Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST and the Legacy of the Aftermath


My debut novel All the Walls of Belfastset in post-Troubles Belfast, Northern Ireland, centers around two teens grappling with the fallout of their parents’ pasts as they strive to define their own futures. But one ugly truth, not the peace wall between their neighborhoods, might tear them apart.

One of the core themes of All the Walls of Belfast revolves around the legacy of trauma being passed down to the next generation. I wanted to take a second to explore how the aftermath of their parents’ choices during the Troubles have fundamentally shaped both Danny and Fiona’s lives.

The Troubles lasted from 1968 until 1998. Over 3600 people were killed and many more were injured. It began during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, after attempts at peaceful protest demanding equal rights for Catholics (“one man, one vote,” protection from job discrimination, access to equal resources such as quality housing) were met with violence on behalf of the British government and the mostly Protestant police force. At first, most of the violence on the Catholic side was in defense of their neighborhoods, which were under siege following the unrest. From there, the Provisional Irish Republican Army launched an armed campaign to force concessions around civil rights and to get a united Ireland. Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries took up arms out of fears of a united Ireland.

The Troubles was not about religious beliefs. It was about history and ethnic/cultural identity. In the early 1600s, the King of England used Protestant Scottish and English people loyal to the Crown to colonize what is now Northern Ireland (the Plantation of Ulster). He gave them lands belonging to local Irish Catholics resisting the Crown. Boiled down simply and speaking generally, Protestants see themselves as British and Loyalist or Unionist and wish for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom. Catholics see themselves as Irish and Republican (no affiliation to American Republicans) or Nationalist and are more likely to want a united Ireland free of British rule. In Northern Ireland today, the main political parties are still Unionist (Protestant affiliated) or Republican (Catholic affiliated).

The legacy of the Troubles still lingers, particularly in working class neighborhoods like the Falls (Catholic) and the Shankill (Protestant). Twenty years after the Troubles ended, the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on. But there are still dozens of peace walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas. During my times in Northern Ireland, I asked people if the walls should come down. The answer from those living around them was pretty much always no. Because they were still afraid of them.

All the Walls of Belfast is set in 2012, so Danny and Fiona were small children when the Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Fiona didn’t even live in Belfast at this point; her mother fled to the United States when she was two. So neither of them can really even remember the Troubles. But their fathers were both heavily involved in the armed conflict. Danny’s father was in the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary. Fiona’s father was in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Catholic paramilitary. Both of their families were torn apart by the violence. Neither of them can remember it, but it has drastically shaped their lives.

Danny is well aware of his father’s involvement, and his father and community’s worldview has drastically shaped his own. Danny’s father is still involved in a Protestant paramilitary called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and pressures Danny to follow in his footsteps, run guns, forcibly collect protection money from local businesses, and  sell drugs under the guise of protecting his Protestant culture. Danny takes pride in his Protestant culture and proudly takes part in activities that can be considered sectarian, like marching in flute band parades and building bonfires to celebrate the Twelfth of July, which celebrates the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over deposed Catholic King James II in 1690.

The working class neighborhood Danny has grown up in is religiously segregated. Danny’s never talked to anyone from the Falls. Or really a Catholic. As of 2015, only 7% of children in Northern Ireland attended religiously integrated schools. The vast majority of Catholic and Protestant children don’t even go to school together. Government agencies track school achievement data by religion like we track by race in the United States. He refers to Catholics as Taigs, which is a derogatory word, but has no idea why he even calls them that. It’s just what his dad does. In the book, Danny works to re-write his worldview and ingrained prejudice.

Danny and Fiona were born in the same hospital in Belfast, but the choices of their parents lead to very different lives for them. In Fiona’s case,  her parents choices lead to her family being severed in two. She ended up in Wisconsin with her mom, and her father and half brothers remained in Belfast. There had been no contact for fifteen years until her father finally finds her. Fiona discovers her mom hid her from a father desperate to be in her life. After Fiona flies to Belfast to be reunited with the family she doesn’t remember, she walks into the aftermath oblivious both to the lingering impact on her father and half-brothers, and the forty-foot peace wall separating her father’s Catholic neighborhood, the Falls, from the Protestant neighborhood a few feet away, the Shankill, where Danny’s from. It was her father’s choices and political beliefs that lead to their family being torn apart in All the Walls of Belfast.

Both Danny and Fiona are left wondering what their lives would have been had they been born somewhere else, but both draw strength from either their families or their community.

All the Walls of Belfast, in part, is about reconciliation and defining your own future apart from the legacies of your parents’ pasts. In Danny’s case, it’s fighting to free himself from the burden of the past and create a define his own identity free of his family’s sectarian paramilitary involvement. In Fiona’s case, it’s grappling with who her father is—a freedom fighter or a terrorist?—and if his past must define their future.

Learn more about my research process for All the Walls of Belfast.

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