Taking a Political Black Cab Tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland; How To Do It
I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s. Wild times. Belfast, the Capital of Northern Ireland, is a city with a distinctly checkered past. A past that belies the laid-back, welcoming nature of the people who live there. And taking a Political Black Cab Tour of Belfast is perhaps the best way to get a true insight during your visit to the city. And the civil war between 2 religious factions – Protestants and Catholics.
So for sure, it’s one of the most poignant, fascinating and eye-opening things to do in Belfast. But remember to be respectful when you take your black taxi tour of Belfast. These people lived it. Don’t forget that. You get to hear all about a conflict which many people today still know nothing about.
On my recent visit home, a few of my friends flew over from London to see me, and we checked out what was to be a truly fascinating day.
Table of contents
- Taking a Political Black Cab Tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland; How To Do It
- The history behind Belfast’s Political Problems
- So Ireland is 2 countries?! A brief history of Ireland
- Belfast Today & The Famous Belfast Murals
- And so, the Black Cab Tour of Belfast
The history behind Belfast’s Political Problems
For readers who are unaware of Northern Ireland’s recent past, I’ll try to give a brief(ish) recap on what’s gone on, without getting too, too deep into the political issues affecting Northern Ireland.
Basically, the country is split into 2 groups, Protestants and Catholics (which are both subdivisions of Christianity).
Crudely speaking, Protestants want to remain part of the United Kingdom (alongside Wales, Scotland, and England) whereas Catholics would like Northern Ireland to cut ties with the UK, remove the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland (which is currently a completely different country from NI) and uniting the island of Ireland as one country.
So Ireland is 2 countries?! A brief history of Ireland
Today. Yes, kind of. Historically the whole island of Ireland used to be solely made up of Celts, way back 2000+ years ago and divided into many small kingdoms.
Saint Patrick (you know the one) came around 300AD and brought Christianity. But Ireland was ruled by 5 ‘High Kings’ and not yet one nation.
Around 800AD, the Vikings came. They built Dublin and ruled for a while. For 250 years Irish Christians and Vikings fought back and forth. Eventually, the Christians won, giving birth to 4 High Kings from the 4 provinces we know today around 1000AD: Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster (Northern Ireland).
The English colonised
In the 1100s, Henry II conquered Ireland. With this being the first English rule of Ireland, where he gave Anglo-Irish lords land in large swathes. The Irish constantly rebelled, being by 1500, the English only had control over the Eastern part of the island, the section closed to England. The rest of the island spoke Irish and maintained true Irish culture.
English King Henry VIII resented this and declared himself King of Ireland in the 1500s. The English moved many settlers to Ireland, predominantly Protestant, giving them Irish lands. They set up the Church of Ireland (and English church) and this marked the end of Gaelic dominance in Ireland. English language was forced upon Irish. The Irish were peasants, living off potatoes. And the landowners were Anglo-Irish.
Around the turn of the 19th century, still, under English rule, Ireland was split into Nationalists (mostly Catholics who want Irish independence) and Unionists (mostly protestant settlers, who want to remain in the Union of the UK)
1916 Easter Rising
Enough was enough and in 1916 there was a rebellion against the English. Britain shut it done, but the genie was out of the bottle. Sinn Fein, the political party, was born and created an Irish Parliament, declaring independence. The Ulster Volunteer Force formed in the north to fight the Nationalists.
Sinn Fein formed the IRA to fight for independence. From 1919-1921 they did just that in the Irish War of Independence. Britain couldn’t deal with World War 1 and this, so in 1920 they plea-bargained to split the island of Ireland into the Irish Free State (5/6 of the country) BUT still connected to the UK and with the King of England the head of state, where Ulster in the north would remain part of the UK.
The IRA and the new Irish Free State underwent the Irish Civil War, as the IRA wanted full independence. The Free State won. And this remained until 1949 when Ireland left the British Commonwealth.
And so from 1949 onwards, Northern Ireland remained part of the UK. But Catholics in the North wanted Ireland to be reunited and Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK. They fought, for decades, in what is known as ‘The Troubles’, costing over 3500 lives. Mostly between the IRA and the UK Government. And that still rumbles on today, although nowhere nearly as bad as the violence of my childhood, in the 80s and 90s.
Belfast Today & The Famous Belfast Murals
Belfast still bears the scars of that history. And it still retains some animosity between the 2 communities, although slowly the wounds are healing.
However, the city is divided very much into ‘Catholic areas’ and ‘Protestant areas’. With Catholic schools, Catholic sports, and Catholic streets, and the same for Protestants.
During ‘The Troubles’, each area designed hundreds of murals representing their political beliefs. Guns were a way of life. People were seen as Freedom fighters by one side, terrorists by the other. Revered and hated in equal measure.
And the Murals still stand today. On your black taxi tour you’ll be shown the most famous of them, and hear their stories. From Bobby Stands and how he died on hunger strike, to Steven McKeag and the 12 Catholic lives he took. Pretty heavy stuff.
And so, the Black Cab Tour of Belfast
The best insight into the history is to take a black cab tour or black taxi tour of Belfast. The drivers lived through the troubles, many of them even partook in them.
The driver will act as your tour guide, showing you all the political hotspots across the city. Areas which, in recent years, you wouldn’t have been advised to walk around taking photos for your backpacking album.
Black Taxi Tour of Belfast Cost
- I used these guys – they were AMAZING. You can book the whole taxi for 2 people for about $80, which is what we did. NOTE: if you’re solo, and want to save $10 or so, you can join a group for $68 here. The driver himself will be from one of the staunch areas that have been scene to various murders, bombs, beatings etc and he’ll probably be quite happy to explain his personal beliefs to you.
- If you’re on a super tight budget, you can skip the black taxi tour and do a walking tour. You don’t see as much BUT it’s only $25 or so. You can book that HERE.
Black Taxi Tour of Belfast Experience
The driver will pick you u from your accommodation.
First off, you’ll be taken to the Shankill road (100% Protestant) and the Falls road (100% Catholic) which amazingly run parallel with each other. But are divided by a 25-foot‘ peace wall’ erected to keep the two sides apart and avoid further violence. To this day, it’s not unheard of for beer bottles to be flung over the wall during politically charged events.
Your tour guide will take you around the infamous wall murals which represent various martyrs from both sides of the conflict, depending on what area you are in. And in 2021 I’m happy to say you can walk around freely and snap away all day without any fear of being reprimanded.
This was one of the most interesting tours I have EVER taken in any country I have been in and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
With the Government talking about painting over the murals, you may not have the chance forever so get yourself to Northern Ireland, learn about their past and experience their warmth first-hand. You’ll leave asking yourself how a country full of so many friendly people could be involved with such a violent history.
After all the morbid tourism, the tour with my friends continued on our one day in Belfast with even more death, the Titanic center, and we all know how that ends! Anyway, at least the nightlife in Belfast is great, that will be well earned tonight!
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