Belfast Black Taxi Tour – political insight or Troubles tourism?

A black taxi tour of Belfast? Chris Jenkins raised questions about the morality of troubles tourism in a recent Guardian Unlimited article. Matthew Symington followed up with an extended interview on in which Chris again challenged the trend of “money being made from human tragedy” and the DUP’s switch from opposing a “shrine” at Long Kesh to supporting a “Mecca for tourists” at the Maze site.

There are huge areas of Belfast that I’ve never visited. Election observing has taught me a few routes through West Belfast to wind around a handful of polling stations on the way back to Lisburn. Even while living in East Belfast, there was often little reason to go further down the Newtownards Road than the Connswater junction with the Albertbridge Road.

So I was glad of the excuse to see a bit more of the city last week on a “political tour” with Jim from NI Black Taxi Tours. You can get a flavour of the tour in the embedded timelapse video shot out the window of the cab.

For £25 you get ninety minutes or more visiting some of the more vivid murals and memorials in the west of the city. You’ll stop off at murals in the Shankill commemorating loyalist antagonists like hitman Stevie ‘Topgun’ McKeag, the memorial wall marking atrocities on the Shankill, and then drive along the “Peace Wall” full of scribbles from peace-longing visitors including Bill Clinton.

Pick flowers not fights

I want this [message] to disappear with this wall

Then it’s across through the automatic barriers at Lanark Way to see the other side of the interface. Described as an area where it’s “100 per cent Catholic” the taxi stops at the memorial garden in Bombay Street. Nearby homes backing on to the wall have wire mesh grills to protect the back of the houses. The well-kept memorial commemorates IRA volunteers as well as civilians killed in the Clonard area.

There’s a stop off at Bobby Sands’ mural on the side of Sinn Fein offices and the republican gift shop to hear about the hunger strike, and then down to the nearby International Wall that pictorially relates to “other civil wars” across the world. It’s obvious that across Belfast the murals are constantly being touched up and updated. Fascinating to see how every panel on the wall has been adapted to call for Marian Price’s freedom. The final stop on the political tour is the Crown Bar … unless you want set down somewhere else.

Whereas a bus tour glides past landmarks – and probably covers a much greater distance – the taxi tour gives you a chance to get out of the cab, stretch your legs walking around sites with the driver and the opportunity to ask questions.

Don’t expect to be immediately immersed in a deep and nuanced history of the Troubles. It’s a simplified narrative, though the driver will be happy to open up about a surprising range of topics if you choose to probe. But it’s a good start and a whole lot better than a static museum display.

Our Belfast Black Taxi tours and Belfast Black Taxi Political tours start at just £25 for two people. Each additional passenger costs only £10. The average duration of each tour is around 1 hour 30 minutes, but can be tailored to suit. We can also cater for large groups.

Last week’s taxi tour didn’t feel voyeuristic. As an outsider to those areas who learned about many of the atrocities and events through Good Morning Ulster while eating breakfast before school rather than living through them, it was a very visual reminder of our conflict and its legacy. And at certain points it was quietly moving to stand and reflect on lives lost and lives wasted.

Few local people take a taxi tour. Some accompany guests who are visiting Ireland and staying with them. Some folk come up from Dublin. But mostly, its tourists, usually Americans. In terms of being better able to place events in a broad context, I’d recommend it as a first step in the process of engaging with history.

Disclaimer – I was contacted by NI Black Taxi Tours and offered the tour. Oh, and the taxi cab was yellow, not black!

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  • Looks like Peter was offered a few details on the facts of political life here by Marty as to the cutting off of fat salaries and expenses at Stormont if the maze site wasn’t given the ok, so Peter capitulated and, rather than openly admit he and DUP had been made an offer they couldn’t refuse, has made the best of a bad job by pretending to see the shrine to hunger strikers as a plus for Norn Iron tourism after all.

  • Clanky

    “political insight or troubles tourism?”

    They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I remember once taking my kids who grew up in England on the city sightseeing tour after a long period of them whinging that they wanted to go on the bus tour and me telling them that they would be bored.

    I finally caved in and before the bus had even pulled out from castle junction one was asleep and the other was moaning that she was bored, I really enjoyed it in the end and actually learned a few things that I didn’t know.

    The history of the troubles is gruesome at points and, yes, it is mostly a story of human tragedy, but surely that is all the more reason for people to be told what happened rather than to hide it away in case someone thinks it unseemly to make a profit from it.

  • UlsterFried

    I’m an American that got to live in Belfast for half a year back in 2008. Towards the end of my stay, my brother and his wife visited me and we did the black taxi tour. I had already been up part of the Shankhill on foot once to see some of the murals but hadn’t been beyond the KFC (you are missing out on real Kentucky Fried Chicken by the way. I can’t believe the greasy drunk junk food they try to pass as “KFC” over there) or had ever been up the Falls.

    When it came to the murals, we viewed that the UDA didn’t have a clear message and were just thugs, the UVFs were more straight forward (ok they’re British, loyal, fought in WWI, WWII, etc., will kill to maintain the Union) and the Republican murals were more professional, tourist friendly but their displayed communist sympathies and rosy revisionism made us want to vomit.

    I felt kind of weird to take the tour since I had been living there for 6 months and I could tell the locals felt annoyed by the tours. The tour guide was friendly and entertaining but he didn’t really know that much – he got events and names confused.

    He was also obviously biased and admitted to it. At one point we were looking at some exaggerated mural of the massacre of Protestants in the 1641 rebellion. The driver said something like: “See here is a great example of English imperialism.” My brother was “Wait what? How are you blaming the English for this?” Driver: “Those Protestants wouldn’t have been killed if it wasn’t for English imperialism putting them here in the first place.” At that moment, my disgusted brother became an pro-Unionist.

    I think the murals wrongly turn the Troubles into a simple sectarian-paramilitary conflict (UVF, IRA, UDA) as if the rest of Northern Ireland and the various shades of Nationalism, Unionism, Loyalism didn’t exist. If I was a loyalist or unionist, I would not want foreign visitors/tourists coming away thinking Johnny Adair represents my community that’s for sure. Nor as a non-Sinn Fein nationalist would want IRA murals representing me either.

    There was a funny incident on Bombay St while our driver was talking in the memorial garden — there were kids running around, playing and making all sort of noises on the street and then suddenly BAM! We look over and the kids had thrown a water balloon at us. The street all of a sudden went quiet and empty. I thought it was funny and didn’t blame them for wanting us out. My driver’s happy face sagged, he tried to laugh it off and went “Ha-ha…. time to leave” but it was obvious he was nervous about was going to happen next.

    We chose not to sign the wall. We thought it would be patronizing partially because we’re Appalachian and live in the South – though my ancestors were US Unionists and anti-Klan – I know my history and know we are no better. I’m the first generation not to witness or participant in a feud or violent miner’s strike.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Another view…

    In 2012, Belfast’s tourism scene is more about Titanic than the Troubles, but the city would be wise not to forget the political and historical value of what was once dubbed “dark tourism”.

    Those were the words of West Belfast MP Paul Maskey, who issued a challenge to local tourism chiefs, citing the huge interest that remains in the Irish conflict from a historical and educational perspective – an interest that still brings hordes of international visitors into the heart of his constituency on a daily basis.

  • Little James

    The aspect of it that amuses me is the murals, or most of them have no historical significance. They are there purely to keep these Black Taxi tours in business. Its not as if the murals are decades old and are a snapshot of that period. They are painted to attract tourists on the taxi tours.

  • tacapall

    Well it seems the FTA have decided to get in on the act themselves as it wont be too long before they have their own bus on the road cutting out the individual taxi drivers. Im looking forward to seeing the advertising on that bus. Little James the murals were there long before these black taxi tours started.

  • JR

    Almost all of the Murals in Newry and South Armagh that I remember from a few years ago are gone. With the exception of a few in Crossmaglen and one in Camlough, I don’t think there are any left.