Belfast and The Troubles: they go hand in hand. Even more than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the city’s past is still very much present behind the scenes and a lot of visitors are keen to understand what this dark period in history was about.
But how do you go about learning about the Troubles in an ethical and unbiased way and what’s the best way to go on a Troubles tour of Belfast?
First things first: what exactly are the Troubles?
Entire books have been written about this, but to put it shortly, the Troubles are the somewhat euphemistic name for a conflict that reigned from the late 1960’s till the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, all through Northern Ireland. The conflict was primarily political, with a rather big religious dimension to it.
In 1921, the island of Ireland was split into two: the independent Republic of Ireland (now simply known as “Ireland”) and Northern Ireland, that was kept part of the United Kingdom. The population in Northern Ireland was very divided: the loyalist/unionists, who were mainly protestant, were in favour of keeping the union with the United Kingdom, whereas the nationalists/republicans, who were mainly catholic, preferred to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland.
The nationalist minority felt discriminated by the unionist government and police force and started campaigns to end this discrimination. The authorities, who were mainly loyalist, attempted to suppress these protests and that’s when the Troubles started.
After 30 years of unrest, rioting and bomb explosions, the death toll was over 3500 people…
How to go on a Troubles tour of Belfast?
To be honest it can be tricky to get an unbiased or objective viewpoint in Northern Ireland. Most people in Belfast have families or friends that were is some way affected by the Troubles. They will therefore have a strong opinion and believe that the conflict was all “the other side’s” fault.
I have lived in Northern Ireland for over six years and not being born here, gave me a chance to see it from a “foreigner’s” point of view. If you are after an unbiased and objective opinion of what happened during the Troubles, I would suggest you to do one or several of the following tours:
1. Start off at the Ulster Museum
If you are interested in Northern Ireland’s complex history, then let this museum be your first stop! From the first inhabitants of the country all the way through to the recent history: the different floors will give you a detailed explanation of how this fascinating part of the UK became what it is today! There is a special section about the Troubles so this is the best place to start learning about the troubled past of Northern Ireland. A nice detail: the museum is free!
Address: Botanic Gardens
2. Linen Hall Library
Housed inside a listed Victorian building, the Linen Hall Library is the only private library in Northern Ireland. It used to be a linen warehouse, back in the days when linen was Belfast’s main industry. There is a massive collection of posters on display dating back to the Troubles, as well as a digitised collection called “Divided Society” concentrating on periodicals and posters after the 1990’s. The resources cover the peace talks, ceasefires and negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
Address: 17, Donegall Square North
3. DC Tours
If you are interested in the impact the Troubles had on everyday life in Belfast, then this tour is what you need. “DC” Tours stands for “Dead Centre Tours”, so called because during the times of the Troubles the city centre was pretty much like a ghost town after dark. During this 2 hour walking tour, you will visit various places that have been hit hard during the Troubles. Bars, restaurants, clubs, … places where crowds gather were never 100% safe during these dark days. At the start of the tour you get a small recap on the how and when of the Troubles and the tour ends with a ray of hope: the peace process that was the start for a brighter future for Belfast.
Meeting point: at the front gates of Belfast City Hall
More info: https://deadcentretours.com/
4. Conflicting Stories
Another walking tour, but one that focuses on West Belfast this time. During this 3 hour tour, you will walk along both sides of the Peace Wall, with ex-political prisoners from both communities.
A republican ex-political prisoner will take you on a guided walk along the Falls Road and share his/her personal story, whilst a loyalist ex-political prisoner will accompany you along Shankill Road. They will both share their personal stories and give you their opinion/beliefs on the conflict.
You finish of at the Peace Wall, that still divides both communities nowadays.
Meeting point: Divis Tower
Further information: https://www.belfastfreewalkingtour.com/belfast-political-tour
5. Crumlin Road Gaol Troubles Tour
This tour is pretty similar to the previous one, but you also get to visit Crumlin Road Gaol and in the end you’re rewarded by a nice pint of Guinness and a delicious stew! The total duration of the tour is 4.5 hours. You start off with a visit to the Crumlin Road Gaol, a former prison where a lot of the political prisoners were held during the Troubles. The guide will explain you about daily life in the prison and the executions that were carried out there. After this visit, you will start your walking tour in the Shankill area of town, accompanied by an ex-loyalist prisoner. After making your way to the Peace Wall, you will be handed over to an ex-republican prisoner who will show you around Falls Road. By then, you should definitely be ready for a break! Back at the Crumlin Road Gaol you can refuel with a pint of Guinness and a nice bowl of stew.
Meeting point: Crumlin Road Gaol
Further information: https://www.crumlinroadgaol.com/gaol-tours/
6. Black Taxi Tour
If you don’t want to walk, then the best way to learn about the various political murals that surround West Belfast is by doing a Black Taxi Tour. You visit roughly the same areas as the “Conflicting Stories” tour, but by taxi. During the Troubles the “Black Taxis” were used to get from West Belfast to the city centre and back. During those days buses were often burnt out, so people had to rely on a different kind of transport service.
The Black Taxis look like London-style black taxis. Nowadays they come in various colours and are often used to provide political tours, though some of them still have the same function as back in the old days.
The driver is your guide and takes you to both, republican and loyalist, communities. He stops at the most important political murals, explains you what they represent and also takes you to the Peace Wall, where you can get out to scribble something on the wall, as many famous and less famous visitors have done before you.
The most difficult thing here is to find an unbiased tour. Since historically, the Black Taxis either serviced the loyalist or republican community, most of the drivers are still partial to one particular viewpoint and it’ll almost always shine through which one that is during the tour. That is the nature of Northern Ireland I’m afraid. There are many companies offering Black Taxi Tours. My advice would be to book one at the tourist information centre.
The Troubles played an important part in the history of Belfast and Northern Ireland, but the city is not all grim and doom! How about discovering the all famous “craic” in one of Belfast’s traditional pubs or visit one of the many free things to do in Belfast?