Have you ever visited a city where peace is a recent phenomenon? So recent that you wonder if it has made it to the history books yet. So recent that your own parents couldn’t have visited this city when they were your age. So recent that you distinctly feel the uneasy undercurrents of the past as you move through the city. Welcome to Belfast. It’s just like in the movies, except it’s not. It’s more raw, more intense, and more fascinating.
I had watched Belfast, the movie, on a fine Saturday evening in Singapore. It was sobering and a good lesson in history. But nothing had prepared me for the real trip to Belfast.
I have always believed that cities make you feel something. I find it hard to describe in words but each city has a unique energy. If you pause, breathe, and soak it all in, it speaks to you. You start to feel the heart of the city. Sometimes it’s lively and vibrant. Sometimes it’s safe and convenient. Sometimes it’s highly capitalistic and sometimes the shadow of rebellion against capitalism shines through. Sometimes it’s community-centric and sometimes it’s highly individualistic, and so on and so forth.
Arriving in Belfast from Galway, a city with good craic (as the Irish would say!), was an interesting feeling. I knew right away Belfast felt different, very different, despite being only a few hours of train ride away.
At first, it felt like the city was built for and by people who rebelled against the norm, ones who painted bold murals on the walls or jumped up in the air to jokingly show a middle finger when a tourist attempts to take a picture of the city streets. There was certainly an undercurrent in the air, even though on the face of it, it appeared to be a lovely city.
As I delved deeper into the history of the city through the Black taxi tour, I began to understand the undercurrents a little more.
What is the Belfast Black taxi tour?
This tour explores the political aspect of the city’s history throughout The Troubles in the 1960s until the present day. It explores the conflict between the two prominent communities of Belfast and features prominent sites such as Peaceline- or Belfast’s own “Berlin Wall”. You will be chauffeured around in a black cab and you will hear the history of Belfast from the locals who have lived through it. And yes, you can get down from the cab at certain locations to see the murals upfront and take pictures.
A troubled past
If you have read or heard anything about Northern Ireland’s past, you have likely heard of The Troubles. The Troubles were a period of intense conflict and political unrest that lasted roughly 30 years till the late 1990s. The conflict primarily arose from deep-rooted divisions between the nationalist and unionist communities.
Nationalists, mainly Catholic, sought the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, while unionists, mainly Protestant, desired to maintain Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. It’s worth noting that despite the religious backdrop, the conflicts were primarily political in nature.
The continued intense violence created deep segregation between the two communities, literally and figuratively.
Peace Walls: Belfast’s very own “Berlin Wall”
In several parts of Belfast and beyond, high walls termed as The Peace Walls separate the Catholic part of Belfast from the adjoining Protestant neighbourhood. The wall stands 45 feet tall, three times higher than the Berlin Wall.
As we walked alongside the walls as part of our tour, our guide pointed out one of the writings in particular “The UDA shot my father but I forgive you.” Among all the writings on the wall, this encapsulates the spirit of the present day Northern Ireland, albeit the irony of this sentence written on a separation wall didn’t escape me.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided a framework for reconciliation and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. This may have marked a turning point in the conflict but as you walk through Belfast, it becomes evident that truly leaving the past behind is going to take longer.
Which school did you go to?
Even today, a vast majority of neighbourhoods are strictly catholic or protestant neighbourhoods. Unionist or Catholic flags flying in front of the houses clearly mark the identity of the neighbourhood.
A few integrated communities exist but they are yet to be the norm. If you grew up in a Catholic neighbourhood, you would go to a Catholic school, and live your life surrounded by people from your side of the community. And vice versa.
An easy way to find out which segment of the population one belongs to is to ask them which school they went to – our tour guide tells us. Catholic school names are usually of a distinct format and easy to recognise, he adds on.
“Do people marry across the communities?” – I asked. “Yes, they do! But you see, that’s when they really need the integrated housing community. Imagine you are a Catholic and you move to a Protestant area to be with your partner. But your child would then go to a Protestant school and grow up surrounded by that community. Of course, most people are not okay with that.” – Our guide responds.
Akin to integrated housing, there are integrated schools too. Famous Irish celebrities such as Liam Neeson have become the face of integrated schooling, supporting this system as the way forward. “This is of course what we need. But it’s going to take time.” – our guide says with a slightly sad look in his eyes.
The dual narrative: the hope for peace and the political marches that strengthen division
Listening to the inter-community marriages and the integrated schooling frameworks made me hopeful for this country. Quickly thereafter, the guide went on to tell us about a variety of political marches that take place each year from April all the way to August.
Political groups from both sides of the aisle march around the city, celebrating their “heroes”, commemorating their cause, and boldly showcasing their side of the story. The 12th of July parade by the Orange Order is known to be one of the most significant and politically charged parades of the year. In fact, parts of the city are blocked off on this day and the parade is not allowed to pass through certain Catholic quarters.
On one hand, the political marches are an unabashed display of Northern Ireland’s violent past and the deep division between the two communities. On the other hand, most people want to leave the past behind and move forward.
Questions flooded my mind. How can these two co-exist in reality? Aren’t the political marches a constant reminder of the past that separates the two communities? Don’t they stir up resentment towards the other community? “Yes, they do” – our guide softly answered.
Peace is a recent phenomenon, perhaps time will heal all wounds?
1998 was only 25 years ago – let us not forget that. Peace here is a recent phenomenon. Our guide is old enough to have lived through the troubled times.
When we asked our guide if the history books of Northern Ireland are biased towards one community or the other, he paused for a minute and asked “At what point does something become history?” It’s a fair question and a gentle reminder of the nascency of the peace we see in Northern Ireland today.
When my parents were my age, they couldn’t have safely visited this city. But today, solo travellers like me easily enter and explore the city, learn about its history, mix with the locals, and have a wonderful trip. Colourful restaurants and pubs adorn the city. Tourist hotels and tour companies are flourishing. And tourism is one of the growing sectors in the economy, especially with shows such as Game of Thrones being shot in this country. If that’s not progress, what is?
Useful information for a trip to Belfast
As a traveler, Belfast is one of the most interesting cities you will probably visit! So if you do plan a trip to Belfast, here is some useful information.
Botanical Backpackers – I really can not recommend this place enough! It has the coziest living rooms and common areas. The folks who run the hostel are incredibly friendly and helpful and they will help you in whatever you do need! This place truly felt like a home away from home.
If you are looking for something fancier, check out Airbnbs or hotels such as the Europa Hotel or The Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast.
Buses run across the city and you can pay by contactless credit/debit cards in the buses. You can also use the trains when needed and tickets can be booked online or at the station.
If you are looking for day trips from Belfast, you can either drive down or book a guided day tour which picks you up from and drops you back to Belfast. A trip to Giant’s Causeway is of course an absolute must!
Food and drinks
A few of the places we tried out and loved: Revolución de Cuba for Cuban tapas dinner and cocktails, Maggie Mays Belfast Cafe for a good ol’ Irish breakfast, Kelly’s Cellars and The Points for the Irish pub experience.
- Remember you can experience all four seasons in a day here. Even if you are visiting in summer, remember to carry layers, and especially a rain jacket. It’s not a question of whether it will rain or not, rather when it will rain and for how long it will rain.
- In terms of visa – Northern Ireland is currently part of the UK and you can visit it with a standard UK visa or as long as you have the right to visit the UK.
- Regular trains run between Belfast and Dublin. If you want to hop over to Ireland from here, you can book yourself a train. There is no passport control at the train station – unlike the airports.
- And most importantly, walk around the city and soak in the vibe of The Titanic City!