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.
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.
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”!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.