Jean McConville had just taken a bath when the intruders knocked on the door. A small woman with a guarded smile, she was, at thirty-seven, a mother of ten. She was also a widow: her husband, Arthur, had died eleven months earlier, of cancer. The family continued to live in Divis Flats—a housing complex just off the Falls Road, in the heart of Catholic West Belfast—but had recently moved to a slightly larger apartment. The stove was not connected yet, so Jean’s daughter Helen, who was fifteen, had gone to a nearby chip shop to bring back dinner. “Don’t be stopping for a sneaky smoke,” Jean told her. It was December, 1972, and already dark at 6:30 P.M. When the children heard the knock, they assumed that it was Helen with the food.
Four men and four women burst in; some wore balaclavas, others had covered their faces with nylon stockings that ghoulishly distorted their features. One brandished a gun. “Put your coat on,” they told Jean. She trembled violently as they tried to pull her out of the apartment. “Help me!” she shrieked.
“I can remember trying to grab my mother,” her son Michael told me recently. He was eleven at the time. “We were all crying. My mother was crying.” Billy and Jim, six-year-old twins, threw their arms around Jean’s legs and wailed. The intruders tried to calm the children by saying that they would bring their mother back: they just needed to talk to her, and she would be gone for only “a few hours.” Archie, who, at sixteen, was the oldest child at home, asked if he could accompany his mother, and the members of the gang agreed. Jean McConville put on a tweed overcoat and a head scarf as the younger children were herded into one of the bedrooms. The intruders called the children by name. A couple of the men were not wearing masks, and Michael realized, to his horror, that the people taking his mother away were not strangers—they were his neighbors.
Divis Flats had been constructed in the late nineteen-sixties, in one of those fits of architectural utopianism that yield dystopian results. A “slum clearance” program had razed a neighborhood of narrow, overcrowded nineteenth-century dwellings, replacing them with a hulking complex of eight hundred and fifty units. To Michael McConville, Divis’s warren of balconies and ramps seemed like “a maze for rats.” By 1972, it had become a stronghold for the Irish Republican Army, which was waging an escalating guerrilla battle against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist paramilitary groups. A nineteen-story tower stood on one edge of Divis. It was one of the tallest buildings in Belfast, and the British Army had established an operational post on the top two floors. Because this aerie was in the middle of enemy territory, there were times when the British could get to it only by helicopter. From the rooftop, British snipers traded fire with I.R.A. gunmen below. Michael and his siblings had grown accustomed to the reverberation of bombs and the percussion of gun battles. On bad nights, the children dragged their mattresses off the beds and away from the windows and slept on the floor.
The I.R.A. had disabled the elevators at Divis to hamper British patrols, so the masked gang hustled Jean and Archie McConville down a stairwell. When they reached the bottom, one of the men pointed a gun at Archie’s face, so close that he could feel the cold barrel on his skin, and said, “Fuck off.” Archie was just a boy, outnumbered and unarmed. He reluctantly ascended the stairs. On the second level, one of the walls was perforated with a series of vertical slats. Peering through the holes, Archie watched as his mother was bundled into a Volkswagen van and driven away.
The disappearance of Jean McConville was eventually recognized as one of the worst atrocities that occurred during the long conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. But at the time no one, except the McConville children, seemed especially concerned. When Helen returned home, she and Archie went out to look for Jean, but nobody could—or would—tell them anything about where she had been taken or when she might be back. Some weeks later, a social worker visited the apartment and noted, in a report, that the McConville children had been “looking after themselves.” Their neighbors in Divis Flats were aware of the kidnapping, as was a local parish priest, but, according to the report, they were “unsympathetic.”
Rumors circulated that McConville hadn’t been abducted at all—that she had abandoned her children and eloped with a British soldier. In Belfast, this was an incendiary allegation: Catholic women who consorted with the enemy were sometimes punished by being tied to a lamppost after having their heads shaved and their bodies tarred and feathered. The McConvilles were a “mixed” family; Jean was born Protestant and converted to Catholicism only after meeting her husband. The family had lived with Jean’s mother, in a predominantly Protestant neighborhood in East Belfast, until 1969, when they were driven out, as internecine tensions sharpened. They sought refuge in West Belfast, only to discover that they were outsiders there as well. Several weeks after the abduction, on January 17, 1973, a crew from the BBC visited the apartment and taped a segment. As the younger siblings huddled on the sofa—pale children with downcast eyes, looking shy and frightened—the reporters asked Helen if she had any idea why her mother had left. “No,” she said, shaking her head. Agnes McConville, who was thirteen, noted, hopefully, that her mother was wearing red slippers when she was taken away. She added, “We’ll keep our fingers crossed and pray hard for her to come back.”
But there was reason to believe that something terrible had happened to Jean McConville. About a week after she was kidnapped, a young man had come to the door and handed the children their mother’s purse and three rings that she had been wearing when she left: her engagement ring, her wedding ring, and an eternity ring that Arthur had given her. The children asked where Jean was. “I don’t know anything about your mother,” the man said. “I was just told to give you these.” When I spoke to Michael recently, he said, “I knew then, though I was only eleven years of age, that my mother was dead.”
His siblings were not so quickly convinced. The act of “disappearing” someone, which the International Criminal Court has classified as a crime against humanity, is so pernicious, in part, because it can leave the loved ones of the victim in a purgatory of uncertainty. “You cannot mourn someone who has not died,” the Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman once observed. Helen and Archie reported Jean’s abduction to the police, but in the files of the Royal Ulster Constabulary there is no record of any investigation at the time. McConville’s body did not turn up. And so some of the children held out hope for years that they had not been orphaned, and that their mother might suddenly reappear. Perhaps she had developed amnesia and was living in another country, unaware that she had left a whole life behind in Belfast. But, as decades passed without word, these fantasies became increasingly difficult to sustain. For all the gnawing irresolution, there was one clear explanation. Michael’s sister Susan, who was eight when Jean was taken, told me that she knew, eventually, that her mother was dead, because otherwise “she would have found her way back to us.”
After several months of fending for themselves, the McConville children were separated by the state, and the younger ones were dispersed to different orphanages. The older ones found jobs and places to live. The siblings saw each other infrequently and never spoke of what happened to their mother. One by-product of the Troubles was a culture of silence; with armed factions at war in the streets, making inquiries could be dangerous. At one point, a posse of boys from the youth wing of the I.R.A. beat Michael McConville and stabbed him in the leg with a penknife. They released him with a warning: Don’t talk about what happened to your mother. As the children grew older, they occasionally saw their former neighbors around Belfast, and recognized individuals who had come to the apartment that night. But, as Archie McConville told me, “you can’t do nothing. They walk past you like nothing happened.”
Then, in 1994, the I.R.A. declared a ceasefire. Gerry Adams, the bearded revolutionary who was the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Republican movement, had entered into peace negotiations with the British government, attempting to persuade the I.R.A. to abandon armed resistance and tolerate a continued British presence in Northern Ireland. As Tim Pat Coogan observes in the 2002 edition of his book “The I.R.A.,” a peace deal would be visionary, but also highly risky for Adams, because “his life would not be worth a cent should it be thought that he was selling out the ‘armed struggle.’ ” Through perseverance and political savvy, Adams succeeded, and in 1998 he helped create the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. As the peace process got under way, the I.R.A. agreed to help locate bodies that its members had buried in hidden graves during the seventies.
Though Adams is the most famous face of the Irish Republican movement, he has long denied having been a member of the I.R.A. He maintains that he never played any operational role in the violence of the Troubles, and that he confined himself to the leadership of Sinn Fein. As the chief Republican delegate involved in peace negotiations, however, he was obliged to confront the matter of forced disappearances, and he met on several occasions with the McConville children. Adams himself grew up in a family of ten children, and he conveyed his sympathies to the McConvilles. “There is no doubt the I.R.A. killed your mother,” he said. He told them that he did not know who had authorized the killing or carried it out, or where Jean McConville was buried. But he pledged to investigate.
Michael McConville told Adams that he wanted an apology. Adams parsed his words with precision. “For what it’s worth, I’ll apologize to you,” he said. “It was wrong for the Republican movement to do what they did to your mother.”
The first person to speak publicly about involvement in the disappearance of Jean McConville was a former I.R.A. terrorist named Dolours Price. In 2010, Price revealed in a series of interviews that she had been a member of a secret I.R.A. unit called the Unknowns, which conducted clandestine paramilitary work, including disappearances. Price did not participate in the raid on the McConville house, but she drove Jean McConville across the border into the Republic of Ireland, where she was executed. McConville, Price claimed, had been acting as an informer for the British Army, providing intelligence about I.R.A. activity in Divis Flats. The order to disappear her came from the Officer Commanding of the Belfast Brigade of the Provisional I.R.A.—the man who held ultimate authority over the Unknowns. According to Price, the Officer Commanding was Gerry Adams.
Dolours Price liked to tell people that Irish Republicanism was in her DNA. As a little girl in Belfast, she sat on the knee of her father, Albert, and listened to stories about how, as a teen-ager in the forties, he had taken part in an I.R.A. bombing campaign in England. Her aunt Bridie Dolan, who lived with the family, had been horribly disfigured at twenty-seven, after accidentally dropping a cache of gelignite in an I.R.A. explosives dump. The blast blew off both of her hands, and permanently blinded her. “It was never a case of ‘Poor Bridie,’ ” Dolours’s younger sister Marian told the journalist Suzanne Breen, in 2004. “We were just proud of her sacrifice. She came home from hospital to a wee house with an outside toilet, no social worker, no disability allowance, and no counselling. She just got on with it.” Bridie was a chain smoker, and Dolours and Marian would light cigarettes and insert them between her lips.
By the late sixties, Dolours was a striking and impetuous teen-ager, with a moon face, blue-green eyes, and dark-red hair. She and Marian attended teacher-training school, but she gravitated to radical politics, taking part in civil-rights demonstrations and travelling to Milan to give a talk on “British repression” at the headquarters of a Maoist political group. Tensions had persisted in Northern Ireland since 1920, when the Irish War of Independence led to the partition of the island, ultimately resulting in an independent republic of twenty-six counties in the south and continued British dominion over six counties in the north. The I.R.A. had its origins in that conflict, and after partition the organization devoted itself to trying to force the British to withdraw altogether. Catholics in the north were subjected to rampant discrimination in housing and jobs, and, with the advent of the Troubles, in 1969, these tensions exploded in violence. New paramilitary groups loyal to the British Crown were emerging, including the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association, and that January loyalist mobs attacked civil-rights protesters as they marched from Belfast to Derry. In August, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary fired a machine gun into Divis Flats, killing a nine-year-old Catholic boy, Patrick Rooney—the first child to die in the Troubles. The R.U.C. raided the Price house repeatedly during this period, suspicious of Albert Price’s I.R.A. connections. In 1971, the British reintroduced the controversial tactic of “internment”—imprisoning indefinitely, and without trial, anyone suspected of Republican activity. But the policy backfired, radicalizing a new generation of recruits to the Republican cause. The Provisional I.R.A., a more aggressive offshoot of the official I.R.A., began preparing for a sustained guerrilla campaign. Dolours Price set out to join the Provisionals.
Historically, women had enlisted in the I.R.A.’s female wing, known as the Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council). Dolours Price’s mother and grandmother had both been members of this group. But Dolours did not want to bandage men’s wounds, she said—she wanted to be “a fighting soldier.” The leadership of the Provisional I.R.A. convened a special meeting to consider her case, and, in August, 1971, Price became the first woman admitted to full membership in the I.R.A. She was twenty.
Marian soon joined her in the I.R.A. Dolours later said, “I should be ashamed to admit there was fun in it in those days.” People are often drawn to radicalism by a sense of community and shared purpose. In this case, there was also glory. I.R.A. members referred to themselves not as soldiers or terrorists but as “volunteers”—a signal that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause.
Educated, attractive young women had not been seen carrying guns on the rubble-strewn streets of Belfast before, and the Price sisters acquired an iconic glamour. “They were sassy girls,” Eamonn McCann, a longtime friend of the sisters, told me. “They weren’t cold-eyed dialecticians or fanatics on the surface. There was a smile about them.” One press account described them as “pretty girls who would finish their school work and then take to the streets armed, one or both hiding an Armalite rifle under their raincoat, to take part in gun battles with the British army.” The sisters became the subject of sexualized lore, with stories circulating about Marian, in a miniskirt, charming her way past a British Army checkpoint while driving a car full of explosives. At the time, there was a shopping center in Belfast called Crazy Prices, and, inevitably, the sisters became known as the Crazy Prices. Another friend of the sisters told me that Dolours was drawn to the I.R.A., in some measure, by “rebel chic.”
During this period, Dolours crossed paths with Gerry Adams. He was a former bartender from Ballymurphy, a lean young man with sharp cheekbones and black-framed eyeglasses. Like Dolours, he had grown up in a Belfast family deeply rooted in the I.R.A. It is believed that Adams joined the organization as a teen-ager, in the mid-sixties. Several former I.R.A. volunteers confirmed to me that Adams was a member of the group, and a photograph taken at a Belfast funeral in 1970 captures him wearing the black beret that was an unofficial uniform of the organization. In March, 1972, the British government interned Adams on the Maidstone, a British prison ship, but in June he was released so that he could represent an I.R.A. delegation in secret peace talks with the British. Dolours and Marian Price picked him up and drove him into Belfast to rejoin the Republican leadership. (The talks were unsuccessful.) A U.S. diplomatic cable in January, 1973, reported that Adams was “an active Belfast military commander.”
Nevertheless, Adams did not carry out operations. In a 2010 documentary, “Voices from the Grave,” Dolours Price recalls, “Gerry didn’t allow himself to be in the presence of guns, or in any situation that would put him at risk of arrest.” Instead, he deputized operational work to his close friend Brendan Hughes, a compact man with bushy black eyebrows and a shock of black hair. Hughes, who was known as the Dark, brought military cunning to the job, along with a measure of glee. He lived “from operation to operation,” he said later. “Robbing banks, robbing post offices, robbing trains, planting bombs, shooting Brits, trying to stay alive.” To Dolours Price, Hughes seemed like “a giant of a man.” He inspired fierce loyalty from his subordinates, because he fought alongside them and “asked no volunteer to do what he would not do himself.”
Hughes had been a merchant seaman before joining the I.R.A., and one day a sailor he knew showed him a brochure for a new assault rifle from America—the Armalite. “We all fell in love with this weapon,” Hughes recalled. The Armalite was ideal for urban warfare: lightweight and powerful, with a retractable stock that made it easy to conceal. According to Hughes, Adams dispatched him to New York to procure Armalites, using a network of sympathetic arms dealers. Hughes devised an ingenious plan to ship the guns back to Ireland. In 1969, the Queen Elizabeth 2 began making stately transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York. The ship had a crew of a thousand; many of them were Irish, and some secretly worked for Brendan Hughes. And so a ship named after the Queen of England was used to smuggle weapons to the I.R.A. On Belfast’s streets, graffiti heralded the guns’ arrival: “God made the Catholics, but the Armalite made them equal.”
For much of the sixties, the I.R.A. had just a few dozen members, and was therefore easy to track. Now there were hundreds of recruits; more sophisticated tactics, with the advent of the Provisional I.R.A.; and new leaders, like Adams. The British authorities were caught off guard. When Brendan Hughes became active in the I.R.A., his father destroyed the family’s photographs of him, so that British forces could not identify him by sight. Similarly, pictures of Adams were so rare that, for a time, the British authorities could not say for sure what he looked like. In Adams’s autobiography, “Before the Dawn,” he describes British troops capturing his dog, Shane, and taking him for a walk on a leash, in the hope that he might lead them to his owner. Adams and Hughes became targets of assassination, and they perpetually moved among safe houses, counting on support from the community in West Belfast. Armored personnel carriers roamed the Falls Road and helicopters hovered overhead; local residents removed street signs to disorient British patrols, and rattled the lids of trash bins to sound the alarm. While Hughes and his men were fleeing soldiers in a foot chase, a front door might suddenly open, allowing them to duck inside. When Adams moved around the city during this period, he later wrote, he “avoided streets where there were stretches without doors.”
In 1972, the British Army launched a clever operation. It set up a washing service called Four Square Laundry, issued coupons offering steep discounts, then sent a van into Catholic neighborhoods to pick up and drop off clothes. The coupons were color-coded, so the clothing could be subjected to forensic testing for traces of gunpowder or explosives, and then correlated with delivery addresses to identify houses that were being used by the I.R.A. The Four Square operation was exposed after the I.R.A. interrogated one of its members, Seamus Wright, and discovered that he had been working as a double agent for the British. Gunmen strafed the Four Square van, killing the driver; according to the I.R.A., they also killed two men who were hiding in a secret compartment under the roof. Dolours Price then drove Wright and one of his colleagues—a seventeen-year-old named Kevin McKee, who was also discovered to have been a traitor—into the Republic, where they were executed, and secretly buried, in the fall of 1972.
After I.R.A. leaders learned that the British were cultivating double agents, they established a unit to identify “touts”—informers—and other disloyal elements. Jean McConville moved to Divis Flats as this climate of paranoia was taking hold.
One day when Michael McConville was a young boy, his father brought home two pigeons. Michael was allowed to keep them in “a wee box” in his room, he told me, and his father fostered an interest in pigeon racing. After the family moved to West Belfast, Michael and his friends began stalking derelict houses where pigeons roosted. Whenever he found a bird, he peeled off his jacket and cast it like a net over the animal, then smuggled it home under his sweater, adding it to his burgeoning fleet. West Belfast was a hazardous place for an adventurous kid, but Michael had no fear, he told me: “Most boys didn’t, being brought up in a war zone.” On one occasion, he scaled the façade of an old mill only to discover a unit of British soldiers encamped inside. Startled, they trained their rifles on him and bellowed at him to climb back down.
“You had no respect for the law, because all’s you seen is brutality,” Michael recalled. “The soldiers getting men against the wall, kicking their legs spread-eagle. That’s what put the seed in a lot of kids’ heads to join the I.R.A.” He sighed. “I don’t think the British had much of a clue about what they were starting.”
Michael is fifty-three, slight and taciturn, with clipped gray hair, flushed cheeks, and his mother’s pursed mouth. When I visited him last summer, at the bright, modern house that he built in a rural area a short drive from Belfast, he showed me a framed photograph of his mother. It’s a famous image, the only surviving photo of Jean McConville: a grainy shot from the sixties taken outside the family’s old house, in East Belfast. Jean smiles tentatively at the camera, her dark hair pulled away from her face, her arms crossed. Three of her children are perched on a window ledge beside her, while Arthur crouches, grinning, in the foreground. Arthur was older than Jean; he had fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. When their first child, Anne, was born, in 1954, Jean was only seventeen.
After Arthur died, it was a struggle to feed ten children, even with his Army pension. “She just wasn’t coping,” Michael said, adding that she had a nervous breakdown. When I brought up the claim that his mother was an informer, Michael asked, with indignation, “When would she have had the time?” She was constantly on her feet, he said, cooking stews or washing clothes on a scrubbing board in the kitchen sink. After Arthur’s death, Jean’s attention to cleaning took on a compulsive intensity. Because one child or the other was forever losing a button or needing some other repair, she always had a large blue safety pin—a “nappy pin,” Michael calls it—fastened to her clothes. It was her defining accessory.
Not long before Jean McConville was taken away, she raised the suspicions of her neighbors. She and the children were home one night when they heard a man moaning in pain outside their front door. Jean cautiously opened the door and discovered a wounded British soldier sprawled on the landing. He had been shot. Jean tended to him, and brought him a pillow. “That’s just who my mother was,” Michael said. “She would have helped anyone.” The next day, someone painted the words “Brit Lover” on the front door. Jean had a brother, Tom, who sometimes visited from East Belfast. According to Susan and Archie, he occasionally came to Divis outfitted in an orange sash, the traditional Unionist symbol; to make such a provocation in a West Belfast Catholic neighborhood was an act of suicidal folly. Nevertheless, Jean had converted to Catholicism, and her children were Catholic. At the time of her abduction, her oldest son, Robert, was interned in prison for suspected activity in the official I.R.A.
Jean McConville’s one indulgence was a weekly outing to play bingo. One night, she was interrupted during the game by someone who told her that one of her children had been injured and that a car was waiting outside to take her to the local hospital. Several hours later, British soldiers discovered her wandering through the streets, barefoot and disoriented. Apparently, she had been detained by an armed group and then released. Her face was swollen and badly bruised—she had been beaten. When the soldiers brought her home, “she was talking in riddles,” Michael recalled. The children couldn’t figure out what had happened to her. They made her tea, and she smoked one cigarette after another.
When his mother was taken away the second time, and did not return, Michael said, “There was no one to look after us. I kept getting put in different homes, but each time I would run away.” He recalled an orphanage where monks walked through the dormitory at night with a roving flashlight, taking boys from their beds. Michael was not abused himself, but his younger brother Billy, who was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Kircubbin, recently told a panel investigating past abuses that he had been sexually molested. Michael eventually ended up at a facility that was surrounded by a ten-foot electrified fence. “It was the best home I ever had,” he told me. A kind nun took an interest in him, and he started to pull his life together. He met his wife, Angela, when he was sixteen. He has had a steady career installing tiles, and, unlike several of his siblings, has avoided the ravages of drugs and alcohol. He and Angela have four children, and he boasted about them a bit. “I’ve tried my best, given the life I had, to do well with the kids,” he said.
In South Africa, after the fall of apartheid, the government initiated a process of “truth and reconciliation.” So that a thorough record of past abuses might be compiled, perpetrators were offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for honest testimony. In Northern Ireland, where roughly thirty-six hundred people were murdered during the Troubles and some forty thousand wounded, there has been no comprehensive accounting. A recent report by Amnesty International criticizes the “piecemeal” investigations of historical abuses, and suggests that, “across the political spectrum, it is those in power who may fear that they have little politically to gain—and possibly much to lose—from any careful examination of Northern Ireland’s past.” In 1999, with the encouragement of Bill Clinton, the British and Irish governments established the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, and the I.R.A. agreed to identify the graves of nine people who had been murdered and secretly buried during the Troubles, but only after securing a promise that no criminal prosecutions would result. The I.R.A. declared that some of the disappeared had been informers, including Jean McConville. Michael and his siblings angrily rejected this characterization, yet they had little choice but to work with the I.R.A. to search for her remains.
Much of the Irish landscape is dominated by peat bogs; the anaerobic and acidic conditions in the densely packed earth mean that the past in Ireland can be subject to macabre resurrection. Peat cutters occasionally churn up ancient mandibles, clavicles, or entire cadavers that have been preserved for millennia. The bodies date as far back as the Bronze Age, and often show signs of ritual sacrifice and violent death. These victims, cast out of their communities and buried, have surfaced vividly intact, from their hair to their leathery skin. The poet Seamus Heaney, who harvested peat as a boy on his family’s farm, once described the bogs of Ireland as “a landscape that remembered everything that had happened in and to it.”
In the summer of 1999, Jean McConville’s daughter Helen learned, through two priests who were serving as intermediaries, that the I.R.A. had identified the place where her mother’s body could be found: a stretch of windswept coastline outside Carlingford, in County Louth, on the east coast of the Republic. As backhoes prepared to tear up the soil, Helen convened her siblings around a table. It was an awkward reunion. Many of them had not seen one another in years. Edgy and fractious, their grief still palpable, they were now in their thirties and forties but looked older; their faces were haggard, and the hands and forearms of the men were etched with blotchy, blue-black tattoos. When Jean’s children spoke of her, even to one another, they had a tendency to refer to her as “my mother.”
“Where are we going to bury her?” Michael asked.
“West Belfast,” Helen responded. (A 1999 documentary, “Disappeared,” captured the exchange.) “It’s going to hit them. They were the ones that killed her. They were the ones that robbed us of a mother.”
Some of her brothers had reservations. “We all live in Republican areas,” Jim said. “We don’t want no hassle from them.” He continued, “Them boys who done it, they’ll suffer for the rest of their lives. It is time to say forgive.”
Billy snapped, “I can’t forgive them bastards for what they done.”
For fifty days, the backhoes excavated, creating a crater the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The family’s sense of anticipation eventually gave way to despair: the I.R.A. had apparently been mistaken. “They made a laughingstock of us” when Jean was kidnapped, Agnes said, her mascara dissolving in tears. “They’re making another laughingstock of us now.” The search was called off, and the children returned to their homes. One of the men who had abducted Jean now drove a black taxi up and down the Falls Road. Occasionally, Michael hailed a cab and climbed inside only to discover this man behind the wheel. Michael never said anything—he couldn’t. He rode in silence, then handed the man his fare.
One afternoon in March, 1973, a woman answered the telephone at the headquarters of the London Times and heard 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.
It was two o’clock. Officials at the Times reported the call to the police while several reporters headed toward the closest bomb, which, according to the caller, was inside a green Ford Cortina parked outside London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. By two-thirty, police had arrived on the scene. A hundred-and-twenty-pound bomb lay underneath the car’s back seat. They called in the bomb squad and burst into an adjacent pub, The George, ordering the startled patrons to evacuate. A school bus had just deposited forty-nine children not far from the Cortina, and an inspector shouted at the teachers to get them out of the area.
Plans for a coördinated bombing of central London had originated several months earlier, at a secret meeting in Belfast. The I.R.A. had planted hundreds of bombs in Northern Ireland, but Dolours Price, remembering her father’s bombing campaign in Britain during the forties, had argued for a bolder operation. In a 2012 interview with the Telegraph, she recalled, “I was convinced that a short, sharp shock, an incursion into the heart of the empire, would be more effective than twenty car bombs in any part of the north of Ireland.” Dolours attended the strategy meeting, along with her sister Marian and Brendan Hughes. According to both Dolours Price and Hughes, the meeting was run by Gerry Adams. Generally, the I.R.A. issued warnings before its bomb blasts, in order to minimize civilian casualties. But sometimes these warnings did not allow sufficient time for escape: in July, 1972, twenty bombs were detonated in a single day in Belfast, killing nine people, an episode that became known as Bloody Friday.
“This could be a hanging job,” Adams told the group, explaining that if the perpetrators were caught they could be executed for treason. “If anyone doesn’t want to go, they should up and leave now.” Several people did so, but the Price sisters remained, and a team of ten was eventually selected to carry out the I.R.A.’s first bombing mission in England in thirty years. Although Dolours was only twenty-two, she was chosen to run the mission. She was, in her own words, the Officer Commanding “of the whole shebang.” The team was sent into the Republic for several weeks of weapons training. Cars were stolen at gunpoint, in Belfast, then repainted and sent to Dublin, where they were fitted with English license plates and shipped by ferry across the Irish Sea. Shortly before the day chosen for the attack, Price and her team filtered into London and checked into hotels.
The plan was to plant the bombs in four locations in the morning, with timers set to detonate simultaneously that afternoon. By 7:30 A.M., all four cars were in position. The bombs were set to blast at 2:50 P.M. By then, if everything went according to plan, the bombers would have caught a flight back to Ireland.
But, unbeknownst to Price and her team, British authorities had an I.R.A. informer who had given them advance warning of the attack. Police had been instructed to be extra vigilant, and shortly after one of the bombs was planted, in a Ford Corsair outside Scotland Yard, a passing officer noticed that the number plate on the car did not match the year of the vehicle. Upon further inspection, police discovered the bomb in the back seat—and defused it. British officials, knowing that the bombers were likely trying to escape the country, issued an emergency directive: “Close England.”
In the departures lounge at Heathrow Airport, police spotted a group of young people waiting to board a flight to Dublin. A dark-haired woman in a long coat appeared to be giving orders. It was Dolours Price. When police questioned her, she told them that her name was Una Devlin. An officer showed her an early edition of the Evening News, with a banner headline about the bomb discovered at Scotland Yard. She stared at it silently. In her handbag, police found, along with “a large quantity of makeup,” a spiral notebook with several pages ripped out. When experts examined the indentations on the pages underneath, they discovered traces of a diagram that depicted the circuitry of a timing device. Dolours was arrested, as was Marian Price; at the subsequent trial, the detective who interrogated Marian recalled that, at precisely 2:50 P.M., “she raised her wrist and looked very pointedly at her watch, and smiled at me.”
Police explosives experts did not arrive at the Old Bailey until two-fifty, and could not defuse the bomb before it detonated. The blast shattered windows, blew a crater in the ground, and sent glass and twisted metal flying. A bomb in Westminster also went off. These two explosions injured more than two hundred people, and one man died of a heart attack. “There was no intention to kill people with the London bombs,” Hughes remembered. Dolours Price was less apologetic. “There were warnings phoned in, but people had stood about,” she said years later. “Some had even stood at office windows and been sprayed by broken glass when the car went up.” She added, “In Belfast, we gave fifteen-minute warnings. In London, we’d given them an hour.”
The trial of the Old Bailey bombers took place in Winchester Castle, outside London, and lasted ten weeks. It was a sensational event, with the press drawn especially to the Price sisters; the Irish Times described them showing up in court each day “sprucely dressed” and adopting defiant poses. On the stand, Dolours was almost smug, insisting that she knew nothing of the operation. When a prosecutor asked about the timing device depicted in her notebook, she feigned confusion, mugging for the spectators—“He lost me.” Asked about her politics, she was less evasive, saying, “I would like to see the removal of the border and the establishment of a democratic Eire.”
Eight bombers were convicted and received double life sentences. As the verdict was read aloud, they jeered at the judge, proclaiming their loyalty to the I.R.A. They also announced their intention to launch a hunger strike. As Padraig O’Malley points out in his 1990 book, “Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair,” fasting as a form of protest had a history in Ireland dating back to pre-Christian times. In 1903, W. B. Yeats wrote a play, “The King’s Threshold,” about a poet in seventh-century Ireland who launches a hunger strike at the gates of the royal palace. Yeats describes: “An old and foolish custom, that if a man / Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve / Upon another’s threshold till he die, / The common people, for all time to come, / Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold.”
In 1920, Terence MacSwiney, an Irish politician who had been imprisoned in Brixton on charges of sedition, died after a seventy-three-day hunger strike. His case attracted international attention, and tens of thousands of people filed past his coffin after his death. “It is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who will conquer,” MacSwiney had said.
When the Price sisters and several of their co-defendants began refusing food, they had clear demands. They wanted to be granted political-prisoner status and transferred to Northern Ireland so that they could serve their sentences closer to their families. “Each day passes and we fade a little more,” Dolours wrote, in a letter. “But no matter how the body may fade, our determination never will.” Most parents would panic at the thought of a daughter, barely out of her teens, announcing her intention to starve herself to death. But the Prices could situate this gesture within a proud tradition of dissent. Albert, after visiting his daughters, told the press, “They are happy. Happy about dying.”
The British authorities, recognizing that they would face a crisis if one of the Price sisters perished, force-fed them daily. “Four male prison officers tie you into the chair so tightly with sheets you can’t struggle,” Marian later explained. “You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed, but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to prize it open.” Guards then inserted a wooden clamp with a hole in the middle, and slid a tube through the hole. “They throw whatever they like into the food mixer,” Marian continued. “Orange juice, soup, or cartons of cream if they want to beef up the calories.” By January, 1974, people who visited Dolours expressed horror at her physical deterioration: she had lost a great deal of weight, her skin had turned waxen, and her hair had gone white at the roots. Her teeth had come loose under pressure from the clamp.
It was an impossible situation for the British government, which began to be attacked for force-feeding the Prices, though the sisters were otherwise likely to die. The standoff took a bizarre turn when thieves stole the Vermeer painting “The Guitar Player” from a museum in Hampstead, and, in ransom notes, threatened to burn it—“with much cavorting in the true lunatic fashion”—if the Price sisters were not moved to Northern Ireland. The Prices’ mother, Chrissie, told the press that Dolours, “who is an art student,” had pleaded that the Vermeer remain undamaged. (It was eventually returned, unharmed.)
In May, 1974, the British government, under increasing public pressure, agreed to stop force-feeding the Prices. The sisters began losing a pound a day and, according to one medical assessment, were “living entirely off their own bodies.” Finally, Roy Jenkins, the British Home Secretary, assured the Prices that they could eventually be moved to Armagh prison, in Northern Ireland. That June, after two hundred and five days, they abandoned the strike. A transfer was secretly approved the following spring.
In a 2002 radio documentary, “The Chaplain’s Diary,” Dolours recalls that the governor of Brixton prison walked into her cell and said, “You’re going home. Or, not home—you’re going to Armagh.”
“That’s near enough for me,” Dolours replied. She sat next to Marian on the short flight across the Irish Sea, and, at the first glimpse of green below, burst into tears.
“That’s not Ireland yet,” Marian said. “That’s the Isle of Man.”
Within an hour, they had landed in Northern Ireland. The Price sisters were overjoyed to be home but distressed about the timing of their arrival. In the preceding months, both their mother, Chrissie, and their aunt Bridie Dolan had died. The sisters had unsuccessfully petitioned for compassionate release to attend their mother’s funeral. Chrissie Price’s casket was carried through the streets of Belfast. The piper leading the procession was a young girl dressed in the black beret and dark glasses of the I.R.A.
In “On the Blanket,” a history of hunger strikes during the Troubles, Tim Pat Coogan notes that the decision to stop force-feeding the Prices had profound consequences, because the British government was effectively signalling that “henceforth any prisoner on hunger strike would be allowed to die.” In 1981, the hunger striker Bobby Sands did die, followed by nine other prisoners. As he lay dying, Sands engaged in a fateful stunt: he ran for a seat in the British Parliament, representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and he won.
During the seventies, Gerry Adams was in and out of jail. In addition to his 1972 internment on the Maidstone, he was confined for three years in Long Kesh prison, where he shared a cell with Brendan Hughes. At some point, Adams began to think that there were limits to what the I.R.A. could achieve through violence. After Sands won his seat, Adams’s close aide Danny Morrison announced that Sinn Fein would henceforth run candidates in elections. In a famous formulation, he said, “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?” The strategy of “the Armalite and the ballot box” represented a departure for the Provisional I.R.A.: by running for positions in the British administration in Northern Ireland, Adams and his colleagues could be perceived as implicitly acknowledging the administration’s legitimacy. Adams replaced the woolly sweaters of a West Belfast revolutionary with the suits and ties of a politician. In 1983, he, too, was elected a Member of Parliament, representing West Belfast.
Dolours Price spent six years in Armagh. Although she and Marian were no longer refusing food, they continued to deteriorate physically. In the 2002 radio documentary, Dolours explained the psychology of a hunger striker: “If you eat, you’re going to lose. You convince yourself of that when you embark on a hunger strike. You have to convince yourself, because your body is telling you it wants food, and you’re telling your body, ‘No, you can’t have food. . . . We will not win this struggle if I give you food.’ ” After the Price sisters forced the British government to bend to their aims, they found it difficult to overcome the profound resistance they had developed to eating. “We both ended up with very, very, very distorted notions of the function of food,” Dolours said.
By the spring of 1980, Marian had lost so much weight that she was released from prison, after Humphrey Atkins, Britain’s Northern Secretary, judged her “in imminent danger of death.” Dolours was relieved that her sister had escaped a life sentence, but she felt abandoned. “I got really depressed,” she said later. “It was like I’d been separated from my Siamese twin.” In a letter, she described the crushing inertia of her days, her energy depleted, her body numb: “I move as a clockwork doll.”
A cache of papers recently declassified by the British government reveals that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was closely watching the case of Dolours Price. Initially, Thatcher was unmoved. In one memo, she speculated that Price would rejoin the I.R.A.—“I doubt whether her old friends will let her alone when she is out”—and reminded her subordinates that the London bombing had caused a man’s death. (According to an autopsy, the heart attack that killed the man had actually begun before the bomb detonated.) In April, 1981, Tomas O Fiaich, an Irish cardinal, visited Price in Armagh, and reported to Thatcher. “From being a vivacious girl . . . she has become, at thirty, a gaunt spectre, prematurely aged and deprived of any further desire to live,” he wrote. He begged Thatcher for clemency, stressing that “even next week may be too late.” When Price entered Armagh, in 1975, her weight was a hundred and fourteen pounds. By the time the cardinal saw her, she weighed seventy-six pounds. Thatcher authorized her release.
Dolours Price did not rejoin the I.R.A. Instead, she moved to Dublin, where she avoided publicity and tried to establish a career as a freelance journalist. She began dating the actor Stephen Rea, whom she had met during the civil-rights protests of the sixties. Rea was a brooding, shaggy-haired Belfast Protestant who was sympathetic to the Republican cause. In 1980, he had helped establish Field Day, an Irish theatre troupe. Rea and Price were married at Armagh Cathedral in 1983. When asked about being married to a convicted terrorist, he would say, “That’s my wife’s past. . . . She doesn’t apologize for that, and I’m not going to apologize for her.”
Rea never had a formal relationship with the Republican movement, but he did have a bizarre connection to Gerry Adams. After a series of I.R.A. bombings in the late eighties, the Thatcher government announced a bafflingly misguided policy, which held that, on British television, the voice of anyone believed to be advocating paramilitary action must be muted. Actors were hired to dub interviews and speeches, and for years a small stable of Irish actors found occasional employment as the voice of Gerry Adams. One of the actors was Rea.
The terms of Dolours Price’s release held that she must obtain permission from the British government if she wanted to leave Northern Ireland. But, her defiance unchecked, she proceeded to move with Rea to London. According to friends, Price relished the cheekiness of this relocation. England’s tabloids did as well, noting that the bomber of the Old Bailey was now “sipping champagne with stars at the National Theatre,” where Rea was directing a play. Price’s effrontery was brought to the attention of Thatcher, and she made no secret of her frustration. “If she and her husband wish to live together, they can live together in Northern Ireland,” she wrote. But no action was taken against the couple.
Eventually, Price and Rea had two boys, Danny and Oscar, and the family moved back to Dublin. (In interviews, Rea said that he did not want to bring up his sons in England.) One of Rea’s closest collaborators was the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, and in 1992 they released “The Crying Game,” in which Rea played the role for which he is perhaps most famous: Fergus, a decent and soulful man who happens to be a member of the I.R.A. In the story, Fergus is assigned to guard a kidnapped British soldier (played by Forest Whitaker) in the hours before his execution. They stay up all night, and Fergus develops a friendship with the soldier, hand-feeding him pieces of chocolate and comforting him when he cries, before taking him outside to be shot. While promoting the film, Rea said little about the fact that his wife had once occupied a similar role, guarding prisoners at gunpoint or driving them to their deaths. But in one later interview he discussed what it meant to be a member of the I.R.A., and described the “conundrum of people whose lives are a gesture.” Such people, Rea said, are often “not afraid of death, because your death is acceptable if you’re living for a cause.”
Belfast has ostensibly been at peace for two decades, but the city remains acutely divided. The borders between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are inscribed in the concertina wire and steel of the so-called “peace walls” that progress like fissures across the city. These towering structures maintain some degree of calm by physically separating the city’s populations, as if they were animals in a zoo. The walls are tagged with runelike slurs—K.A.T., for “Kill All Taigs,” a derogatory term for Catholics, on one side; K.A.H., for “Kill All Huns,” a reference to Protestants, on the other—and dwarf the squat brick houses and the unlovely council estates on either side, throwing them into shadow.
In one sense, the Troubles are over. The principal armed factions have long since decommissioned their weapons, and in most parts of Belfast it is safe to walk the streets. The city center is dominated by the same chain stores—Tesco, Caffè Nero, Kiehl’s—found in the other urban centers of Western Europe, and most residents will tell you that they want Belfast to become famous for something other than conflict. Several people informed me, with pride, that the local film-production facility, Titanic Studios, is where “Game of Thrones” is shot. One popular tourist attraction is the Troubles Tour, in which ex-combatant cabdrivers guide visitors to flashpoints from the bad years, decoding the ubiquitous murals that conjure famous battles, martyrs, and gunmen. The effect is to make the Troubles seem like distant history.
But there are at least as many peace walls in Belfast today as there were at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Residents still live in neighborhoods circumscribed by religion, and ninety-three per cent of children in Northern Ireland attend segregated elementary schools. Bus stops in some parts of the city are informally designated Catholic or Protestant, and people walk an extra block or two to wait at a stop where they won’t fear being hassled. I arrived in August, just after “marching season,” when Unionists commemorate the Battle of the Boyne and other bygone victories by lighting bonfires and staging belligerent marches. Hundreds of Union Jacks still fluttered in Protestant neighborhoods. Catholic areas were decked out with the Irish tricolor, and with Palestinian flags—a sign of solidarity and a signal that, even now, many Republicans in the north consider themselves an occupied people.
Two years ago, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, chaired a series of multiparty negotiations about unresolved issues in the Northern Ireland peace process; the talks foundered, in no small measure, over the issue of flags. Tribalism and its trappings remain so potent in Belfast, Haass told me, that the various sides could not agree on how to govern the display of regalia. When the Belfast city council voted, in 2012, to limit the number of days that the Union Jack could be raised outside city hall, protesters tried to storm the building, and riots erupted throughout Northern Ireland, with Unionist demonstrators throwing bricks and petrol bombs.
To an outsider, the sheer weirdness, and attendant inconvenience, of living in a divided metropolis can be difficult to fathom. When I was driving through Belfast with Michael McConville, we reached a street that threaded between a Catholic neighborhood on the left and a Protestant one on the right. I noticed a Subway franchise along a strip of businesses on the Catholic side, and asked if local Protestants might cross the street to buy a sandwich.
“Not a chance,” Michael replied.
One morning, I visited Billy McKee, one of the founders of the Provisional I.R.A., in a small brick house in West Belfast. Born in 1921, five years after the Easter Rising, he joined the I.R.A. in the thirties, acquiring a reputation as a formidable combatant. When Brendan Hughes was a boy, the reverence in his family for Billy McKee was so deep that he felt he should “genuflect” every time he passed McKee’s house. McKee was said to be armed at all times, and on one occasion, in a back room after a funeral, Hughes contrived to brush up against him and felt a .45 concealed beneath his belt.
McKee came to the door dressed in a dark suit, having just returned from Mass. His hair was white and spiky, in the style of Samuel Beckett. As a clock ticked loudly in another room, I asked about the disappearance of Jean McConville. McKee said that he played no role in the decision to kill her. He was in prison in 1972, and was ceding control of the I.R.A. to other leaders. But he insisted that killing McConville was the right thing to do, because she was a tout. “I would have had her executed and left her there,” he said, with a level gaze. “I couldn’t understand why they took her away to disappear her.”
When I told him that I was curious about the people who were responsible for that decision, McKee scowled, worrying his dentures with his tongue, so that they slid from one side to the other. “What would happen if I knew and I told you, and they all got arrested?” McKee said. “I would be the axe man. I wouldn’t like to put my enemies in jail, never mind some of my friends.”
I expressed surprise that, in a city like Belfast, where everybody knows everybody else, it was so difficult to solve a notorious murder. “I don’t think anybody’s stupid enough to mention names,” McKee said. Then he muttered, “Too dangerous.” He shuffled with me to the door, and said, “If you see any of my old friends, tell ’em I’m still breathing.”
If McKee is an unreconstructed militant who speaks without equivocation about the role that he played in the armed struggle, Gerry Adams has in recent decades gone through a metamorphosis. As the peace process got under way, during the nineties, Adams continued the transformation of his public persona from international pariah to statesman and champion of peace. Today, he is a Member of the Irish Parliament, representing County Louth, and Sinn Fein is an ascendant political party both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. Adams is widely credited, even by his detractors, with having played an instrumental role in ending the Troubles. Yet he still maintains that he was never a member of the I.R.A. “Everybody knows he was in the I.R.A., except for Gerry,” Michael McConville said. At the height of the Troubles, there was an obvious motive to deny the affiliation: a charge of “membership” in the I.R.A. was enough to send you to prison. With the advent of peace negotiations, there was a further incentive for Adams to distance himself from his armed comrades—British officials could deal with him and not risk charges that they were negotiating with a terrorist. But if Adams initially crafted a fiction out of political expediency, he chose to stick with it, even after some of his closest collaborators unburdened themselves. In 2001, Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, admitted publicly that, in the early seventies, he had been the second-highest-ranking member of the I.R.A. in Derry. This acknowledgment does not appear to have hurt his political career; McGuinness has won three elections since 2001.
Adams is now sixty-six and a grandfather, and his evolution into an approachable grandee has found its surreal culmination on Twitter. He intersperses studiously boring tweets about small-bore political issues with a barrage of cat pictures and encomiums to sudsy baths, rubber duckies, and Teddy bears. (“I do love Teddy bears,” he told the BBC. “I have a large collection of Teddy bears.”) One characteristic tweet, from last January: “Dreamt I was eating Cream Eggs. Woke up this morn. Pillow & beard covered in chocolate & cream thingymebob.” The Irish writer Damien Owens has likened all this to “Charles Manson showing you his collection of tea cosies.” But, cumulatively, Adams’s tweets suggest the giddiness of a man who has defied some very long odds. In 1984, Adams told a reporter that he had a ninety-per-cent chance of being assassinated. Later that year, he was shot and nearly killed by loyalist gunmen, and during periods of captivity he was tortured by British authorities. Improbably, Adams survived the conflict—and, more improbably, he flourished.
The new Gerry Adams never completely eclipsed the old one, however, and this may have been a conscious choice. The journalist Fintan O’Toole once observed that the ambiguity of the Adams persona was essential to the peace process: in order to participate in the negotiations, Adams had to be accepted as a democratic politician; but, in order to deliver the desired result, he needed to exercise enough control over I.R.A. gunmen so that if he ordered them to lay down their weapons they would comply. Perhaps in the interest of preserving this flexibility, Adams perfected a dog-whistle style of political rhetoric. Asked about his role in the armed conflict, he has said, “I’m very, very clear about my denial of I.R.A. membership. But I don’t disassociate myself from the I.R.A.” Adams is beholden to multiple constituencies, and for some faction of supporters his charisma has always derived, at least in part, from the whiff of cordite. At a public event in Belfast in 1995, Adams was delivering a speech when someone shouted, “Bring back the I.R.A.!” Adams responded, “They haven’t gone away, you know.”
Traditionally, Irish journalists have shown surprising deference to Adams’s sophistry about his role in the armed struggle. To be sure, Adams has never been convicted of a violent crime, or of any I.R.A.-related offenses. But as a young man he often published essays in a Republican newsletter, under a pseudonym, and in 1976 he wrote, “Rightly or wrongly, I am an I.R.A. volunteer.” Even so, most press accounts simply recycled his denials, and, because the I.R.A. was so disciplined, none of his comrades spoke out to contradict him.
During the peace process, however, many rank-and-file members of the I.R.A. felt surprised and betrayed when Adams accepted the legitimacy of a government in Northern Ireland that remained part of the United Kingdom. Many also questioned his willingness to surrender the weapons they had amassed. Some former volunteers became so disillusioned by Adams’s concessions that they broke the code of silence and told their stories to the press.
In 2001, Ed Moloney, a veteran reporter for the Irish Times and other newspapers, published a landmark revisionist account, “A Secret History of the IRA,” which stated explicitly that Gerry Adams had been a military commander responsible for the Belfast Brigade. Adams and Moloney had known each other for decades, and had enjoyed a cordial relationship during the Troubles, meeting occasionally in a back room on the Falls Road; Adams would make a pot of tea and Moloney would interview him. Once, after a long session in Moloney’s hotel room, Adams stayed and slept on the floor. But their relations had grown strained by the time “The Secret History of the IRA” was published, and Adams accused Moloney of “innuendo,” declaring, “I have not been and am not a member of the I.R.A.”
As Moloney was preparing the book for publication, he was approached by administrators at Boston College about creating an oral-history project that would gather accounts by paramilitaries from both sides of the Troubles. The idea excited him. Many of the combatants were still alive, and their testimony could provide an unparalleled resource for future historians—an exception to the rule of omertà. Given the sensitivities, Moloney pointed out, each interview would have to be conducted in secret, and remain secret until the participant died. “These people could be shot if it was discovered they were talking to us,” he told me. “They were taking a huge risk.”
The Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland were too insular and suspicious for graduate students with tape recorders to make headway, so Moloney suggested an unorthodox solution: finding interviewers who had participated in the Troubles. For the Unionists, Moloney suggested a loyalist named Wilson McArthur; for the Republicans, he proposed a former I.R.A. volunteer named Anthony McIntyre, who had spent seventeen years in prison for the murder of a U.V.F. man. McIntyre, who was Moloney’s friend and source, had obtained a college degree in prison, and had gone on to write a dissertation on the Troubles at Queen’s University in Belfast. He had a gruff, genial manner, and was at ease with retired revolutionaries, which suggested that they might open up to him, on tape, about secrets they had kept for decades. They did. “It was cathartic,” a former I.R.A. member named Richard O’Rawe said of his interview with McIntyre. “I cried like a baby.”
This clandestine undertaking became known, to the people who were aware of it, as the Belfast Project. One of McIntyre’s subjects was the man still widely known around Belfast as the Dark: Brendan Hughes. They were close, having served together in prison. When I visited McIntyre and his wife, Carrie, at their home, in Drogheda, a small city between Dublin and Belfast, they showed me photographs of Hughes giving Carrie away at their wedding. McIntyre and Hughes shared a deep antipathy toward Gerry Adams. McIntyre disapproved of Adams’s engineering of the Good Friday Agreement, and his interview questions reflected this animosity. But Hughes required no prodding to express anger at Adams. He and Adams had been close collaborators for years, but when Adams proved willing to compromise on the question of a united Ireland, in the interest of a peace deal, Hughes was incensed: Adams had been his Officer Commanding, the man who gave him orders to kill. Adams’s denial of his own I.R.A. past left Hughes and others “to carry the responsibility of all those deaths.” Everybody knows that Adams was in the I.R.A., Hughes told McIntyre. “The British know it. The people on the street know it. The dogs know it.”
Terry Hughes, Brendan’s brother, told me that Brendan felt that he had been unforgivably misled. He had been fighting a bloody war against British rule while Adams was quietly laying the foundation for a peaceful compromise. “There was a master plan,” Terry said. “Unfortunately, Brendan wasn’t told.”
Hughes confided to McIntyre that he felt like “a patsy,” and insisted that he had “never carried out a major operation without the O.K. or the order from Gerry.” Adams, in the 1976 essay referring to his membership in the I.R.A., wrote about the moral decision to use violence, maintaining that “only if I achieve the situation where my people genuinely prosper can my course of action be seen . . . to have been justified.” The Good Friday Agreement did not deliver the ends that Hughes and others had counted on to justify the I.R.A.’s brutal means. Adams’s political turn forced his subordinates to reappraise the righteousness of their own killing.
Divis Flats was demolished in the nineteen-nineties, except for the tower where the British had their observation post. In the years after the Good Friday Agreement, Brendan Hughes lived alone in an apartment at the top of the tower. Demoralized by the things he had done, he spent his days chain-smoking by a picture window, looking out over Belfast, past the peace walls and church steeples to the shipworks where, a century earlier, the Titanic was built. “I always got the sense that he lived a large part of his life on that windowsill,” Carrie McIntyre said. “And he couldn’t either jump out and end it all or jump back in and start really living.”
The Divis apartment is where McIntyre interviewed Hughes about the killing of Jean McConville. “She was an informer,” Hughes said. “She had a load of kids.” Hughes told McIntyre that McConville’s children had been acting as spies for the British Army, “gathering information for her, watching the movements of I.R.A. volunteers around Divis Flats.” She was exposed, Hughes continued, when a radio transmitter was discovered in her flat. According to Hughes, the I.R.A. learned of the transmitter when one of the McConville children mentioned to one of Hughes’s men that “his mammy had something in the house.”
Hughes sent his men to confront McConville, and they took her away for interrogation. According to Hughes, she confessed to being a tout. The I.R.A. confiscated the transmitter and released her onto the streets. This could align with the night when Jean McConville was taken from the bingo parlor, but when I asked Michael McConville about the transmitter he told me that Hughes must be mistaken—because no such transmitter existed. He and his siblings knew every nook of their apartment; if Jean had hidden such a device on the premises, he would have found it. Michael also dismissed the idea that he and his siblings had been spies. In the oral history, Hughes says that, a few weeks after McConville’s interrogation, “another transmitter was put into her house and she was still coöperating with the British.” At this point, a decision was made to kill her, and a “special squad was brought in” to carry out the operation.
“There was only one man who gave the order for that woman to be executed,” Hughes told McIntyre. “That fucking man is now the head of Sinn Fein.” At the time, he continued, a senior I.R.A. official named Ivor Bell argued that they should leave McConville’s body on the street, just as Billy McKee would have done. But, according to Hughes, McConville’s gender would have generated bad publicity for the Provisional I.R.A., and so Adams pushed to disappear her. Recalling Adams’s subsequent meetings with the McConville children, Hughes said, “He went to this family’s house and promised an investigation into the woman’s disappearance. . . . The man that gave the fucking order for that woman to be executed! Now, tell me the morality in that.”
Hughes fell into a coma in 2008. Gerry Adams visited the hospital and sat, in silent vigil, by his bed. The two men had not spoken in years. Hughes had told friends, “There was a time in my life when I would have taken a bullet for Gerry. Now I’d put one in him.” When Hughes died, his casket was paraded through West Belfast, and thousands of people turned out, in frigid temperatures, to pay their respects. At one point, a figure in a dark overcoat shouldered through the crowd: Adams. He solemnly insinuated himself among the men bearing the coffin. “Brendan was a Republican icon,” Terry Hughes told me. “Gerry had no choice. He had to associate himself with that.”
Dolours Price also attended the procession. She, too, had split with Adams, and she wrote a scathing open letter, deriding him as a “lonely figure” who was “clearly uneasy” at the funeral of his former friend. If Adams could come clean about his past in the I.R.A., Price suggested, he might “feel better.” She noted that Adams had a habit of wrapping himself in the mantle of people who were no longer alive to snatch it back. At one point, Adams suggested that, had Bobby Sands survived, Sands would have supported the peace process. In an article, Price replied, acidly, “I often wonder who would speak for me had my circumstances in Brixton prison reached their expected conclusion. What praises would I be singing of the Good Friday Agreement?”
Price also recorded an oral history for the Belfast Project. When her life was a gesture—a headlong push for a united Ireland—it possessed a certain moral logic. But the Good Friday Agreement robbed her of that certainty. “Dolours was a woman who was deeply traumatized by what she had done,” McIntyre told me. Like many people who were drawn to the I.R.A., she saw herself as a member of the left, yet she had participated in forced disappearances—an atrocity, McIntyre pointed out, that is the “calling card of the war criminal, whether it’s in Chile or Kampuchea.”
In February, 2001, Price attended an I.R.A. event to commemorate the death of a hunger striker, and announced, in an impromptu speech, “Gerry Adams was my commanding officer.” She added that she had not endured “the pangs of hunger strike just for a reformed English rule in Ireland.” Shortly thereafter, McIntyre visited Price’s home, in the seaside town of Malahide, outside Dublin, where, surrounded by memorabilia from her I.R.A. days, they conducted a series of interviews. Price spoke about her role in the disappearances and, in particular, about her grief over the death of Joe Lynskey, a close friend of hers. Lynskey, who was known as the Monk—because he had trained for the Cistercian order before joining the armed struggle—was a brigade intelligence officer and an ardent believer in the mission of the Provisional I.R.A. In 1972, it emerged that he had been having an affair with the wife of another I.R.A. man, and had tried to have the man killed. The I.R.A. secretly sentenced Lynskey to death, and Price was told to drive him across the border to his execution. She picked him up at his sister’s house, on the pretext that he was being called to a meeting in the Republic. Lynskey walked out with a little overnight bag, as though he were leaving for a weekend in the country. As they drove south in silence, Price realized that Lynskey knew where they were going. He was a large man: he could have overpowered her. Instead, he sat there, meekly, with his bag in his lap. “She wanted him to get up and escape,” McIntyre recalled. When she handed him over, in County Monaghan, “Lynskey hugged her and told her not to worry.” His body has never been recovered.
Price informed McIntyre, before one of their recording sessions, that she wanted to go on the record about the role that she had played in the disappearance of Jean McConville. By this point, Price and McIntyre were good friends; she later became godmother to his son. “As a historian, I would love to get this,” McIntyre told her. “As your friend, I have to warn you. You have children. If you commit to being involved in the McConville disappearance, your children will bear the mark of Cain.”
When I asked McIntyre whether Price said anything about Jean McConville on her recording, he chuckled ruefully, then shook his head. “I was disappointed,” he said. “She took my advice.”
One day in the summer of 2003, a man walking on Shelling Hill Beach, near Carlingford, noticed a piece of fabric in the sand. He reached down to examine it and felt something hard: a human bone. When the authorities exhumed the remains, they found the skeleton of a middle-aged woman, still in her clothes. A forensic examination concluded that the cause of death was a “gunshot wound to the head.”
At a nearby morgue, the children of Jean McConville were ushered into a room, one by one, so that they could examine the clothing, which was laid out on a table. Archie went in first, but he couldn’t bear to look. Instead, he asked a question: “Is there a nappy pin?”
A police officer surveyed the garments and said no. Then he folded over a corner of fabric—and there it was. Thirty-one years after Jean McConville vanished, her body was found. She was buried in November, 2003. The streets of West Belfast were typically crowded with kids on bikes and people lounging in front of their homes. Someone who attended the funeral told me that, when the procession passed through, everything was eerily quiet, as if the locals had been told to stay away—as if they were shunning the McConvilles once again.
In an effort to challenge the allegation that Jean McConville was a tout, her children made a formal request to Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, to launch an inquiry into the case. Normally, British authorities would neither confirm nor deny whether an individual had worked for them as an informer, but O’Loan found that “the circumstances of the McConville family are most exceptional.” After consulting the files of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British military, O’Loan produced an official report, in 2006, which held that McConville “is not recorded as having been an agent at any time.” In O’Loan’s judgment, McConville “was an innocent woman who was abducted and murdered.”
At the time that the O’Loan report was released, the oral-history project at Boston College was a secret. But Price had been showing signs of increasing anxiety. In 2001, police raided her home and discovered several stolen prescription pads, an indication that she had been abusing prescription drugs. Her marriage to Stephen Rea ended in divorce, and her behavior became erratic. She showed up drunk at Maghaberry Prison and demanded to visit a hunger-striking inmate. She was accused of stealing a bottle of vodka from a supermarket. (In court, she blamed a “momentary lapse of concentration,” adding, with a flash of her old pride, that it was not in her “temperament or breeding” to shoplift.) Price began receiving treatment at a mental-health facility in Dublin.
“One of the most remarkable aspects of the Troubles was that, with a few exceptions, the people that I know who did these terrible things were all perfectly normal people,” Ed Moloney told me. “This wasn’t some band of robbers who were thieving and raping for personal profit. This was war. They were all nice killers. I felt pity for them. They were victims of circumstances beyond their control.” Sometimes Price felt agonizing remorse for the lives she had ruined; on other days, she was defiant, even about McConville, insisting that the death sentence was appropriate for an informer in wartime. But, whatever her feelings of contrition, Price seemed intent on at least acknowledging her past acts.
On February 21, 2010, the Belfast tabloid Sunday Life published a story linking Price to the disappearance of McConville. “In a taped confession, Old Bailey Bomber Dolours Price has admitted driving the mum-of-10 to her death,” the article reported, adding that Price claimed that the disappearance was “masterminded” by Gerry Adams. The paper quoted Michael McConville’s sister Helen calling for the arrest of Price and Adams. “It’s disgusting that the people involved in my mother’s murder are still walking the streets,” she said. “Adams and Price might not have pulled the trigger, but they are as guilty as the people who did.”
Adams issued an angry denial, observing that Price was “a long-standing opponent of Sinn Fein and the peace process,” and that she “clearly has her own issues to resolve.” But it was unclear whether Price had made this inflammatory disclosure directly to Sunday Life. The article’s author, Ciaran Barnes, wrote that he had listened to Price’s taped “confession” but did not say explicitly that she had made these disclosures to him. Instead, he asserted that Price had “made taped confessions of her role in the abductions to academics at Boston University.”
By this time, the Boston College archive was no longer a secret. After the death of Brendan Hughes and of David Ervine, another participant in the oral-history project, Ed Moloney had written a book, “Voices from the Grave,” which was soon to be published. But the Sunday Life article contained the first public suggestion that Price had given an interview to Boston College. Moloney and McIntyre are both adamant that the tabloid was not given access to Price’s recording, and point to the mistaken reference to “Boston University” as proof. They also note that, in Price’s interview with Anthony McIntyre, she never speaks of Jean McConville. Moloney thinks that Sunday Life likely obtained a recording of an interview that Price had given to the Irish News, and that the mention of the oral-history project was a clumsy effort to launder the interview’s provenance. (Allison Morris, the journalist who interviewed Price for the Irish News, strongly denied this claim, saying, “The interview never left my office.” Ciaran Barnes said only that it would be “remiss of me to talk about my sources.”)
In March, 2011, the British government contacted the U.S. Department of Justice and explained that a criminal investigation had been initiated into McConville’s murder. Investigators at the Police Service of Northern Ireland wanted to consult the oral histories of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price. If the I.R.A. had found McConville’s body, her case would have been covered by the immunity clause. But, because her remains were discovered by a civilian, the authorities were free to investigate—and bring charges. A subpoena was issued to Boston College, and in a legal filing the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts declared, erroneously, that a Sunday Life reporter had been “permitted to listen to portions of Ms. Price’s Boston College interviews.” Moloney and McIntyre panicked. Turning over the interviews would not only violate the college’s promise to withhold an oral history until the subject’s death; it would also set a dangerous precedent. In an e-mail to administrators in Boston, Moloney wrote, “I would bet the mortgage that at this moment, there are teams of lawyers working in the bowels of the British government trying to discover ways to force B.C. to surrender the names of other possible interviewees.” The police simply could have asked Sunday Life for the recording, Moloney pointed out to me. In his view, they went after the Boston College archive because “they wanted to get the entire trove, for intelligence purposes.”
Moloney argued that there was a political aspect to the investigation. The police in Northern Ireland had made no serious effort to solve the McConville case until the notion arose that doing so might implicate Gerry Adams. Many police officers in Northern Ireland were former members of Special Branch and the Royal Ulster Constabulary—and for these men and women Adams was an arch antagonist. “At least in the back of their minds, there was the knowledge that we could get that fucker,” Moloney said. “All roads in that story were going to end at his door.” Tellingly, the British authorities hadn’t launched a broad-based inquiry into past atrocities on all sides; indeed, many appalling crimes committed by Unionist paramilitaries—and by state authorities—have not been investigated to this day. “They’re not digging up all the bodies,” Moloney said. “They’re being very selective.”
In August, 2011, a second subpoena was issued, seeking any interview in the archive that contained “information about the abduction and death of Mrs. Jean McConville.” A federal judge in Massachusetts ordered Boston College to hand over the material to the British government. John Kerry, who was then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, appealed to Attorney General Eric Holder and to Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State, to push for the subpoenas to be withdrawn. He cited concerns about “the continued success of the Northern Ireland peace process.” Moloney and McIntyre fought the issue on appeal, eventually receiving a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Court declined to hear the case, and in September, 2013, Boston College turned eleven interviews over to authorities in Belfast.
Last April, Adams reported to a police station in Antrim and was arrested for questioning in connection with the death of McConville. After surrendering his belt, tie, comb, and watch, he was interrogated for four days. He proclaimed his innocence, blaming a “malicious, untruthful, and sinister campaign” against him. He also raised a concern about the timing of his arrest: Sinn Fein was involved in simultaneous campaigns for seats in the European Union and in local government elections. “Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Fein leadership and our strategy,” Adams said at a press conference after his release. He has characterized the Belfast Project as “an entirely bogus, shoddy, and self-serving effort.”
At the press conference, Adams said that “the I.R.A. is gone—it’s finished.” But, during a Sinn Fein rally to protest his arrest, Bobby Storey—a close friend of his and a longtime Party operative with a thuggish reputation—alleged that there were sinister motives behind the investigation. Midway through the speech, Storey declared, “We haven’t gone away, you know.” During my time in Belfast, half a dozen people quoted that line to me, noting the presumably deliberate echo of Adams’s famous 1995 quote about the I.R.A. Storey “didn’t mean Sinn Fein hadn’t gone away,” McIntyre said. “He meant the I.R.A.” To Michael McConville, the message was clear: even after peace and decommissioning, the I.R.A. would brook no challenge to its leader. “It still rules by threats,” he said.
By the time Adams was arrested, Dolours Price was dead. One day in January of 2013, one of her sons came home and discovered her in bed. “She wasn’t breathing,” he later told an inquest. Price had been drinking for several days, and had briefly been admitted to the hospital after falling down a flight of stairs. A medical examination found that she had died of a toxic combination of sedatives and antidepressants. Suicide was ruled out, but, when I asked Anthony and Carrie McIntyre if Price killed herself, Carrie said, “I believe it.”
“I’ve never formed a firm conclusion,” Anthony said.
“Brendan, too,” Carrie continued. “They committed suicide for years.”
In Hughes’s oral history, he spoke to McIntyre about having been a hunger striker in prison. “The body is a fantastic machine,” he said. “It’ll eat off all the fat tissue first, and then it’ll eat the muscle, to keep your brain alive.” Long after Hughes and Price called an end to their strikes and attempted to reintegrate into society, they nursed old grudges and endlessly replayed their worst wartime abominations. They never stopped devouring themselves. In the coroner’s report for Dolours Price, the official pronouncement was “death by misadventure.”
The police did not charge Adams in the murder of McConville, and the investigation did not set back Sinn Fein: the Party did surprisingly well in the 2014 elections, winning more seats than expected. Today, it is the most popular political party in Ireland. According to polls, half the voters in Sinn Fein do not believe Adams’s claims about never having been a member of the I.R.A., but they do not appear to care. The beach where Jean McConville’s body was found is in Louth, Adams’s constituency in the Republic, yet Adams seems likely to retain the seat for as long as he wants it. In most countries, merely being implicated in a murder would be enough to derail a political career. But Adams has a knack for weathering scandals. During a trial in 2013, it was revealed that his brother Liam was a pedophile who had molested his own daughter, and that Adams had known but done little to intervene; last October, a woman named Maria Cahill alleged that she had been raped, as a teen-ager, by an I.R.A. man, and that Adams had failed to discipline the rapist. “I don’t know what the Irish word for Teflon is,” Richard Haass told me. “But he has it.”
In November, Adams flew to New York to give a speech to American supporters. In a vast hotel ballroom, the crowd whooped as he walked to the lectern. Adams has gleaming, outsized teeth, and I could make them out clearly from the back of the room. Standing in front of a banner bearing the words “United Ireland,” Adams spoke about the importance of American allies in ending “a very long war.” His voice is stentorian, and he speaks with schoolmasterly authority; he has the calm aura befitting a global celebrity who flies around the world advising armed factions and heads of state about how to make ceasefires stick.
Then, just as Adams was reminiscing about his first visit to the White House, in 1994, the brute in him came out. Speaking of the Irish Independent, which had been publishing critical stories about him, he observed that the paper had also been tough on Michael Collins, the Republican hero of 1916. And how did Collins deal with this affront? “He sent volunteers into their offices, held the editor at gunpoint, and destroyed the entire printing press.” The room, full of Irish-Americans, erupted in applause. Adams leaned into the microphone and murmured, “I’m obviously not advocating that,” prompting raucous, knowing laughter.
Michael McConville does not believe that Adams or anyone else will be brought to account for the murder of his mother. “We’re all adults here—we all know the score,” he told me. Several other people have been arrested for questioning in the case, but only one, Ivor Bell, has been charged. (Bell denies any involvement in McConville’s disappearance.) Bell reportedly gave an interview to the Boston College project, and if the case goes to trial prosecutors may use his recorded recollections—which he had offered for posterity, thinking that they would be sealed until after his death—against him. Bell’s lawyer, Kevin Winters, assured me that Bell “will fight the charges,” and it seems unlikely that the truth about McConville’s death will come out in any such proceeding. The physical evidence in the case is diffuse and decades old, so it would be difficult to sustain a conviction against any of the perpetrators. Because Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes are dead, they cannot testify against Adams; in legal terms, their interviews and oral histories amount to hearsay. Adams and his supporters have also gone to great lengths to attack the credibility of Price and Hughes. “Brendan was a friend of mine,” Adams told the Guardian, in 2011. “But Brendan had his issues and his difficulties. He was opposed to the peace process. He was politically hostile to what we were trying to do. Brendan said what Brendan said, and Brendan’s dead. So let it go.”
Adams is not wrong about the bitter resentment of his former comrades. Price once described her willingness to identify Adams as a former I.R.A. member as an effort to “settle scores.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to explain away the very specific, and similar, recollections that Hughes and Price shared about Jean McConville’s murder. When the journalist Darragh MacIntyre pressed Adams about McConville in a 2013 BBC documentary, “The Disappeared,” Adams, looking like a cornered animal, flashed a hostile grin and noted that Hughes and Price had “demons.” He added, vaguely, “All of us bear a responsibility, those of us who are in the leadership. I’ve never shirked that.”
Adams declined repeated requests to speak with me for this article, citing, through a representative, the “flawed” nature of the Boston College interviews, which focussed on testimony by “former Republicans who have accused Sinn Fein of betrayal.” He seems to have said his piece on the matter, and if no criminal charges are filed he may never be obliged to say anything further. (Adams continues to be forthcoming on other subjects. Last month, he informed an interviewer on Irish radio that he enjoys jumping on a trampoline. “I do it naked,” he said, adding that he is sometimes accompanied in this regimen by his dog.)
The question of whether or not Jean McConville was an informer will also likely remain unresolved. Michael McConville and his siblings are adamant that Brendan Hughes was mistaken about a transmitter being in the flat, and they doubt his claim that McConville confessed to being an informer. Helen once said, “If they were torturing her, she would have admitted to anything. What mother wouldn’t?”
Family members point to the O’Loan report, but the report says only that no official records were found to indicate that Jean McConville was an informer. If she was a low-level informer, such records might not exist. Moloney and McIntyre, who share an unshakable confidence in the credibility of Brendan Hughes, believe that the British government may also have suppressed the paper trail on McConville in order to conceal the fact that the Army allowed one of its confidential sources to be executed. In any case, the I.R.A. clearly believed that McConville was a tout, though that is no justification for what befell her. When McIntyre asked Brendan Hughes whether he regretted executing McConville, Hughes said that he had supported the decision at the time. “But not now,” he continued. “Because, as everything turned out, not one death was worth it.”
Ed Moloney observes that Adams’s cold-blooded detachment, which so maddened Price and Hughes, may have allowed him to imagine what they could not—a future beyond the armed struggle—and to create peace. Adams has many unkind things to say about Moloney, but Moloney believes that Adams should have won the Nobel Peace Prize. “Gerry’s a very hollow man,” Brendan Hughes’s brother Terry said, before adding, “But then maybe that’s politics.”
In the long run, the war may be won by demography. Sinn Fein has predicted that a Catholic majority will eventually preside in Northern Ireland, and the percentage of Catholics has increased in recent decades. But this doesn’t mean that the British will soon be voted off the island. After the 2008 fiscal crisis and the subsequent recession in Dublin, some polls found that most Catholics in the north prefer to remain part of the United Kingdom. “Outbreeding Unionists may be an enjoyable pastime for those who have the energy,” Adams has said. “But it hardly amounts to a political strategy.”
For a small minority, the armed struggle never ended. I visited Belfast just before Christmas, and three different splinter factions of the I.R.A. were promising attacks in the city over the holiday. I had wanted to speak with Marian Price, but she was prevented by legal troubles: in 2013, she confessed to having provided a mobile phone that a Republican splinter group used to take responsibility for a shooting at an Army barracks; two British solders were killed in the attack. (Her sentence was recently suspended, but the terms of her release prohibit her from talking to journalists.) “It’s not over,” Anthony McIntyre told me. “It’s still a very dangerous society.”
According to Michael McConville, the police in Northern Ireland have asked him to name the men and women who took his mother away and supply testimony to help convict them. He has refused, he told me, partly out of fear that his wife and children might become victims of reprisal. (He also refused to tell me any of the kidnappers’ names.) Several years ago, he had briefly considered identifying the perpetrators, but he says that when he told Adams of his intentions Adams replied, “I hope you are ready for the backlash.” (Adams has denied saying this.) The authorities offered to give Michael a new identity, and to move him and his family out of the country. Given the terrible toll of the life he has led in Belfast, I asked him why he hadn’t seized this opportunity. Why not move to Australia?
“All my life is here,” he said. “My family. My friends. Why should I leave because of these people?”
“What would you like to see happen?” I asked. I was wondering what form of accountability might bring him a measure of peace. But he may have misunderstood the question.
“I would love to see all the peace walls come down,” he said first. Then he thought for a moment, and added, “Personally, I’d love to see a united Ireland. I would love to see the British not here.”
We were in his living room, and had been talking for hours, and Michael suggested that we take a walk outside. We passed through the back door onto a bright-green expanse of lawn, and approached a series of wooden enclosures that lined the yard. Michael opened one of the doors to reveal a wall lined with little cubbyholes, in which dozens of pigeons warbled and bobbed and shifted their feet. He keeps hundreds of pigeons now, and he races them competitively. “Through the whole Troubles, there was never any hassle between Protestants and Catholics raising pigeons,” he said, delicately cupping one of the birds in his hand. It eyed us nervously, rolling its neck, so that its slate-gray feathers flashed magenta and teal, suddenly iridescent, like a peacock’s.
On race days, Michael releases the birds, and they disappear over the horizon, bound for some far-off destination. Then, eventually, they turn around and come home. He loves that about pigeons. “They may wander,” he said. “But their natural instinct is to come back to the place that they’re born.” ♦