Where do I begin? This post will be two parts. In order to sufficiently give you a proper introduction, this post on Belfast, will be two parts. So, let's get through the hard, political stuff first.
When we were relating our trip to Dubliners who asked us what our plans were on holiday, the responsed usually with the "Oh! Belfast! Go to the Titanic Museum!" Or, "Lovely Titanic Museum!" Then one day, our cab driver asked us the same question and his response was, "different, not like Dublin, darker feeling, not as cheerful".
At first, Matt and I weren't really sure what he meant. Once we arrived to Belfast, it looked pretty, like any other city. Walking around Belfast, it really is a beautiful city. It's not at all the size of Dublin, and has a very weird Irish/English mix of culture. It has a huge city hall, gorgeous architecture, with beautiful sculptures.
Both of us kind of knew about Belfast's history. I had learned in my European history class in high school school about the struggles with Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and how Northern Ireland continues to be a part of the United Kingdom.
What I didn't realize was how the struggles in Belfast, a beautiful city,( its people helped build the Titanic for peats sake!), are still very much a reality and not part of the past.
When you come to Belfast, it is a great place to base yourself in if you are planning to venture to the Antrim coast and Giant's Causeway. There are a few sights to see in the city, like Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast Castle, City Hall, and Titanic Museum. But, if you really want to get to know Belfast, the back story of the struggles this city has been through, then you need to take one of its Black Taxi tours.
When you know you are visiting Belfast, like we did, we researched and researched Black Taxi tours based off of a recommendation from someone and watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. There are some who advertise that they are the Original Black Taxi Tour, but the only Black Taxi tour to take is run by Paddy Campbell.
Mr. Paddy Campbell, or Paddy as he wanted us to call him, met us promptly at 9AM in the lobby of our hotel. He was very cheery and greeted us with warm smiles. He took us out to his taxi and once inside, he went over In detail our itinerary for the day. We were going to visit some parts of Belfast city and then head to the Giant's Causeway.
Paddy has been driving cabs for nearly 30 years after he returned from living abroad in Germany. He made it clear that while on his tour, he was going to point out to us places around Belfast that were and are important to the Catholic/Protestant conflicts as well as the famous murals that have been painted around the Catholic and Protestant areas in honor of the famous men killed or honoring the conflicts of the Troubles.
The first area we went to was the Protestant neighborhoods starting on the Shankill road. This was the beginning of our history lesson on The Troubles. The Troubles began in 1969 and is the ethno-nationalist conflict that arose from a series of problems that began years and years ago when Northern Ireland wanted to join the Republic. However, there were Loyalists who wanted to stay loyal to the crown and England, and this caused problems.
It is hard for me to put into words what happened in Belfast. I only really knew the general background information of what went on and what has caused two separate states basically. Matt equated it to our North states and South States. North would be Republic of Ireland and the South would be Northern Ireland during the time of the Civil War or even the Civil Rights movement.
Basically the Catholics were being given a hard time in Northern Ireland and down in Dublin at this time, the Protestants were being given a hard time. There were riots, businesses were bombed and seized, people were searched and detained, especially if you were a Catholic.
Another problem was the internment of prisoners which is imprisonment without trials and the use of illegal interrogation that the British Army used against Nationalists(Protestants).
The opposing parties in the Troubles were republican paramilitaries(IRA), loyalist paramilitaries (the UVF and UDA, the British state security forces, the British Army and the RUC, Northern Ireland's police force), and political activists and politicians. There were than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict.
Many of these memorial murals are painted all over the two areas. Paddy told us that many of the people who he has taken on the tours ask him why they are commemorating a terrorist, but he doesn't agree with the term terrorist.
These murals are on both of the roads, on the sides of row houses that line the street. However, these memorials aren't surviving, as the houses are being updated and torn down.
Summer of '69(not a Bryan Adams song), was the summer that all of the riots broke out all over Belfast and Londonderry(Derry). Men, women, and children died. Several police and military force were killed. There were hunger strikes as well due to the way both sides were being treated while imprisoned.
The most famous of these hunger strikers was Bobby Sands. Sands was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and died while he was imprisoned at the Maze. Sorry to say, I did not takes picture of his memorial, Matt did with our camera. Bobby Sands lead the hunger strikes in 1981, and his death caused a new wave of IRA activity.
That's part of our Troubles tour took us to one of the walls that surround the neighborhoods on Shankill Road and the Falls road. After all of the violence, the government felt they should build "peace walls" to try to keep feeding sides apart. These walls cut through streets, sometimes making it impossible to drive through.
However, unlike the Berlin Wall, these walls don't hold people in. They were never meant to keep people from going places, they were meant to keep Protestants out of Catholic neighborhoods and vice versa.
There is a gate that closes, in the Shankill side Paddy said it closes around 10:30PM on the Falls road side, 11:30PM. But, if you live in the Falls road side, you are able to access the main roads in Belfast. Recently David Cameron, UK's prime minister, has enacted a bill that will take the walls down in 2023.
The last thing Paddy pointed out to us, which we had seen one when we came into Belfast, where these huge giant pallets stacked over ten feet high.
Most were in a circular shape, with garbage piled high in the middle. Paddy told us that after all of the violence, to show peace, but really a way of silent protest, Protestants created a day of bonfires. The building of them begins a month before, not earlier, as the government does not allow it.
On July 12, these huge bonfires will be lit all over Belfast as a symbol of lighting the way for Loyalists and the crown. It is known as Orangeman's Day, a day for Loyalist Protestants to celebrate. Which also gives more meaning to the Irish flag. Green is the Republic, white is peace/neutrality, and orange stands for Loyalists.
What was supposed to be a peaceful celebration of Ulster culture, at times can turn violent. Many times the Irish flag is burned, there is a parade in Shankill, and the British flag flies all up and down the road. Sometimes Protestants will hurl bricks and bats over the walls into the windows of Catholic homes, resulting in many of the homes that border the walls to have huge metal cages around their windows.
The feelings of being Loyal to the Crown still run rampant in Belfast. And, it is incredibly hard for those who want a free Ireland. Paddy didn't tell us what side of the conflict he was on, but Matt and I figured it out, and before he left to head to the Giant's Causeway, he asked us what we thought. Needless to say, we guessed correctly.
While I can't say what Paddy is, I can say Paddy is for peace. He has a family that he is trying to support and if you asked him 30 years ago if he would be owning one of the most successful black taxi companies in Belfast, he probably would have laughed in your face. Paddy is now able to earn his own income and work for himself. His company now employs 20 drivers who all are responsible for taking others like ourselves on a history lesson and showing us that there still are problems for Northern Ireland and that it is as much of the past as it is their present.
These conflicts have been going on up until the 2000s and while things have been quiet, Paddy says like anything, it can happen again. He referenced the police brutality I the USA and the constant battles in Palestine. Freedom is not a luxury and keeping the peace is something that has to be worked at and someday, Paddy hopes for a resolution that will be the better for Northern Ireland.
So, if you come to Belfast, PLEASE take the black taxi tour with Paddy Campbell. It is not a disappointment at all. It will open your eyes and make you see a bigger picture of the world we live in and the people who are striving for a better place and the idea of peace and togetherness.
My next entry will be happier, I promise! And, Matt and I stayed safe and Paddy was a wonderful tour guide, very informative and knew his history because he was there.
Look for Part 2 of Belfast later! Cheers!