As a child growing up in Canada, I remember hearing of the unrest happening in Northern Ireland, but it seemed very far away from my safe and small town. I never really understood what the conflict was all about. It wasn’t until actually visiting Belfast last year that I started to learn about the country’s politics and history. And I credit much of that understanding to the informative and lighthearted black taxi tour that we took as part of our five-day trip through Northern Ireland with Vagabond Tours.
Since the Northern Ireland conflict came to an end in 1998, the black taxi political tours have gained in popularity as people strive to learn more of the country’s turbulent history. A number of local companies offer these tours. Our tour, which was booked through Vagabond, provided great insight into the past.
Crash course in Troubles
No talk of Northern Ireland history can begin without a little history lesson. In 1922 Southern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom, leaving Northern Ireland under British rule. Northern Ireland was divided between those loyal to an independent Ireland–specifically Catholics and the Protestants who were descendants of colonists from Britain. The conflict between these sides reached an eruption in the 1960s and lasted for nearly 30 years. Many of the black cab drivers that lead tours of the area lived through the turmoil and have personal stories to share.
We met our guide in downtown Belfast. He was driving an English-style, six-seat black taxi and we were thrilled that the taxi actually was black (as the other half of our group was stuck in a green one). Our party of four climbed into the spacious back seat and were greeted with a jovial smile and a heap of stories as we drove to the mainly Protestant neighborhood of Shankill Road.
Viewfinder Tip: It is customary to tip guides on Belfast black taxi tours.
Here, we got out and walked through the community, viewing the painted murals portraying pivotal moments in history. The murals commemorate those who fought and died in the conflict; some of them were very powerful.
Our guide told us more about how the people in this working class area of Shankill Road supported the preservation of Northern Ireland and were loyal to Britain. He told us their side of The Troubles (the common name for this conflict). He said they fought to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
Later, in the Falls Road area, we learned of the other side of the conflict. The Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden pays respect to IRA volunteers who fought and lost their lives during the Troubles. There also are murals here depicting violent moments in history where civilians were killed.
A delicate balance
What was great about our tour was that it showed both parts of the conflict; our guide offered an unbiased view of history and told all sides of the story. At one point, I stood and listened to my Protestant guide and another driver who was of Catholic descent chat with each other. They both joked and laughed and had a grand time telling their tales. It’s hard to believe that Belfast was so divided less than 20 years ago.
Also surprising: Just how close these two communities are to each other. The places we visited sit side-by-side, divided only by one very long concrete wall covered with graffiti. Known as the Peace Wall, it was built to minimize violence between the communities.There actually are several walls throughout the city totaling more than 20 miles in length. Many of the walls reach up to 25 feet high. Even today the city has a curfew, and the automatic barriers close daily at 10 p.m.
Our guide stressed that the troubles of Belfast are in the past, and we believed him. As we walked through the communities on our black taxi tour, we felt a sense of calm and peace.
Taking a black taxi tour is a fascinating way to learn about Belfast history while having fun at the same time. If you want a unique tour led by real people who have lived and breathed the history of the city, this experience is for you.
What are some of the best tours you’ve taken on your travels?