The Troubles in Northern Ireland have been documented in movies and books, in all the neverending grimness of the situation. But in Carole Bellacera’s Border Crossings, we see them through the eyes of a young American woman who gets drawn into the violence because she’s married to an Irishman.
1991 Ireland. We catch a glimpse of two very different worlds as in the village of Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland a husband and wife, Kennet and Peg O’Faolain, are violently murdered by Protestant extremists, their eldest child, Aisling, left mute by the horror of the attack. Meanwhile, Kathy O’Faolain’s life is turned upside down when her husband, Pearse, a professor of Irish History at Trinity College, decides to take over for his murdered brother and support Sinn Fein’s struggle against the British.
Before she knows it, Kathy’s placid life ends abruptly and she’s bidding farewell to all her friends and, along with their young son Sean, leaves the safety of Dublin behind. Furthermore, in the O’Faolain home in Enniskillen she must endure her sister-in-law Erin’s continued verbal attacks because Kathy can’t let go of her dreams for a normal life. As if that were not enough, Kathy suffers a wrenching loss and watches as Pearse becomes a stranger before her very eyes, dismissing her as spoiled and justifying the means the IRA uses to fight back.
As Kathy searches for some meaning in her life, she becomes involved in the opening of a teen center, open to Catholics and Protestants alike, despite the danger that accompanies such a proposition. Violence becomes a part of her daily life, and every knock on the door and phone call can signify bad news for the O’Faolains. Erin finds love with a fellow IRA member, but the idyllic marriage they enter is cut short when they are both sent to prison; Erin’s brother Conor pays for loving a Protestant girl when they are shot by Jack Robinson, the same man who murdered his older brother Kennet. Robinson’s hatred for the O’Faolains stems from the killing of his sweetheart long ago, but there is a cruel twist to his story that has turned him into a complete psychopath.
Through it all, Kathy begins to see the situation through eyes that are shifting perspective – no longer can she be so distant and preach “let’s all get along” when she sees that there is no quick and easy answer to the hatred that runs so deep. Two frightening confrontations with Jack Robinson end in bloodshed, but it is an attack on young Sean’s schoolbus that forces Kathy to leave Enniskillen, and later, Ireland itself. Pearse lets her go, but his own imprisonment and the seeming futility of his struggle make him wonder if there aren’t other ways to help the cause.
Kathy O’Faolain is a wonderful character. She truly gives it her all when it comes to making a new life for herself alongside Pearse, and she is strong enough to realize that, although her love for him never falters, Pearse is now a different man from the one she married. Her decision to leave him is heartbreaking and leaves her nearly emotionally empty, but it is the only course she can take.
To Kathy, the change in Pearse is almost frightening as he begins to reveal hidden layers that years of normalcy in Dublin have softened. The man who adopts his sister Erin’s rhetoric and disrupts the only life Kathy and Sean have known pays for his convictions. The continued killings and the loss of his wife and child, force him, in the end, to evaluate what is right and wrong for him.
Hardly a few pages go by before someone is killed or imprisoned, and Bellacera never glosses over any of it. The constant fear and detailed atrocities of what it means to be caught up in the violence of the Troubles are vividly etched on each page, and remain long after the final page is read.