As a teenager in the 1970’s, my knowledge of Belfast was of terrorist bombings, violence largely between Protestants and Catholics and the hunger strike and eventual death of Bobby Sands in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze. Northern Ireland was the economic basket case of Europe; no one wanted to invest there, it wasn’t on any tourist’s agenda, industries and services were hampered by its violent reputation. Saved only by influxes of funds and soldiers (some would argue this was the problem) from the motherland, aka, Great Britain, she limped along until all sides, tired of 30 years of mayhem, signed the Good Friday peace treaty in 1998.
Northern Ireland has blossomed in the 20 years since, becoming a major drawing card for tourists, the service industry and cinematographers. More movies are shot in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe, including Braveheart (set in Scotland), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Star Wars (a few of them) along with the Netflix favourite Game of Thrones. The timeless topography (i.e. no overhead wires, fences or street signs) lends itself to period shoots and the tax breaks provided are enticing. Game of Thrones tours to its famous filming sites abound, but as I have never seen a single episode of the show, it would be lost on me. Other advertised sights were of far more interest.
The Giant’s Causeway:
I took a bus tour to the most visited and only Unesco heritage sight in Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway. Just 12 miles from Scotland, its name derives from the tale of an Irish giant, Finn McCool, who built a roadway to Scotland across the Irish Sea. The Scottish giant, Benandonner, walked across intending to battle McCool. Hoping to avoid the conflict, McCool’s wife disguised McCool in baby clothing When Benandonner saw the size of the “baby”, he became so fearful of the size of its father that he raced back to Scotland, destroying the path as he fled. What is left, either by the giant or the more scientific version, is the Giant’s Causeway, a shoreline furnished with giant lava boulders and 40,000 columns along the Atrim coastline.
Since it was November and overcast, the site was comparatively deserted of the 1.2 million visitors who make it Northern Ireland’s most popular attraction. I passed through the Visitor Center, grabbed the audio guide available in 6 languages including English and walked down the path to the causeway (there is a shuttle bus as well) to gaze at the strange rock formations. The more foolhardy jumped across the rocks to the sea, but it was rainy, the rocks slippery and I was satisfied by merely looking, listening to the audio as it described different formations and recited the legends associated with each.
The Titanic Museum:
Back in Belfast, the newest and most significant museum to have opened in decades is the Titanic Museum, dedicated to all things Titanic. Embracing the current trend of single subject, highly interactive, grandiose museums, the Titanic Museum is housed in a sail shaped edifice next to the dry dock where it was built, with floor to ceiling windows providing views of the dock. The museum begins by showing Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, then focuses on its importance as a shipyard. It discusses the builders, Harland and Wolff, and the decision by the White Star Line to commission the Titanic. Blueprints and building techniques are on display, followed by the challenges of kitting the Titanic out including reproductions of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class bedrooms. Memorabilia similar to those on the ship – dishes, the chandelier, instruments, a shuffleboard game – transport you back to experience what life would have been like on board.
Exhibits follow the timeline of the tragedy. The iceberg hit, memorialized at the museum by panicked transcripts from its telegraph operators, the arrival of the ship Carpathia two hours after the ship sank rescuing those in the lifeboats, next tributes to those who lost their lives. A video documents some of the attempts to locate the sunken ship, culminating in its eventual discovery in 1985. A film shot by a robotic submersible shows what the Titanic looks like in its water grave. The final exhibit displays how the Titanic has been portrayed in popular culture and especially the movies.
The entire museum is well done, but I was less than overwhelmed. Perhaps it was because I had seen the equally informative, but more intimate Cobh Heritage Museum just a few days before which told the same story (except for the discovery in 1985), but I felt that the Belfast Museum was “a made for the tourist” monument rather than a museum which explored, examined or challenged me any meaningful way.
The Black Taxi Cab Tour, Part I:
For that, I embarked on the best way to see and learn about Belfast, with a Black Taxi Tour. All over Ireland, I had been impressed with the knowledge, recommendations and willingness to talk about the city or country of every single taxi driver I encountered. Apparently I was not alone in this respect. A number of cabdrivers in Belfast started offering tours of the city, getting paid for their commentary on the history of the Troubles, the politics and the current environment, all for the price of an hour and a half cab ride.
A brief history lesson, much of it from David, my cab driver/tour guide in Belfast. Back in the 16th century, King Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church. He, and later his daughter Queen Elizabeth, were not thrilled to have a Roman Catholic stronghold on England’s back doorstep, so they moved a lot of Protestants, mostly Scottish, to Ireland, settling them in the north. They also enacted discriminatory laws against the Catholics, not allowing them to own land, to have equal representation, to access government jobs etc. This situation prevailed until the 20th century where, after a bloody civil war in 1920-1924, most of the south voted for independence. Six counties voted to stay in the United Kingdom, including most of Ulster which encompasses Belfast. These 6 counties became Northern Ireland and were governed from London.
The Troubles, as it is generally referred to, began in 1968 when predominantly Catholic Nationalists (Nationalists wanting to reunite with the nation of Ireland to the south) began demonstrating against the discriminatory policies against them. Protest marches turned violent, riots grew increasingly militaristic. No single event can be said to have sparked the Troubles, but generally the burning of the Catholic houses on Bombay Street in 1969 is regarded as one of the trigger points. Violence between Nationalists and largely Protestant Unionists (wanting to remain in the United Kingdom union) escalated. Politicians with their own agendas were eager to stoke the fires on both sides and adopted policies of promoting hatred and differences rather than reconciliation.
The UK reacted by sending in troops to calm the situation in August, 1969. Initially, they were regarded as peacekeepers, but their presence soon evolved to that of oppressors. Small, paramilitary organizations from both the Nationalist and Unionist camps orchestrated terror attacks on soldiers and citizens alike. Flag flying and painting the curbs in your colours (red, white and blue for Unionists, green and orange for Nationalists) marked the territories. Walls totaling 57 miles were constructed across Belfast to segregate the warring sides. They still stand today.
Bobby Sands was a Unionist, jailed in 1977 for his participation in bombing a furniture factory. Britain had recently eliminated the category of political prisoners, meaning all prisoners were treated like criminals and forced to work daily in the jails. Sands and his fellow Unionist prisoners rejected the moniker “criminal” and went on hunger strikes to protest in 1981. 66 days later he died; the others soon followed, all becoming martyrs to their cause. While in jail and on hunger strike, Bobby Sands was elected to the House of Commons, prompting Britain to pass a law prohibiting anyone who was serving a jail sentence of more than one year from standing for election.
For 30 years, Belfast endured the Troubles. The walls prevented some violence, but not all. Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by an IRA planted bomb on his boat. Bloody Sunday, where British soldiers shot at unarmed, peaceful protesters, killing 14, shocked the world. People lived in fear of terrorist attacks. Tourists did not visit. Check stops – official or not- were an everyday fact of life.
Then it changed. There had been numerous peace initiatives; none had succeeded. But in 1998, it was as if everyone finally grew tired of the war. The IRA agreed to put down their weapons. The British withdrew their army. Local government, with guarantees of representation of both Unionist and Nationalist forces, was implemented. The Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles and brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland.
Black TaxiCab Tour Part 2:
David is a full time cabdriver in Belfast who provided much of the narrative above. He likes to give the tours once per day; when he does so he can finish work by 5. It was obvious he enjoyed talking about the history of the Troubles and adding his views. He didn’t dislike the British, but he loathed both Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May for how they conducted negotiations with the Irish. He echoed what many cab drivers in Ireland had said “the politicians are all idiots.” He denied that the Troubles were religiously motivated or based and tried hard to point out Catholic Unionists or Protestants killed by the Unionists. He was also fearful of Brexit – as was every Irish person I spoke to – they do not want a return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. When I took the train from Dublin to Belfast, and vice versa on the bus, not once was I asked for my passport. A hard border would change all that.
Our tour’s first stop was in the Catholic area and Shankill street. The Troubles, for both sides, is best illustrated by the murals that decorate the sides of houses and the walls and the different memorial sites, In Shankill, a mural of a quilt pays homage to the many contributions made by women to the peace process.
On Bombay Street is a memorial to the burning of that street in April, 1969 and other victims of the violence.
We drove along the walls, looking at the art that disguises its ugliness. Famous people have put wishes of peace on the wall, including Bill Clinton and the Dahli Llama.
From there, we drove through one of the many gates along the walls, -they are open and unmanned- during the day but still close late each night – to one of the Protestant areas and to the mural honouring Bobby Sands
We ended our tour at a section of the wall known as the Peace Wall, where murals proposing peace at different war torn areas around the world are added as events unfold:
Belfast was a likeable city. Easy to get around, safe, vibrant. I stayed near the main university of Queen’s, bustling with students preparing for exams. The X-Mas market had just opened at the City Hall, lined with wooden shacks showcasing foods from different countries (Mexico, Finland, Greece, but nothing from Canada or the USA). Neon signs flashed advertisements for the Titanic Museum and storefronts hawked day bus tours to nearby attractions. It seems like the Troubles are a thing of the past, remembered only in the murals, the memorials, by the taxi cab drivers on their tours. But I could not gauge whether this appearance of peace and co-operation between the Unionists and the Nationalists is genuine or not. Clearly, nobody wanted a return to the Troubles, but equally obvious was that the underlying problems that gave rise to the Troubles in the first place still simmer just beneath the surface. Everyone in Northern Ireland is hoping fervently that the Brexit mess will not cause those differences to rise to the top again and boil over.