Before we talk about how to tour Belfast Ireland a brief history is appropriate;
Belfast Irelands’ History
Belfast Ireland or is it Belfast England? A debate that stems from the English King Henry VIII’s takeover of Ireland in 1541. Fast forward to modern-day times. The 1919-21 Anglo-Irish War led to the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. The Free State Act essentially gave Northern Ireland the option to “opt” out and remain a part of England.
Ultimately, Northern Ireland chose to remain part of England with a dominant number of Protestants ruling the land. The English all being Protestant, the Irish Catholics, this led to racism, discrimination, and point-blank outing of the minority Catholics from their native homeland. No matter what you read on the topic, this is a fact. Catholics were and still are discriminated against in Northern Ireland, although the Protestants are no longer the majority, and times are changing.
The aftermath of the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 is what lead to The Troubles of Belfast. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland continues to be a pain point for all Unionists and Nationalists. Loyalist or Unionist means supporter of Britain, Nationalist means a supporter of an Independent Ireland.
Belfast Ireland’s Troubles
I am always stunned that many people do not know what occurred in Ireland from 1960 onwards. Or that most people do not know about the Northern Ireland conflict or what ultimately fueled it.
The Troubles are a standard part of the English school curriculum. Not just history; it was current news In England at the time. Many bombs were set off by the IRA on England’s mainland. The bombings were always on the news and typically presented from a Loyalist perspective. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t condone the violence on either side. I’m merely stating that this is not a one-sided story by any means.
What’s interesting is it was years later, while bombing and fighting is not the norm. The British Army is long gone. Yet, the communities in the inner city still have walls that are designed to segregate communities. Houses still have metal cages that protect them from homemade petrol bombs.
Where the Streets Have No Names
The significance of the Irish rock band U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” is that Bono wrote the lyrics in response to the notion that it is possible to identify a person’s religion and income based on the street on which they lived. This was in direct reference to Belfast.
Bloody Sunday, another hit by U2 that gets its name from The Bogside Massacre, aka “Bloody Sunday.” A terrible incident on January 30th, 1972, when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment – imprisonment without trial. Of the 28, 14 died.
The Black Cab Tour of Belfast Ireland
When we did this tour, it was 100% underground. I had to find a cabby that specialized in touring the estates. Today, you can book a similar tour via any online operator, but I don’t recommend it. Book directly with a local, cut out the middle man, and support the local community. We used Thomas Doyle, and he was brilliant, can’t recommend him highly enough.
I can’t begin to describe how exciting it was to arrange this tour with just emails and phone numbers! Of course, it was ridiculously dramatic once we made it to Belfast because none of our phones worked. Finding a payphone was like looking for a needle in a haystack, and we ended up begging a hotel to let us use their phone. Once we contacted Thomas, we were all set. Off we went in a traditional black cab.
On August 15th, 1969, Bombay Street was burned to the ground by a Loyalist mob. This street is an unmarked dividing line between the Nationalist Clonard Area and the Loyalist Shankill Area.
If your heart is beating, seeing the walls and metal racks that protect houses will have an impact on you. It’s a somber sight that will move you. Regardless of any political or religious affiliation, you can feel and smell the travesties that have taken place here.
The Peace Walls
There are at least east 40 of them throughout Belfast, separating suburbs. Initially intended to be temporary, they still stand covered in fantastic artwork. The most famous and longest one is the one that surrounds Bombay Street – the area around Falls Road and Shankill Road. Some of the peace walls have gates, and four of them are actively closed at 6 pm every night for safety. I will always remember seeing this. The war ended over 20 years ago, and yet communities are still enclosed behind these peace walls. One other point worth mentioning. By most accounts, the locals do not support removing the walls.
Here is an example of a gate that gets closed nightly:
Notice the double stacking and height of the wall. During the Troubles, the walls grew in stature with additions being added on top of the existing structures:
This mural is of King William. Still Celebrated in Belfast. On July 12th, there is the Orange Parade followed by bonfires. It’s an extremely controversial event. It celebrates the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690).
Hopefully, this man requires no introduction. Bobby Sands was a Nationalist who joined the IRA. He’s famous for his role in the 1981 Irish hunger strikes. Sands died on May 5th, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, aged 27. A hero to all Nationalists.
Here is Bobby Sands Mural:
Getting to Belfast Ireland
You can fly directly into Belfast on many airlines from Europe. Most American’s aren’t flying directly to Belfast. I live in Orlando, and there aren’t any direct flights. Given this, I would still fly to Dublin and then drive up. It’s more popular and cheaper to fly to Dublin, Shannon or Limerick and see Southern Ireland. And, most people don’t have Northern Ireland on their list of things to see.
So how do you make it to Northern Ireland if you have flown to Southern Ireland? You drive! Now, let me be candid here. The north and south are two different countries; one is Irish, one English. Car rentals in Southern Ireland have specific clauses that state that you can not take the car to Northern Ireland. Ignore this and proceed on. The GPS will crap out once you hit the border. Don’t panic; you will be fine; use google maps.
The other alternative to self-driving is booking a tour, but I found that options were limited at best. If you are nervous or have any reservations, consider booking a trip via Tours By Locals who will arrange everything for you:
What You Need to Know
It is 100% safe to travel to Belfast – don’t get lured in by the hype.
All people of Belfast are delightful agnostic to religious or political beliefs.
Driving across the border is a breeze, no border control.
Belfast today is part of England. This means different laws, different customs, etc.
Given that Northern Ireland is English, the currency is pounds, not the euro used in Southern Ireland.
If you do tour the estates where the murals exist, you will be safe, but know it’s also heart-wrenching.
Respect the locals and don’t discuss religion or politics, it’s rude.
You will see offensive things. For example, we saw lots of derogatory graffiti, tons of disgusting verbiage written on the bathroom walls of gas stations, and loads of provocative politics in the newspapers. Stark reminders us that while the violence has died down, the issues remain painful.
The Titanic launched it’s one and the only voyage from Belfast’s port! We did not have enough time to check out the museum but will next time we visit.
We only spent a day in Belfast and immediately fell in love with the city. It’s a place that everyone should experience firsthand. Everyone should see the walls that still stand and divide this historical city. Everyone should understand what happened in Belfast, Ireland, what shapes the culture today, and why there was so much conflict. Taking a tour through Belfast is as good of a classical education you can get! Finally, the next time you are listening to U2, you will appreciate the real meaning behind the lyrics.
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job, how to travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.