Belfast, Ohio: The Story Behind the Story

After nearly fourteen years and several iterations, Belfast, Ohio, my fourth novel, is now available for online purchase. The original version was actually my second attempt at novel writing. At the time, the process of securing publication was a bit more onerous and a bit less saturated with aspiring authors than today. Nearly all agent queries and manuscript submissions were completed through the postal service, meaning actual printed letters and manuscripts. The process was time consuming and required large up front investments in copies and postage.

My agent queries for that initial version inspired several requests for full manuscripts but ultimately no offers of representation. One literary agent, however, saw promise in my writing and encouraged me to try again. My next effort resulted in So Shelly, which was purchased by Random House. Carelessly, I lost my only printed copy of that second novel, and the computer on which it was composed crashed like Humpty Dumpty beyond repair.

Approximately a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and a year after the release of my novel Island No. 6, I grew restless to begin another project. Even though a dozen years had passed since the original version of Belfast, Ohio — then with a different title — had been written, I never stopped thinking about the story and believing that there was a seed of something worth returning to and nurturing back to life but with the benefit of over a decade of lived wisdom and writing experience to add to the novel’s reconstitution.

As the synopsis on the back of the book’s cover promises, Belfast, Ohio is set in the heavily-Irish West Side of Cleveland, and its plot mixes elements of magic realism, Irish mysticism and history, Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance to weave an intricate and, I hope, compelling plot that highlights the themes of sacrifice and redemption, which I’d suggest are the requisites of true heroism. This is my first novel that travels beyond the confines of my hometown and its immediate vicinity, but it doesn’t wander far. I love Cleveland and frequently spend time there, especially on the West Side, which one of the characters in the novel refers to as “Belfast, Ohio,” ergo, the title.

As I mentioned above, there are four central motifs that run throughout the novel: magic realism, Irish mysticism and history, Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance.

Magic realism is a literary style that demands the reader’s exercise of cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold in one’s mind as true two opposite contentions) by combining a realistic narrative with surreal elements of dream or fantasy. This technique is reflective of my own admittedly paradoxical worldview that is primarily marked by pragmatism, rationalism, and skepticism but leaves the door open just a crack for the possiblility of the metaphysical/supernatural. As I said: cognitive dissonance. Galahad (Gal) Lafferty, the novel’s protagonist, is forced to wrestle with his own demons of doubt and disbelief and, perhaps, even a real one, demon that is.

My interest in Irish mysticism is derived from my love of the poems of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and from my own genetic and cultural link to Ireland. Yeats once said, “The mystical life is at the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” I incorporate several lines of Yeats’ poetry as epigraphs in the novel. As for Irish history, a few years back, I learned of the extent of my own Irishness from two sources: genetic data from an ancestry service and a conversation with my mother, who shared that her paternal grandmother was named Lafferty and an immigrant from Ireland, most likely the North. I was previously unaware of both of these connections, but I’d long been drawn to Irish culture, especially its music, poetry, and fiction. My Irishness had long lived in my collective unconscious, that part of the mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience. It was as if I always knew I was part Irish, but I didn’t have the evidence of it. Although I find all of Ireland’s history fascinating, it is the recent period known as “The Troubles” that has most intrigued me. In Belfast Ohio, “The Troubles,” the three-decade civil war between nationalists (mainly self-identified as Irish or Roman Catholic) and unionists (mainly self-identified as British or Protestant) and primarily waged on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is reignited and exported to modern day Cleveland.

The Irish Republican Flag

Having been baptized Catholic and then attending or teaching in a Catholic school for twenty-six years, Catholicism has probably done more to define me than anything outside of my family. Like many Catholics, my association with the Church has become a complicated one in light of its many scandals and abuses and its clinging to arcane rules and practices that I feel are out of step with the modern world. The truth is that today I consider myself more of a cultural Catholic than a theological one, but there is no denying that it has informed my personality and psyche profoundly. What I continue to value from my Catholic upbringing and education is its emphasis on sacrifice and redemption, which are best revealed through the stories of the crucifixion and ressurrection. Gal, who is a senior at St. John of Bath’s Jesuit High School, is experiencing his own crisis of faith, but the events of the novel cause him to embrace both of these Catholic tenets despite his emerging agnosticism.

Catholicism and its themes of Sacrifice and Redemption play a significant role in Belfast, Ohio. Photo by Em Hopper on Pexels.com

My interest in Arthurian Romance is mostly the byproduct of my many years of teaching Anglo-Irish Literature. Its tenets of service, chivalry, and courtly love play a central motivational role for the two main characters of the novel: Gal and his “lady love” Maeve Donnelly. Perhaps the most loved tale of Arthurian Romance is that of the search for The Holy Grail and its supposed powers. In the story, Gal and Maeve are unexpectedly drawn into The Grail quest when they learn it is hidden — of all places — in a salt mine two thousand feet below Lake Erie.

The inclusion of The Grail Quest serves to tie these four major motifs together: magic realism, Irish Mysticism (many scholars believe the story’s roots are in pre-Christian Celtic folklore), Catholicism, and Arthurian Romance and to tell what I hope is a fast-paced story that illuminates its major themes of sacrifice and redemption.

One rendering of the Holy Grail.

I really don’t consider myself a novelist as much as a storyteller. The goal for every story I write is to provide readers with an engaging plot that primarily entertains but that might also teach a few things and reinforce what William Faulkner called “the old universal truths – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

If you have found any of this description appealing, I hope you’ll give Belfast, Ohio a read, and I especially hope I don’t disappoint.

Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

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