects passed by. But the blanket did not fully reach the floor and someone recognised her distinctive carpet slippers poking out the bottom. She was then abducted, allegedly confessed her activity, and was then transported by the Unknowns across the Border. The IRA in the border town of Dundalk could not bring themselves to do the deed, so the Unknowns were sent for again to kill and secretly bury her.

That is the version of Jean McConville’s death as told to me by a number of former IRA activists who were involved one way or another in her demise; the formal IRA leadership has said nothing publicly other than to repeat the spying charge as justification for killing her.

The claim that a radio was found in Jean McConville’s flat was central to the IRA accusation that the widowed mother was a British Army spy. So what independent evidence exists to support the claim? Were such radios available to the British security forces in 1972? And what did Patrick Keefe conclude about this matter?

The most likely radio available at that time was the Stornophone, a small hand-held device that was introduced for military use in Northern Ireland in early 1972. A researcher colleague was able to trace a photograph of a soldier in the Gloucester Regiment using a Stornophone in, of all places, Divis Flats in early 1972, several months before the IRA disappeared Jean McConville. I published it on my blog,

Patrick Keefe acknowledges the existence and significance of the photo in ‘Say Nothing’ but immediately balances it with a denial from a RUC Special Branch, or intelligence officer called Trevor Campbell that such radios were in use at that time. So, he leaves the matter hanging in the air with a classic journalistic fudge.

Except that I gave him convincing evidence that the Special Branch man was wrong. In the report into the Bloody Sunday killings of January 1972, the Saville report – which convincingly condemned the British Army’s behaviour in killing fourteen innocent civilians in Derry – disclosed that Stornophones were issued to troops in the city that day. The report said they were considered superior to the existing heavy and bulky radios carried by British troops.

I brought this important detail to Keefe’s attention, sending him an email with the relevant paragraph number in the Saville report. But he ignored it.

In January 2018, nearly a year before ‘Say Nothing’ was published in Ireland and the UK, a former British soldier called Harry Beaves published his memoir of serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He was stationed in Andersonstown, one of the strongest IRA areas in Belfast, in July 1972, just after the British Army had moved in strength into Catholic parts of Northern Ireland.

He had this to say about the radios available to British troops at the time:

‘Military radios at the time were heavy and cumbersome. The A 42 standard man pack radio we used in Germany was about ten inches by nine inches by three, with a battery roughly the same size. The delight of Northern Ireland was that we were able to use Stornophone handsets similar to those used by the emergency services. The set was small enough to fit into the breast pocket of a combat jacket and had fixed frequencies that required no tuning….’

Beaves’ account was available months before Patrick Keefe completed ‘Say Nothing’ but he missed this important piece of evidence.

When Patrick Keefe came to the Jean McConville story both Hughes and Price were dead; unlike myself he never was able to look into their eyes as they told of the part they played in this story. Nor has he ever spoken to Gerry Adams, the man whom both Hughes and Price insist gave the order to disappear Jean McConville.

If she was a spy, then there is an aspect of the story which has been widely ignored, not least by Patrick Keefe. Someone in the British Army must have recruited her, paid her, debriefed her and given her instructions. But would the military really have stooped so low as to endanger the life of a widowed mother-of-ten in such a way? And did the military continue to use her services knowing that the IRA had caught her but had let her off with a warning? The British Army, of all people, knew full well what fate awaited informers uncovered by the IRA.

When Patrick Keefe began his research I introduced him to James Kinchin White, a former British soldier who had made a hobby of trawling the shelves of the British government’s archive at Kew in Surrey for historical nuggets from the Troubles. JKW, as I call him, had served in Belfast and knew his subject well.

I had interviewed him for the prize-winning documentary for Irish television based partly on Hughes’ interviews with Boston College, which had also formed the basis for my book ‘Voices From The Grave‘.

James had served in the Royal Green Jackets regiment, in the same area of Belfast where Hughes operated. One day, on patrol, he spotted the IRA leader aiming his revolver at other soldiers; he placed Hughes in his gun sights and was about to pull the trigger when an old lady got in his way. When he looked back, Hughes had gone. In such ways does fate work its magic.

After the Boston College subpoena was served I asked JKW to keep an eye out for material at Kew that might help solve, or shed light on the mystery of Jean McConville’s disappearance, in particular could she really have been a spy?

He made a search and came up with a revealing item in a publication produced by his old unit, the Royal Green Jackets (RGJ) regiment, which had served in Divis between August and December 1973, nearly a year after Jean McConville had been killed and secretly buried by the IRA. The item, in the RGJ Chronicle, read:

One important aspect of our work in Divis was to be able to ‘chat’ up the occupants and thereby obtain useful information. Both Robin Gamble and subsequently Major Graham McKinley, to whom he handed over ‘B’ Company, monopolised all the pretty birds in the flats as their ‘sources’, but despite this, by the end of the tour, all sections had established a friendly contact here or there.

I made sure that Patrick Keefe was aware of this story; it was an important clue as it demonstrated that military intelligence targeted women as well as men in Divis and I expected him to use it. The item begged an obvious question: could Jean McConville have been recruited to spy on her neighbours in such a way? And if she was recruited didn’t the military’s willingness to expose a widowed mother of ten to the dangers inherent in informing on her neighbours place the British Army on a moral plane not far from the IRA?

Patrick Keefe did not use that story from the Green Jackets’ Chronicle, nor did he ponder any of the moral questions arising from the British Army’s possible role in her recruitment as a spy. That absence is a significant, glaring and perhaps revealing weakness in his book.

I met Patrick Keefe as he researched his New Yorker piece, ‘Where The Bodies Are Buried‘, and I grew to like him. So when he came to ask my help in researching a book on the disappearance of Jean McConville, I gladly agreed.

I gave him an unredacted copy of Brendan Hughes’ interviews with Boston College and, later on, a copy of two interviews I had conducted with the late Dolours Price, who had transported Jean McConville across the Border, and had fired the shots, along with two of her comrades, members of the so-called ‘Unknowns’ IRA unit, that hurled Jean McConville into eternity.

The Hughes’ interviews formed the core of my book, ‘Voices From The Grave’, published in 2010 and the television documentary of the same name which I co-produced the following year. Dolours Price’s remarkable interviews were at the center of the recently released documentary, ‘I, Dolours‘ which I co-produced with Nuala Cunningham of New Decade in Dublin. ‘I, Dolours’ was released last year.

It is now widely accepted that Gerry Adams, as the military commander of the IRA in Belfast in 1972, gave the order to ‘disappear’ Jean McConville and, unsurprisingly, Adams would play a central role in Keefe’s story.

As most followers of the Troubles story know, Gerry Adams has consistently denied being in the IRA, although few believe him. I explained to Patrick Keefe that it had not always been so, and told him the following story, set in 1980, when I was still a freelance reporter working for Vincent Browne’s Magill magazine in Dublin. 

Vincent had commissioned me to write a piece on the recent takeover of the IRA by Gerry Adams and his radical allies from the North, people like Martin McGuinness and Ivor Bell. So I had asked to meet and talk to the organisation’s leadership.

Eventually I got a positive response and I suggested we should meet at an hotel in north Dublin where I was staying. That evening the IRA arrived in the form of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and a third figure, a leading Belfast Provo, the three most powerful men in the organisation.

The four of us sat and talked about the IRA, Adams included, for several hours and Adams was at times quite frank about his military role. I was able to work out that he was probably the organisation’s Northern commander at or around that time. 

Time moved on until it got so late the three men decided they should stay rather than risk being spotted walking into town where they might be harassed by the Irish police. I got spare blankets and pillows/cushions for them and they settled down to sleep on armchairs or the floor. I retired to my bed, which I was not going to give up for anyone. When I awoke the trio had decamped.

In ‘Say Nothing’, this story became: 

‘Once, when Adams was on the run, the two men sat up chatting in an hotel room, and, because it was unsafe for anybody to leave, Moloney spent the night sleeping on the floor’. 

He also bungled the genesis of what became the Boston College archive. The archive was an idea conceived and developed by myself and former IRA prisoner, Anthony McIntyre not, as he writes, by Paul Bew, McIntyre’s PhD supervisor. Bew arrived at our door from a sabbatical year at Boston College not, as Patrick Keefe claims, to head-hunt for the proposed archive but seeking project ideas for the college’s librarian, Bob O’Neill. We suggested the archive and Boston College went for it.

He claims Brendan Hughes told both myself and McIntyre that he wanted his interviews with Boston College turned into a book after his death; not true, I learned of this promise only after Hughes had died, and I had told Keefe that. 

He omits entirely the reason for myself interviewing Dolours Price, which was to stop her from talking herself into serious trouble by opening her door to any reporter who came knocking, something she seemed intent on doing after a disastrous interview she gave to the Belfast daily, The Irish News. 

I felt a personal responsibility for her plight, since persuading her to give an interview to Boston College in the first place had arguably set her on this path. This is important detail told to Patrick Keefe which he completely ignored.

The media reaction to Say Nothing in the United States was a writer’s dream. The New York Times reviewed it twice; Irish novelist, Roddy Doyle provided one of the reviews, calling the book ‘excellent’, in particular praising Keefe’s use as metaphor, the discovery on Jean McConville’s remains of a nappy pin she carried around with her for infant emergencies. Doyle apparently was unaware that Susan McKay first wrote about the nappy pin in December 2013 in the London Review of Books where presumably Patrick Keefe had first spotted it.

The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and more than a dozen other media outlets followed, each pouring praise on the book. ‘Say Nothing’ rose to seventh place in the Times’ non-fiction bestsellers list and at the time of writing was enjoying its fourth week amid the publishing world’s elite. Audible hired him to tape the book, Hollywood pitched in with a option to make a TV series and he has become the go-to guy on, of all things, Brexit and the Irish Border.

The reaction in Ireland to his book was more low key since most of what was described in Keefe’s book was well known in Ireland. Former BBC journalist, Martin Dillon had first revealed the IRA practice of ‘disappearing’ alleged spies in his 1988 book, ‘Dirty War’ which was based in no small measure on ‘off-the-record’ interviews with Brendan Hughes.

In 2003, I revealed in my book, A Secret History of the IRA, that Jean McConville had been ‘disappeared’ by a secret IRA unit called the Unknowns and that the order had been given by Gerry Adams. Seven years later I published Voices From The Grave (VFTG), and co-produced a documentary of the same name for the Irish TV channel RTE. 

Brendan Hughes, the IRA voice in VFTG, was featured in both book and film, speaking at length about the Jean McConville disappearance. His extracts were taken from Boston College interviews conducted by Anthony McIntyre. In between and for long afterwards, the McConville story had figured constantly in Irish print and electronic media. 

Last year, interviews I had conducted with Dolours Price back in 2010 formed the basis of the documentary film ‘I, Dolours’, produced, in accordance with a promise made to her before her 2013 death. In the interview she describes in harrowing detail the killing of Jean McConville and three other people she helped to disappear.

In America, ‘Say Nothing’ was a new story; in Ireland it was old hat.

So, how did Patrick Keefe dish up this ageing material in Say Nothing?

The Chicago Style Guide has, for as long as anyone can remember, been the standard in the  publishing business for handling footnotes in books. When citing a reference in a book to another source – published, broadcast or otherwise – the author gives it a number and at the end of the chapter or book, the same number tells the reader in more detail what the source was for that particular piece of information.

One advantage of this system is that the reader or researcher is immediately aware that a piece of information appearing on a page has a source, that it is not the original work of the author. 

Patrick Keefe does not use the Chicago Style Guide on footnotes for ‘Say Nothing’. The system he uses is, as far as I can ascertain, unnamed and used by publishers who, as one industry source put it, ‘want to convey a more commercial narrative’. 

There are no numbered footnotes in Keefe’s chapters, nothing to distinguish information that he has excavated from another writer’s work. And he is spare with quote marks; the bulk of the writing is in reported speech. The reader could plough through his book and not know there are footnotes until the very end and even then linking the footnotes to the text is a laborious business which many readers could be forgiven for avoiding. (In the Kindle edition of ‘Say Nothing’, there are no footnotes at all and the average reader could be forgiven for thinking that all of the book’s contents were the products of Keefe’s labor.)

The writing thus flows uninterrupted, appearing to the untutored reader – or reviewer – as being the work of the author when it may not be. It takes hard work and determination to discover how much of this book is truly original reporting and how much is taken from other people’s work. A ‘more commercial narrative’ indeed.

And so, for instance, it is less than immediately apparent where ‘Dirty War’, Martin Dillon’s 1988 revelation that the IRA had consigned spies in its ranks to unmarked graves, ends and where Keefe’s own research begins. 

My book and film, ‘Voices From The Grave’ are all but written out of chapters that tell Brendan Hughes’ dramatic story, Keefe preferring to cite Brendan Hughes’ interviews with Boston College, which I gave him, as his source. 

He acknowledges that I gave him the Hughes’ interviews in ‘a note on sources’ at the very end of his book but the problem is that the same interviews were the source for the book and film, Voices From The Grave, which saw the light of day nearly a decade before Say Nothing. This is not new material but Patrick Keefe does not make that clear to his readers.

The book, Voices From The Grave, does not get a mention until page 321 (of a 399 page book) and then mostly in the context of the genesis of the Boston College subpoena.

The untutored reader – or reviewer – could be forgiven then for assuming Patrick Keefe’s account of Brendan Hughes’ interviews with Boston College is the first to be published. But it is not.

The climax of Say Nothing comes appropriately at the very end when he claims to have discovered the identity of the third, allegedly still living member of the Unknowns who, he writes, fired the first and probably fatal shot at Jean McConville.  

When Dolours Price agreed to speak on the record about the McConville killing, she imposed a condition that was in effect stricter than that granted to Boston College interviewees; I must not name nor otherwise identify any of her comrades who were still alive. I agreed. 

Of the other two members of the Unknowns unit, we thought Pat McClure had emigrated to Canada; he had actually decamped to Connecticut where he became a prison officer, of all things. When making I, Dolours, we confirmed a rumour that he had died of cancer not long after he arrived in America. 

That left the third, still living member whose name I had promised I would never reveal, nor any detail that could lead to identification. In my mind that included narrowing the field of candidates by denying inaccurate names or descriptions that might be bandied about. The Unknowns were a very small, elite group and excluding one candidate inevitably narrowed the field.

At a meeting in the Bronx last year Patrick Keefe asked me about a redaction in the transcript of Dolours Price’s interview, actually a very small one, that I had made, in agreement with ‘I, Dolours’ co-producer Nuala Cunningham, and out of an abundance of caution, before making the text of the interview available to him. I answered as honestly as I could, which was that it was done, in accordance with my promise to Dolours Price, to protect the third person who was still alive. And that is all I said.

It was at this stage of his book that Patrick Keefe made a leap in the dark. 

He wrote: 

For several years I made periodic trips to the Bronx, to meet Ed Moloney. Eventually he shared with me an unpublished transcript of one of the two long interviews he conducted with Dolours Price. The document consisted of thirty dense, single-spaced pages. Before entrusting it to me, Moloney had made one key redaction – he removed the name of the third executioner who was at McConville’s grave.

He was wrong. There was no name to remove.

Ed Moloney is the former Northern Editor, The Irish Times; former Northern Editor, The Sunday Tribune; author of A Secret History of the IRA (Penguin/WW Norton);  Voices From the Grave (Faber & Faber/Public Affairs); Paisley:  From Demagogue to Democrat?  (Poolbeg Press, Dublin); Co-producer of ‘Voices From the Grave’, IFTA documentary of the year, 2011; Co-producer of ‘I, Dolours’, screened on Hulu, iTunes, Amazon and Netflix UK; Irish Journalist of the Year, 1999.