Even for those with some sketchy understanding of Northern Ireland’s history, the Black Taxi Tour comes as a shock. The drivers are excellent guides: mostly they have lived through The Troubles themselves and they are determined to give you a balanced view of politics and events, offering equal condemnation of both sides where they feel it is due (which is most of the time) and the odd bit of praise where they feel a genuine effort has been made to unravel this most intractable of problems.
And intractable it appears to be. Our tour began with the Bayardo Memorial on the Protestant Shanklin Road area and the intensity and passion of the past hit us immediately. It was shocking to be confronted with pictures of the bombing of the pub in 1975 that had once stood here, the devastation that followed, photographs of 5 people and the words “5 innocent Protestants died here”.
The remaining walls of this memorial showed victims of the IRA, one whole panel being dedicated to “Children murdered by Sinn Fein - IRA”, another claimed that the IRA were “not freedom fighters but killers, criminals responsible for murdering over 2000 people”. The observer was left in no doubt of the partisan nature of this memorial, confirmed by a vitriolic attack on Tony Blair for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, seen here as a betrayal of Northern Ireland and its people.
Back in the cab, our driver instantly restored balance by telling us about the Shankhill Butchers who, in the years 1975 - 1982 were responsible for the deaths of 23 people, mostly Catholic civilians. This “Protestant” gang kidnapped, tortured and murdered random Catholics, attacking them with hammers or a hatchet, cutting up the bodies and dumping them on waste ground.
Here our driver admitted that, as a teenager, caught up in it all, he too had thrown petrol bombs and been arrested. Most young men of his age, Protestant and Catholic alike, did the same. In 1988 he had been in a pub that was attacked. The door was kicked open and 2 guys came in and started shooting. He also told us that at his first home, with his wife and young child present, a gun was thrown over a wall into his back yard one night after a policeman was shot in the street. Later, 4 men wearing balaclavas pushed their way through the house to retrieve the gun. These personal stories brought home to us how deeply both communities had been affected by those thirty years of conflict and violence.
He took us next to one of the 29 “Peace Walls” that divide Catholic and Protestant areas in this city. It’s nearly 2 and a half miles long, it’s been in situ longer than the Berlin Wall, and it’s even been extended since the Good Friday agreement said all the walls should come down.
Moving on we entered the “Catholic” Springfield Road area through iron gates. Here the streets had Gaelic as well as English names and some Irish flags were flying in the breeze. We were now in the Clonard area, in Bombay Street where the houses backing on to the wall had steel barriers to protect them from missiles hurled from the Protestant side.
Here is the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, one of the five memorial gardens of Catholic West Belfast. Our driver told us that in 1969 some Protestants burnt this street down and the RUC and police stood by and watched it happen. Over the years many people from this area were murdered, including two completely innocent young people murdered at random in July 1973 in retaliation for IRA bombings earlier in the day.
We saw more murals, more peace walls, more flags, more gates dividing communities. In the Catholic area there was a mural for Bobby Sands, in the Protestant area to “King Billy” - William III, victor of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. We ended with a very poignant mural - two young boys, one Protestant, one Catholic, friends standing together in the summer of 1969, showing how life used to be when the two sides had got on happily and tolerantly enough together.
We had many questions about how today’s problems were to be resolved. Our driver sighed and told us that his son had married someone from “the other side” and had chosen to live 50 miles away from Belfast where such mixed marriages did not matter.
Despite the intention of the Good Friday Agreement that all schools should become integrated, this has not happened, largely because the churches oppose it. The younger working class generations are growing up with the messages of blame and hate glaring down from these walls: murals and memorials that only serve to perpetuate the suspicion and conflict.
We were left with a feeling of great sadness that so many lives had been lost for nothing achieved. At the time of writing the power-sharing government has collapsed: new elections in 2022 have brought no obvious resolution. Our short stay in Belfast had endeared us to its kind and friendly people and we hoped for a better future.
The Black Taxi Tours are very good indeed. Anyone wanting a deeper and more personal insight into the history of the last years of the 20th century will find enlightenment and knowledge here.
Don’t expect anything other than some emotional involvement in the horror of it all; at times it feels almost overwhelming. The tour will remain with you long after the taxi driver has left you but you will also feel that, at last, you have some understanding of how life has been in this city for those who lived through this turbulent period of The Troubles.
There are a number of Black Taxi Cabs offering this service. Some will leave from the Crumlin Road Gaol, others from different stops in the centre of Belfast. Some will give you a joint ticket with Crumlin Road Gaol.
Read about visiting the Crumlin Road Gaol >>
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