April 10, 2023

Tracing the History of The Troubles in Northern Ireland


Publication Date: February 26, 2019

Print Length: 464 pages

A Top Ten Books of 2019 by the New York Times and the Washington Post

Winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

MILKMAN by Anna Burns

Publication Date: December 4, 2018

Print Length: 360 pages

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize


Twenty-five years ago, on April 10, 1998, peace negotiators developed the Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence in Northern Ireland, a decades-long conflict that caused nearly 4,000 people to lose their lives.

Throughout the 1960s, Roman Catholic nationalists who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland fought against the Protestant unionists who believed the province should remain within the United Kingdom.

In combination, two books offer an insightful perspective on the history of violence in Northern Ireland and the struggle endured by the people who lived during these tumultuous times.

In Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe investigates the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother who was abducted in Belfast in 1972. Relying on oral history archives maintained by Boston College, interviews and other primary sources, Keefe uncovers the true story behind her disappearance while profiling the leading figures behind the historic struggle between the IRA and the British authorities.

Told in a stream-of-consciousness style, Milkman by Anna Burns tells the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old girl who is stalked by the Milkman, an older man who is heavily involved in local paramilitary groups. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, at the height of The Troubles, Milkman traces the impact of violence and partisan politics on everyday life in Northern Ireland.


Doyle, Roddy, “’Say Nothing’ – Part History, Part True Crime – Illuminates the Bitter Conflict in Northern Ireland.” The New York Times. February 22, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/books/review/say-nothing-patrick-radden-keefe.html

Phillips, Stephen, “Review: ‘Say Nothing’ Reexamines a Mother’s Murder in Northern Ireland’s Most Violent Years.” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-say-nothing-northern-ireland-review-20190306-story.html

Miller, Laura, “A Novel about Coming of Age Amid the Troubles.” The New Yorker. December 3, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/10/a-novel-about-coming-of-age-amid-the-troubles

Devers, A.N., “Anna Burns’ Booker-winning ‘Milkman’ isn’t a Difficult Read; It’s a Triumph.” Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-anna-burns-milkman-review-20190104-story.html


  • To what extent does the title of Keefe’s book (Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland) reflect his challenges as he untangled the actors behind the political violence in Northern Ireland, their motivations,and the legacy of trauma they left behind?

  • Based on Keefe’s account of the traumatic memories that linger in Northern Ireland, how likely is it that the political divisions will ever be overcome? What does the future hold for Northern Ireland?

  • In Milkman, Anna Burns has chosen to leave the characters of her novel nameless. Does this story-telling technique help to make Milkman a more universal story of what happens when a community is traumatized by violence, political rancor, and fear?

  • What are the survival strategies the 18-year-old protagonist in Milkman uses to cope with the everyday violence that surrounds her? In what ways are the patterns of sexual harassment she experiences interconnected with the political violence that permeates her community?

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Every month I offer a Book Club suggestion that highlights authors who write about their family history and explore themes of identity.
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