The Belfast Peace Walls, otherwise known as The Belfast Peace Lines, separate catholic and protestant communities in Northern Islands Belfast. The purpose of the walls was to curb the violence steamed from the outbreak of civil unrest during the riots of 1969. The riots led to a thirty-year conflict known as the Troubles and reflect the civil rights campaign to end discrimination against Catholics and Irish nationalists.
Touring The Peace Walls is a stark reminder of Belfast’s violent struggles, the loss of life, and a reminder that the communities are still divided.
Anyone that visits Belfast should consider the journey through history to learn about one of the most devastating religiously fueled wars that are often under-reported globally and seldom taught in history classes aside from England and Ireland.
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, 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. The IRA set off many bombs 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.
Interestingly, years later, bombing and fighting are not the norms, and the British Army is long gone. The communities in the inner city still have walls that are designed to segregate communities. Houses still have metal cages that protect them from the potential of homemade petrol bombs.
To even begin to comprehend this, you need to see it with your own eyes.
Books You Should Read
If you plan to visit Belfast and want to understand the plight before you arrive, here are some books that you should consider:
Books About The Troubles
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, 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.
Touring The Belfast Peace Walls
Taking a tour of the Belfast Peace Walls is now a thing or a tourist attraction of sorts. Much as it is, a tour is much more than a photo opportunity or a check-off-the-list activity. It’s a deeply moving tribute to both sides. While the walls are there for protection and to divide communities, they now pay respect to the causes, the people who died, and the injustice.
Murals cover the peace walls, as do many signatures of famous people who have visited. Dark as it is, sad as it is, the tour is something that all should consider to really understand the depths of what happened in Northern Ireland.
Booking A Tour of The The Belfast Peace Walls
Here are several tour options you can book:
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; I 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.
If you can’t connect with Thomas Doyle, then I recommend you book a black cab tour here:
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 impact 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 a 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.
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, with 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 now it’s also heart-wrenching.
Respect the locals and don’t discuss religion or politics. It isn’t polite.
You will see offensive things. For example, we saw lots of derogatory graffiti, tons of disgusting verbiage written on gas stations’ bathroom walls, 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 its 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 lyrics’ real meaning.
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.