Though “The Troubles”, a common term for the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland that began in the late sixties, continued well into my lifetime, they have always felt like something that happened long ago and far away. Even arriving in Belfast and walking around the city centre there are few signs of the tension that still bubbles beneath the surface here.
With that in mind, I was really looking forward to spending some more time with our driver from the Giants Causeway tour, Jimmy, for a black cab political tour of West Belfast.
Spending the two days with Jimmy was interesting to say the least. Upon first meeting Jimmy, our impression was that he was a super friendly, rather sweet, granddad with four kids and one grandson of whom he speaks very fondly. (Though, I should say that consistent with the trend of having kids young, that we’ve seen all over here, he’s a young grandad. Closer to me in age than he is to my dad.) Over the next two days none of that changed, but I would definitely say he became a more complex character.
It actually started as soon as we were in the car on the way to the Causeway. You could tell by the way he spoke about some things that he was trying hard to hide any biases but it wasn’t long before I was trying to guess at his past and his perspective.
During the drive he mentioned that he’d been away from Belfast for a few years after an attempt had been made on his life. That’s a strange thing to have a kindly grandfather say to you. That this hiatus had taken him to Ireland, not England, answered the question of sides.
How little we know about The Troubles
As we started the political tour, Jimmy came clean at the start and let us know he came from the Irish/republican/nationalist side of the dispute and that he had biases. Though he tried to be cognizant of them, he would be lying if he pretended he didn’t have them. Similarly, he felt that anyone from Belfast who said they had no bias was lying. I really appreciated this. I think we all have any number of biases and all we can do is try and be aware of them and mitigate their influence on our actions. We were off to a good start.
I’ve been thinking about how to write about the tour and I’ve decided that I won’t even try to get the real history of The Troubles. First, it would take way more than the few hundred words I’ve got here to get into it and I know these posts already tend to get long. Second, there is a lot of material out there written by smarter people than me who have done a lot of research, so if you’re interested, take your pick. Of course, for a crash course, you could always come to Belfast and book a tour with Taxi Trax and tell Jimmy we said hello.
Today there are black taxi tours run by companies from both sides of the peace line, but I believe the use of black taxis comes from the republican/nationalist side. When the Troubles erupted in the late sixties the British government withdrew all the public transit system after some buses were used to build a barrier. As people still had to get around some people got black taxis to fill the gap and the West Belfast Taxi Association was born.
The tour took us through the Falls Road (nationalist/republican) and Shankhill Road (unionist/loyalist) areas on respective sides of the peace line wall. Throughout the tour we stoped at many locations to see some of the murals. Given Jimmy’s background, the majority of our time was spent on the republican/nationalist side and I imagine the ratio would be reversed if you chose to go with a loyalist/unionist company.
To my surprise, the murals continue to evolve today. For instance, two newer ones on the republican/nationalist side support Gaza and call for an end to racism (a response to some recent events in Belfast) respectively. Personally, I found those commeerating older events (see top image) and people from the height of the trouble, like the one of Bobby Sands (below) to be more interesting. It’s almost as if the deeper connection to the events resulted in better artistic work.
Two of the unionist/loyalist murals were quite striking for very different reasons. One commemorated the death of a…I’ll use the term combatant. The mural itself, one of a “top gun”, wasn’t really all that notable, but both Katy and I were struck by the fact that his year of birth was 1970, only 9 years before us. As I mentioned before, we came to this thinking of it as history, not current events. We don’t feel old enough to be part of history just yet.
The second, was notable for a much more curious reason. If you have a look at the picture below, the muzzle of the gun that the main character is pointing seems to be pointing directly at you. Well, as you move in front, much like Mona Lisa’s eyes, only more creepy, the gun seems to follow you. The mural is positioned such that it points out at the other side of the wall, effectively there is always a gun pointing at you.
Yep, creepy is the word. In fact, after he pointed this morbid little tidbit out, Jimmy mentioned that someone on one of his tours had said just that, that it was creepy. His response, “if it’s creepy for you, imagine how it feels for us”. Touché Jimmy, touché.
We also stopped by the Sinn Fein office. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) In keeping with the surreal feel of the tour, as we were walking over to see the Bobby Sands mural on the side wall of the office, an older gentleman pulled up and parked his car. Jimmy said hello and then the man walked off. Turns out the man was Richard McAuley, Gerry Adams’s press secretary.
On the whole, the tour was fascinating and would have been even more so if we weren’t also trying to entertain Ella. Fortunately we had a bag of raisins, and Katy did more than her fair share, so my history and politics neediness could be satiated. The whole thing was very surreal for me. We spoke with people on both sides of the wall, even if only to say hello or apologize for Ella darting in their way, and everyone was equally friendly. That there is this layer of distrust, even fear and hatred, not just in the recent past but to a degree, the present, just doesn’t seem to fit with our experience of this pleasant, modern and seemly safe city.
Speaking of uplifting stories
After the Black Taxi Tour, we thought something a little lighter was in order…so off we went to the Titanic Experience. Nothing like the story of an event that claimed 1,500 lives to pick you up after spending the morning thinking about thousands more.
Actually, morbidity aside, the new Titanic Experience (opened in 2012) was very good. The exhibit takes you through not just the sinking but also how Titanic was designed and built, it’s impact on Belfast, the aftermath of the accident, and right through to the search for the wreck.
Someone involved in putting it together also clearly had a wonderful sense of humour as the building is shaped not like the ship, but the iceberg.
At one point in the tour you get on a ride that takes you through some life-sized demonstrations of the construction as it would have happened on the same site. We weren’t sure how Ella would react, especially as we weren’t allowed to have her on our laps, but on the seat between us with the safety bar down. She loved it. We were only disappointed that it was too dark to take a picture.
After the Titanic we decided that was enough tragedy for one day and got some dinner before calling it a night.