Monday, May 21, 2012

Belfast Black Taxi Tour - a political insight into the west of the city

A black taxi tour of Belfast? Surely that’s just for tourists?

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.

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 the Long Kesh to supporting a “Mecca for tourists” at the Maze site.

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. The cab was yellow, not black!

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