Are the Troubles Over?

Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles Square

by David McKittrick and Seamus Kelters and Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton
Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing (distributed in the US by Trafalgar, 1,630 pp., $60.00

Those Are Real Bullets, Aren't They? Bloody Sunday, Derry, 30 January 1972

by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson
London: Fourth Estate, 310 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Northern Ireland's Troubles: The Human Costs

by Marie-Therese Fay and Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth
London: Pluto Press, 229 pp., $22.50 (paper)


The scene is so stark and grief-stricken, so full of pity and terror, that it might have been created by Sophocles or Aeschylus. From time to time, the grown-up children of Jean McConville gather on the beautiful beach of Templetown on the shores of Carlingford Lough, a few miles south of Northern Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic. They wait in the parking lot or on the dunes, while members of the Irish police dig holes and pits, looking for the bones of their mother.

Jean McConville was abducted from her home in Belfast by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1972 and never seen again. Since their father had died a short time before, her ten young children were left alone. They told no one what had happened and tried to survive in silence. Eventually, all but the eldest were taken to a series of orphanages. For them, and for the wider Northern Irish society that is struggling to come to terms with thirty years of grief and atrocity, a proper burial for Jean McConville might symbolize some kind of ending. Still, though the IRA has finally admitted her murder and given information on the disposal of her body, all efforts to find her remains have so far failed. Neither she nor the troubled society from which she came has yet been able to rest in peace.

The story of Jean McConville is just one of 3,637 told in one of the most remarkable books to have emerged from any conflict. Lost Lives, the work of the journalists David McKittrick, Chris Thornton, and Seamus Kelters, and the academic and sometime politician Brian Feeney, is a scrupulous, austere secular litany that describes every single person killed in the Troubles, from John Patrick Scullion, a young Catholic murdered in June 1966 by Protestant paramilitaries in a prelude to the wider outbreak of violence two years later, to Charles Bennett, an even younger Catholic murdered by the IRA in July 1999. (A few people have been killed since then, mostly as a result of feuds within the Protestant paramilitaries.) The book simply records, calmly, accurately, and without discrimination, who the dead people were, how they died, and who killed them. Slowly and quietly, it reveals a fundamental truth about the Northern Ireland conflict: that it was not primarily about history, religion, or sovereignty, but about the deliber-ate destruction and dishonoring of vulnerable human flesh. Especially after the first four years, violence became an end in itself. However obvious it may seem, the chances for a lasting and decent settlement depend crucially on a thorough acceptance of that fact.

It is not, of course, that any of the parties to the conflict could possibly be ignorant of the extent of suffering that it caused. In the catalog of late-twentieth-century civil conflicts, the Troubles may have been relatively harmless. Compared to the mass killings in Rwanda or the breakup of Yugoslavia, the struggle for power in Northern Ireland, which left fewer…

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