Say Nothing - Patrick Radden Keefe


The Treasure Room

July 2013

The John J. Burns Library occupies a grand neo-Gothic building on the leafy campus of Boston College. With its stone spires and stained glass, it looks very much like a church. The Jesuits who founded the university in 1863 did so to educate the children of poor immigrants who had fled the potato famine in Ireland. As Boston College grew and flourished over the next century and a half, it maintained close ties to the old country. With 250,000 volumes and some sixteen million manuscripts, the Burns Library holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political and cultural artefacts in the United States. One of its librarians, years ago, was sent to prison after he was caught trying to sell to Sotheby’s a tract by Saint Thomas Aquinas that was printed in 1480. The library developed such a reputation for purchasing valuable antiquities that a subsequent director once had to call the FBI himself, when an Irish grave robber tried to sell him looted tombstones bearing ancient Latin crosses and intricate rings and inscriptions.

The rarest and most valuable objects in the Burns Library are kept in a special enclosure known as the Treasure Room. It is a secure space, exactingly climate-controlled and equipped with a state-of-the-art fire suppressant system. The room is monitored by surveillance cameras and can be accessed only by entering a code on an electronic pad and turning a special key. The key must be signed out. Only a select handful of people can do so.

One summer day in 2013, two detectives strode into the Burns Library. They were not Boston detectives. In fact, they had just flown into the country from Belfast, where they worked for the Serious Crime Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Passing beneath colourful stained glass windows, they approached the Treasure Room.

The detectives had come to collect a series of secret files that for nearly a decade had been stored in the Treasure Room. There were MiniDiscs containing audio recordings, as well as a series of transcripts. The librarians at Boston College might have saved the detectives a trip by just sending the files to Belfast by post. But these recordings contained sensitive and dangerous secrets, and when they took possession of the material, the detectives handled it with the utmost care. The recordings were now officially evidence in a criminal proceedings. The detectives were investigating a murder.



Child with burning cars, Divis Flats, Belfast (Jez Coulson/Insight-Visual)


An Abduction

Jean McConville was thirty-eight when she disappeared, and she had spent nearly half her life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth. She brought fourteen children to term and lost four of them, leaving her with ten kids who ranged in age from Anne, who was twenty, to Billy and Jim, the sweet-eyed twins, who were six. To bear ten children, much less care for them, would seem like an impossible feat of endurance. But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.

Instead, life dealt her an additional test when her husband, Arthur, died. After a gruelling illness, he was suddenly gone and she was left alone, a widow with a meagre pension but no paying job of her own and all those children to look after. Demoralised by the magnitude of her predicament, she struggled to maintain an even emotional keel. She stayed at home mostly, leaning on the older kids to wrangle the younger ones, steadying herself, as if from vertigo, with one cigarette after another. Jean reckoned with her misfortune and endeavoured to make plans for the future. But the real tragedy of the McConville clan had just begun.

The family had recently moved out of the flat where Arthur spent his final days and into a slightly larger dwelling in Divis Flats, a dank and hulking public housing complex in West Belfast. It was a cold December and the city was engulfed in darkness by the end of the afternoon. The cooker in the new flat was not hooked up yet, so Jean sent her daughter Helen, who was fifteen, to a local takeaway for a bag of fish and chips. While the rest of the family waited for Helen, Jean drew a hot bath. When you have young children, sometimes the only place you can find a moment of privacy is behind a locked bathroom door. Jean was small and pale, with delicate features and dark