In any former war zone, the conflict leaves behind physical reminders. They could be bombed out buildings, statues of the victors and memorial sites of the fallen. In Belfast, the memory of the Troubles is kept alive through sectarian street murals and a large wall dividing the historically Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods from one another.
The Belfast murals tell a very two very different stories about the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the sacrifices made by those involved. You can best see and hear these stories for yourself by taking a Black Cab tour of Belfast.
Taking a Black Cab tour of the Belfast Murals
Belfast is a pretty compact city. You can easily go on foot from one neighborhood to the next, and I do love exploring a city that way. However, the sectarian Belfast murals are spread between two neighborhoods that are closed off from one another. This makes a self-guided walking tour very tricky. There are also no helpful explanatory exhibits telling the story of the Troubles, so it’s best to hire out a black taxi tour and let the driver give you their
unbiased tour of the Troubles.
The Belfast mural tours are supposed to be unbiased, but the conflict ended in the mid-’90’s, recollections are fresh and everyone was affected. So whoever your driver, you are going to get a filtered (and likely colorful) version of their history. Depending upon their point of view, one side was more likely to be “murderers” and the other “martyrs”. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of neutrality as it actually helped to underscore the scar tissue that still remains in Northern Ireland.
There are a bunch of different black cab tour companies and most are highly rated. It will cost ~€30 for up to three people (€9 for each person thereafter). You can check them out and book on Trip Advisor.
Sectarian Murals Tour
What follows is a visual tour of our Belfast black taxi tour. Our driver started us in the Protestant section along Shankill road, then we drove along the Cupar Way “peace wall” and into the Catholic section near Falls Court. One of the things that I found most interesting about the tour is the similarity of of styles between the two areas. I also noted that as the murals age, new messages are beginning to creep in.
Murderers and Martyrs in the Belfast Murals
There were plenty of people who died in the conflict, many of them innocent civilians. There were also plenty of aggressors perpetrating that violence including: the Republican paramilitary groups (such as the IRA), loyalist groups (such as the UVF) and British security forces (such as MI-5). During the Belfast murals tour, we saw a lot of wall space devoted to memorializing the fallen.
Stubbornly Clinging to the War
What shocked me was the freshly wounded sentiment in many of the murals. There is still a massive “peace wall” segregating the two neighborhoods and the gates between them still clang shut at night. That scar tissue is still fresh for some and it will take a long time for them to find peace within themselves.
In the Protestant Shankill neighborhood, you can still find Loyalist flags flying and messages of war.
Belfast Wall Murals Advocating Peace
But as you travel along the the “peace wall”, you will begin to see messages expressing weariness with any kind of war and a desire to keep the peace.
The term “peace wall” is a misnomer if ever there was one. The wall is 24 feet (7.6m) high, constructed of reinforced concrete, metal and barbed wire and it divides the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods along Cupar way.
Downtown Belfast Street Art
The sectarian murals aren’t the only kind of Belfast street art. After your Black Cab tour, have your driver drop you at the Cathedral and wander the quadrant south of the church between Talbot, Waring and Hill streets. There you will find yet more street art that is edgy and political but not so sectarian. These modern murals reminded me a lot of the beautiful political street art in Buenos Aires.
Grab lunch in one of the many cafes or pubs in the neighborhood. After lunch, check out the Dark Horse on Commercial Court. Their parking lot courtyard is completely covered in a series of photo-realistic murals depicting a sexy, violent Belfast street scene. And they have a whole wall dedicated to Games of Thrones filming sites.
For more Game of Thrones, check out this post on taking an Antrim Coast road trip which will take you on a fun tour of Game of Thrones filming sites.
Both the black cab tour and the downtown Belfast street art walk won’t take you more than a half day. There is a lot more to do in Northern Ireland if you have 3-4 days, so check out this guide to disobeying Rick Steves in Northern Ireland for a suggested alternative itinerary to the area. Enjoy your time in Belfast and happy trails.
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