Belfast: a black cab tour of the murals


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Modern-day Belfast may be all about the shiny new Titanic Quarter, but to get a real-life history lesson of the Troubles that blighted Northern Ireland, take a black cab tour of West Belfast’s political murals.

We rang Belfast Tours (02890 642264) after breakfast on our first morning to order a taxi, and ten minutes later our chatty driver and guide, Fred, picked us up from our hotel. They are one of many tour companies out there, and I’m guessing they all offer similar trips – £25 for two people for an hour-and-fifteen-minute ride in a traditional black taxi around the Protestant and Catholic murals of West Belfast with stops for photo opportunities along the way.

Growing up as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, stories of shootings and bombings were on the news and in the papers on an almost daily basis. I never really understood at the time what these “Troubles” were all about, and to a certain extent I probably never will. It’s difficult and disrespectful to attempt to summarise the Troubles in one sentence, but I’ll have a go:

The Protestant “Loyalists” want Northern Ireland to be part of the UK, whereas the Catholic “Republicans” want it to be part of Ireland – they couldn’t agree, so they killed each other and then painted pictures on walls.

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Fred took us to what he said was quite a rough working-class Protestant neighbourhood first, off the Shankhill Road. Kerbstones are painted red, white and blue and houses fly the Union Jack flag here to mark out the residents’ allegiance. The taxi pulled in to a cul-de-sac, and Fred invited us to walk around the block for five minutes to see some of the best examples of Loyalist murals.

It’s not the nicest of areas, but we felt safe enough walking around on our own. These black cab tours are big earners with more tourists than locals around, although we did see a few chavs with dogs and batty old women in dressing gowns standing in the road (think Shameless crossed with Mrs Brown’s Boys).

When we got back to our taxi, two more black cabs had pulled in to the same cul-de-sac. Obviously, all the drivers go on exactly the same route. Fred told us it wasn’t even a busy time of year when we were there (early March) – in Summer it must be like a conveyor belt of black cabs.

King Billy on his white horse

Fred showed us the mural, above, of King William of Orange (a.k.a King Billy), the Protestant Dutchman who beat the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 – he said if he ever has Dutch visitors in his cab he tells them that “all this is your fault”!

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I was surprised at how colourful and how good the artwork in the murals looked. Also, I wasn’t expecting them to be painted onto the ends of rows of terraced houses – I’d always assumed they were painted onto a Berlin Wall-style wall. This was soon to come.

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We left the Shankhill area and moved on towards the Peace Line – a six-metre high wall made of corrugated steel which separates the Protestant and Catholic sides. Although the killing has long since ended, the dividing line remains although for how long, who knows?

Me standing by the Peace Line - look at all the black cabs along the road.

The wall is covered in bog standard graffiti. You are free to write something on the wall, so bring a marker pen along if you’re that way inclined. There are gates crossing through the wall which are locked at night. We drove through one of the checkpoints to the Catholic side, and noticed straight away that all road signs are in Gaelic as well as in English.

Is it a character from a Roy of the Rovers sketch? Is it a schoolgirl? No, it's the famous Bobby Sands.

We showed our ignorance of local history when we stopped at the first Republican mural, that of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who died on hunger strike in prison in 1981. Kat thought he was a girl, and I thought he was a character from a Roy of the Rovers comic strip.

Caught in the act

New artwork appears regularly on both sides of the dividing line. We were told people simply paint over older murals. A cynic might say this is to keep the tourists happy, and the black cab tours in business.

Our last stop was at the solidarity wall on Falls Road, before we headed back to the city-centre. Here, the murals publicise victims of oppression. We saw one depicting Nelson Mandela, and references to releasing political prisoners the world over.

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There are non-political murals all over town nowadays. We saw Bananaman, George Best and Pat Jennings, but when we saw one depicting local hero Roy “Say what you see” Walker, we knew it was time to stop for a Guinness.

"Say what you see"

To sum up, our tour was great value, we learnt loads from Fred and it was the highlight of our weekend break in Belfast. I’d definitely recommend you do it if you’re ever in town.

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Categories: UK and IrelandTags: , , , , ,

24 comments

  1. Good post. I went to Belfast in 2001 to a conference so didn’t get to see a great deal except the city centre. On a day off I drove to the Giant’s Causeway and on the way what was helpful was that in each of the villages we passed through we knew exactly where political loyalties lay because the lamp posts were either painted red, white and blue or orange, white and green depending upon whether they were predominantly loyalist or republican.

    I like that mural of William III. He died after his horse stumbled after stepping into a mole hill and he was thrown. Apparently Catholics still toast the mole who made his horse trip as ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’.

    Your story about Bobby Sands made me chuckle!

  2. I spent a few hours in Belfast last year during a mini layover but clearly didn’t see nearly enough–I completely missed out on all of the murals (didn’t help that it was a Sunday morning in January..) I guess that means a future return trip is in the books…

  3. Amazing. Thanks for a very informative post.

  4. Reminds me of the 1960 era when we were paid £10 a day danger money if we worked in northern Ireland.This doubled our wages but I did encounter some dangerous episodes .Also the catholics were not employed in skilled jobs in factories

  5. Interesting post – I too grew up hearing about the Troubles daily on the news and then working in Central London during the IRA bombing campaign. A weekend in Belfast brings our recent history to life again and perhaps puts things in perspective?

  6. I saw a few murals when I was there in April last year but had no idea there were so many. Sounds like an interesting tour and something a bit different to do in Belfast.

  7. I’ve heard a lot about the Black Cab Tours lately and it sounds like a fascinating way to learn about the “Troubles.” I tend to prefer guided tours for things like this because you can learn so much more than just viewing the murals on your own. I’ve heard Belfast is an interesting city – I would love to see it!

  8. £25 wouldn’t even get you 10 minutes in a black cab in London! I’m astonished at how good value this tour is, and equally astonished at the prolific amount of murals. It’s such an interactive way to learn about Belfast’s unsettling history. However, some one needs to kindly re-do the mural of Bobby Sands, it’s not far off looking like a Bee Gees poster.

    I’m interested to read what else you have to say about Belfast, I know every little about it in terms of attractions but I’m really curious to head over there now.

    • I think me and you should be looking over our shoulders for IRA gunmen now – I’ve called their hero Roy of the Rovers, and you’ve called him Barry Gibb!

      I’ll try to write another post on the city – the big new(ish) attraction is the Titanic Experience (the ship was built here), and there’s also the Cathedral Quarter for bars and nightlife. It’s a perfect sized city for a weekend break so look out for cheap flights.

  9. Great post! I’ve heard is also possible to do a similar tour in Glasgow

  10. It’s produced some great artwork, Rich, but wasn’t it all so futile? I like the location of the city and would quite like to visit sometime.
    Speaking of the murals, I’m having ‘one of my days’ in Glasgow soon. Don’t suppose I’ll have time to fit them in. 🙂
    Good guide, and the blog’s looking very smart.

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