Black Taxi Political Tours, Belfast
An absolute classic of dark tourism! Going, or rather: being driven around West Belfast
, which was one of the key former battlegrounds of the Troubles in Northern Ireland
The point is to see the relics and aftermath of that long and bitter conflict, mainly in the form of political murals, but also the so-called Peace Line – the wall that still separates the Catholic communities from the Protestant ones.
More background info:
The origin of the Black Taxi Tours goes back to the days even before the Good Friday Agreement, roughly to the time of the ceasefires that most of the paramilitary organizations of Northern Ireland
eventually agreed to in the mid-1990s. As soon as the conflict eased off a bit, tourists started coming back in increasing numbers to Belfast
. Interest in the visible vestiges of the Troubles, which had provided so much headline material over the decades, was evident. At times the official tourism office competed with the taxis and ran their own history-related tours by coach.
But these days tours of West Belfast are firmly integrated into the city's tourism portfolio and there's a healthy competition between a plethora of companies, from individual cabbies to well-organized larger operators using a whole fleet of vehicles to meet the demand.
In addition to taxi and bus tours there are also guided walking tours on offer. Obviously you could just as well walk up the relevant streets on your own (and maybe get a regular bus for the return journey). It's not "dangerous" to do so. Both the Protestant and Catholic communities around the Shankhill and Falls Road, respectively, are welcoming enough – though the latter perhaps a bit more so. In general, the Republican side gets their PR across somewhat easier than the Loyalist side. It can make the Unionist stance look more obscure to foreign visitors – but in a way it also makes it even more intriguing. (See also under Derry/Londonderry
Maybe partly because of that PR imbalance, the Falls Road is clearly the far more popular of the two main streets that these West Belfast tours head for. Some do only (parts of) the Falls Road. If you want to see both sides, make sure you either pick a tour that caters for that anyway or, if using a private taxi, make this clear before you set off. Most taxi tour drivers are flexible.
The Falls and Shankhill Roads, as well as some of the side streets, are not only famous for their political murals. It wasn't just agitation that went on here – it got more concrete too. Both sites were also the scene of violent clashes, riots, houses burnt down, gun fights, ambushes, assassinations, and even terrorist bombings, such as the Shankhill Road bombings by the IRA as late as 1993. Several of these incidents are commemorated by the respective communities through their own dedicated memorials.
The murals meanwhile have become somewhat less political in recent years. In fact some of the more aggressively provocative ones have been removed and were replaced by more generally acceptable peace messages. Others have moved away from the various aspects of the conflict as such and instead depict more of the cultural aspects of Protestantism/Catholicism. Thus it isn't all that surprising to find a Martin Luther mural in the Protestant Shankhill area, for instance (even with a German-language quote from the man!).
Popular as the Black Taxi Tours are, they are also controversial. I've encountered harshly outspoken objections to their very existence. I mean articles like this one
(external link). It's a prime example of what in academic dark tourism research circles (see other sources
) has become known as "moral panic" reactions by journalists. Such outbursts of indignation in relation to the dark tourism reality are unfortunately still depressingly common in the press (but hardly ever come from tourists themselves!). But take note of what the comments below that article are saying. Almost all of them rally to the defence of the Black Taxi Tours and similar offers, rightly pointing out that taking an interest in even this still painfully recent dark history is not only OK, but actually also morally favourable over the alternative: namely not mentioning it at all, glossing it over, forgetting about it. And indeed, if such tours are there so that people can engage with this recent history, then that is NOT voyeurism or rubber-necking, as the accusation so often runs. Even if some tourists do fall into that category (which unfortunately can't be ruled out either), then it does not mean that such tour offers are per se illegitimate. The best response to such accusations, in my view, is to point out that these forms of dark tourism exist "lest we forget", as the usual memorial slogan goes. So don't let yourselves be put off. Do go … but maybe abstain from scrawling on the Peace Line (see below).
Oh, and one more thing: the descriptive term Black Taxi Tours must not be taken too literally; some of the vehicles used on these tours are of a different colour. The one I was in was maroon, for instance.
What there is to see:
Exactly what places, and which murals out of the hundreds in existence in Belfast
, any one tours goes to varies. So no representative, exact point-by-point account can be given here. But there are some that are more likely to be covered than others, and a couple are almost inevitably part of the tours. It is normal to stop at various points where tourists can freely take photos. Some stops will be suggested by the driver but you can usually ask for a photo stop at any point.
The tour I went on was with Ken Harper (of Harpers Belfast Taxi Tours) and at my request we first headed to a road north of the Shankhill, namely Crumlin Road, because I also wanted to see Crumlin Road Gaol
and the courthouse opposite it (see under Belfast
). After that we drove into the Shankhill area, cruising around some housing estates with a particular dense array of murals. I won't comment on them in particular, but the examples in the photo gallery below
will provide an impression. The drivers can tell their passengers lots about the references and background of each mural – and I will leave that to them (I don't want to take their job away, after all ;-))
We also stopped at a Protestant memorial, namely the one dedicated to the victims of the Bayardo Bar attack. This was a pub frequented by Protestants including members of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). A shooting and bomb attack by the (Provisional) IRA left five people dead, including only one UVF member, the others were civilians. The pub was destroyed. A plaque next to the memorial is unabashedly confrontational in its language, clearly written in much anger.
We then approached the infamous Peace Line – i.e. the wall that has separated the Protestant and Catholic communities of West Belfast since the early days of the conflict. There are in fact several Peace Lines in Belfast (as well as in other Northern Irish towns), but this one is the probably the one best known and most frequently included in the tourist tours of West Belfast. It runs parallel to Cupar Way on the Protestant side, which itself runs more or less parallel to Shankhill Road a few blocks to the north and Falls Road a few blocks to the south.
In this place the Peace Line or Peace Wall is part wall, part fence: the bottom two thirds are concrete, and on top is a metal fence, making the total height something like 6 or 7 metres. That's higher than the Berlin Wall
was, but not quite as imposing as the wall by means of which Israel tries to keep Palestinians segregated in some parts of Jerusalem
I had read that on many West Belfast tourist tours the participants are encouraged to leave a message scribbled onto the wall. But I was very relieved when this was not the case on the tour I was on. Instead we both agreed that this was an awful habit that had developed here – and that in open defiance of the signs that officially ask people NOT to write on the wall and especially not to deface the artwork on it. And indeed the scrawls are mostly annoying and/or embarrassing – I didn't spot any graffiti/messages that could have passed as appropriate, thought-provoking or in such a way justifiable. Instead most were either predictably clichéd platitudes (such as "Live in Peace" or "Tear Down this Wall") or of the usual boring "X was here + date" type. Some were downright offensive (there're always some who can't help themselves!), but I won't reproduce any of that type here.
We then proceeded to one of the gates in the Peace Line. These are left open during daylight hours but still locked at the night.
And so we proceeded into the Catholic district around Falls Road. Before we actually hit that street itself, there was another stop at a memorial garden, this time a Republican one called Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. It commemorates the burning down of houses on Bombay Street by Loyalists during the fierce riots and battles of August 1969.
What is most stunning about this place, however, is the house to the right of the memorial. It stands directly behind the Peace Line and the rear of the house and its back garden are protected by a wire mesh "cage" – apparently because "missiles" (i.e. stones, bottles, etc.) are frequently thrown over the wall/fence from the other, Protestant side. It beggars belief. What it must feel like living in such a house I can't begin to imagine.
In the Falls Road area we also briefly stopped at an old Sinn Fein HQ on the corner of Falls Road and Sevastopol Street. On the side of the building is to be found one of the most famous murals of them all. It shows Bobby Sands, the most prominent of the hunger strikers of 1981 (see under Northern Ireland
Eventually we got to the so-called Solidarity Wall on Divis Street, the eastern continuation of Falls Road. This cluster of wall murals is so called because many of them declare international solidarity with e.g. Palestine or Cuba. Others make Republican demands at home (e.g. for the release of prisoners), yet others are not in solidarity but rather make accusations. Thus you can find a portrait of Margaret Thatcher with the words "wanted for murder" … which is a reference to the Iron Lady's uncompromising stand in particular during the hunger strikes. A more reconciliatory contribution is yet another copy of the famous Picasso painting "Guernica
", a classic of the peace movement worldwide (cf. also Museum of Free Derry
This spot is clearly one of the most popular in the Falls Road area. There were several tour buses lined up here when I was there. It was positively busy. The information panels by the road can also be seen as an indication that this is probably one of the most commodified spots of West Belfast's Troubles-related tourism.
Just round the corner, along Northumberland Street were more murals, and here some fairly clear political messages could be found too, including a Republican Socialists' call for support for "our POWs" (cf. Derry/Londonderry
). One somewhat disturbing message said: "Stormont isn't working" (that's a reference to the Northern Ireland Assembly at the parliament building in Stormont where the political parties wrestle with power-sharing under the Good Friday Agreement – see under Belfast
All of the above descriptions are just accounts of the most important items covered on the tour I was on. Loads of other stops were made and interesting details pointed out which I can't and don't want to recount here in every detail. Just one final bit: en route out of the city centre a pub was pointed out to me that still featured the metal protection cage at the entrance of the type that was once ubiquitous, namely because pubs were so frequently singled out as "soft targets" in attacks from either side in the conflict. This pub allegedly still retained this protection measure now not so much because of fears of Loyalist and/or Nationalist attacks, but because it's clientele is said to be a bit on the "rough" side …
All in all, the tour was well worth the time and money. The only regret I have about it was that I didn't have the time to do a longer version. I'll definitely have to come back to Belfast for that one day.
no single location – as is in the nature of a driving tour, but here are the locators for a few of the spots/areas in Belfast
picked out in the above text:
Clonard Memorial Garden/Bombay Street fortified houses on the Peace Line: [54.6012,-5.9577
Access and costs:
easily available, but best arranged in advance; not exactly cheap, unless shared amongst a small group, but mostly very good value for money all the same.
There are countless Belfast
taxi companies and individual cabbies that offer these by now famous tours to meet the great demand. They vary in what they cover, and necessarily also in quality. How balanced they are in their commentary is also a matter of debate. Nobody can be 100% neutral in this immensely complicated context, and certainly not anyone who's actually lived through the Troubles. But most guides/drivers do strive for an unbiased account.
There's an overwhelmingly wide choice, and names such as "Original" or "Official Black Taxis" do not necessarily mean much (given there's nothing official about them and nobody can say for sure who was the first to offer such tours). So you either have to pick any one of them at random, or shop around and make enquiries in advance. Faced with this situation I made something of a compromise: after a bit of Internet research I picked out a shortlist of three companies whose websites looked promising and/or that seemed to be recommended more frequently than others and enquired by email. On the basis of what I got back I then made my choice. I ended up with Harpers Belfast Taxi Tours. Ken Harper is one of the most established cabbies to have offered tours like this from the earliest days they appeared on the scene. He's certainly very knowledgeable and I was very happy with my choice in the end. Of course I can't judge all the other tours, having only experienced the one. But Ken's commentary was lively and engaging, eye-opening on many occasions, and he was very open to customizing the tour to my demands. So I can certainly recommend him. There are probably others that can do a similarly good job of it, I'm sure, but you wouldn't go wrong including him in your enquiries when researching your options.
The price charged for these taxi tours is pretty standardized and ranges from £25 to £30 for the regular 60-90 minutes. Of course, if you share with other people the price per person comes down. The regular taxis can accommodate three people comfortably, four at a push. If you have a larger group, other vehicles may be used and the price will go up per person (ca. £5-10 pp). I went on my own and paid £30 for 90 minutes and extra time would have been charged at £20 per hour.
The tours by taxi are in theory available any day and at any time you wish, within reason. Obviously you want daylight, and not make it excessively early in the morning. Of course, at busy times slots can book out fast, so it's best to be flexible. And ideally book well in advance.
Time required: The taxi tours usually last an hour to an hour and a half. Walking tours naturally require more time. Extended taxi tours can last as long as you like.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Belfast
– especially Crumlin Road Gaol
, which is near the Shankhill area and thus combines most easily with a West Belfast taxi tour. You can also ask your driver to drop you off elsewhere, as long as it's not too far away … although my driver was even prepared to drive me all the way to the middle of the Titanic Quarter
at no extra cost.
Many companies offering these tours are also happy to put together longer tours, even up to a full day, to cover all manner of extra places and aspects. When I did it in December 2012, I only had time for the regular tour. But if I ever went back on one I'd certainly arrange for an extended version. There would have been lot more that could be covered. As my driver put it: "I could take you around all day and not run out of things to show you." The price would then go up by an agreed hourly rate (in the case of the driver I used that would have been £20 per hour).
West Belfast alone could probably be stretched to a few hours, but one thing I'd like to ask for would be an extension into East Belfast to see more of the often quite aggressive and defiant Loyalist murals there – and also a drive through the Catholic enclave on the eastern side of the river around Short Strand could be interesting.