The Black Taxi Tour of Belfast

On November 15, 2013 by Oren and Cassie

The Black Taxi tour is a must-do if it’s your first time in Belfast or Ireland. Many times in our travels, we’ve heard about battles or wars fought centuries or at least decades ago. The Black Taxi tour takes you through the Troubles – the fight between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast and Northern Ireland that officialy ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. But it was clear from our tour that tensions still simmer right under the surface. Sometimes, they boil up. The tour isn’t a lesson about the past. It is a look at the present.

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The Solidarity Wall

GETTING YOUR OWN BLACK TAXI TOUR

Our guide for the Black Taxi tour was Joe O’Hara, a Belfast local who started giving these tours 6 years ago. Our tour cost about £30, although you can pay in Euro as well. You can split the cost between up to 5 people to save some money. If you have to find random strangers to afford the tour, do it. We went with Official Black Taxi Tours. Highly recommended! They’ll pick you up at your hotel or hostel, or you can walk to their headquarters near City Centre.

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Our driver and us

Joe lived through the Troubles. He lost friends in the random shootings and bombings that once made Belfast one of the 4 B’s for travellers to avoid along with Beirut, Baghdad, and Bosnia. The Black Taxi tour was incredibly informative. More than that, it was intensely personal.

THE SOLIDARITY WALL AND THE MURALS

After a quick briefing about what we would be seeing and a short introduction, our first stop was the Solidarity Wall. Along a stretch of wall on Falls Road, there are a series of murals showing support for groups around the world facing injustice. The murals change every so often to keep the wall current. We saw murals supporting Basques, Cubans, and even the Guernica from Madrid.

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A mural about the Falls Curfew

From here, the Black Taxi tour became very local. We visited Sinn Fein headquarters (the Irish Republican political party) and saw a mural of Bobby Sands, a political prisoner who was the first to die in a hunger strike. He was elected to Parliament only weeks before he died. What amazed us is how recently this all happened. We, as Americans, were completely ignorant of most of it. Sure, we’d heard of the IRA, but how much did we really know about the Ulster Volunteer Force? And what about more than 3,500 people killed during the Troubles? We barely knew anything.

Curious to know how long ago the Troubles really ended, I asked, “When was the last time there was a bombing?”

“Yesterday,” Joe said, “a bomb was found that hadn’t exploded yet.”

CROSSING THE “BERLIN WALL” OF BELFAST

We spent the beginning of our tour on the Irish Catholic side of Belfast. Then we moved to the Protestant side of the city. A wall separates the two sides. To this day, the wall has gates that still open and close. I never saw the Berlin Wall, but I’d imagine it looked and felt a lot like this. Homes on the Catholic side had to fence in their backyards in case weapons or explosives were thrown over the wall. This part of the city, Bombay Street, was firebombed. Its symbol is now the phoenix – the magestic bird that rises from the ashes.

THE DALAI LAMA LEAVES HIS MARK

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Cassie leaves her message on the “Berlin Wall.”

On the Protestant side of the wall on Shankill Road, there is a part of the wall dedicated to messages of hope and prayer for peace in the city. There are thousands of signatures despite the sign that clearly forbids writing on the wall. The first person to write here was the Dalai Lama. He wrote, “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”

Cassie and I each left our own messages of peace on the wall. You’ll just have to visit our gallery to find out what we wrote.

SIMMERING RIGHT UNDER THE SURFACE

Some of the murals we saw evoke images of a peaceful future. Joe O’Hara still lives in Belfast because he believes peace is possible. It may take another generation, but it is coming. I hope Joe is right.

Unfortunately, there were a few murals that were nothing but pictures of hate. One mural pays homage to “Stevie TOPGUN McKeag.” TOPGUN is the title given to the person who has killed the most Catholics. Another mural shows images of the different Ulster volunteer and paramilitary groups. The central image is a man in camo holding an assault rifle. No matter where you are standing, the rifle points right at you.

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The gun always points at you.

These images are a salute to a violent past that lingers too closely in the rear view mirror of Belfast. They are an impediment to the future Joe O’Hara wants to see. We couldn’t agree more.

Check out our Black Taxi tour photo gallery.

-O.L.

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