I am in Belfast, just off Falls Road, which for roughly 30 years was a flash point in a violent conflict known as the Troubles — during which Irish nationalists who were mostly Catholic battled British loyalists who were mostly Protestant over issues of civil rights and political control. To learn more about this conflict and the city at its center, I set out to explore the walls and murals that are a defining feature of Belfast life.
To get a local perspective, I sign up for a guided tour at the Belfast Welcome Center. Twenty minutes later, a London-style black cab driven by a wiry fellow with a white beard and a wizard-like look picks me up. He introduces himself as Kevin, in an accent as rich and thick as the local ale, while we head away from the Victorian pubs, office towers and construction cranes of the city center into a working-class section of Belfast.
Here, and in a patchwork pattern across the city, neighborhoods are divided into nationalist or loyalist strongholds. The nationalists and more hard-line republicans have sought to be united with Ireland, while loyalists or unionists have favored being a part of Britain. Long-simmering tensions between the two sides erupted into the Troubles in the late 1960s, which ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives, more than half of them civilians.
At our first stop, the cul-de-sac, Kevin points out some of the hidden-in-plain-sight factors of daily life here. At the end of the street, just behind the houses and blending in with the gunmetal sky are peace lines, as local barrier walls are called — barbed wire and high metal fences to block projectiles thrown over from the neighborhood on the other side.
Back on Falls Road, Kevin parks and we head into the chilly drizzle for a better look at a long, mural-covered wall in front of a flour factory.
“The murals speak for us, see,” Kevin says, meaning Irish Catholics. “Under English rule, the Irish didn’t have any rights, didn’t have any voice, so we turned to the murals to express ourselves.”
Behind us is a working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood with houses flying green, white and orange Irish flags, and murals of local heroes and causes — boxers, released political prisoners, martyrs from the Troubles. Ahead of us, the wall acts as a barrier for the Protestant neighborhood across Falls Road, which was at the center of bloody street battles dating back to 1969, when the British sent in troops to suppress a curfew protest. A few decades ago, this area was filled with the sound of locals banging trash bin lids and blowing whistles to warn of approaching British soldiers, but on this wet afternoon the only noise is of cars and red double-decker buses sluicing past.
“Now, just imagine you were in America but had to have a North Korean passport,” Kevin continues, adding another curve in a conversation that has so far dipped and swerved into discussions of DeLorean cars (which were built in Belfast), the Titanic (also Belfast-built) and the Jamestown colony. (The English crown sent some Protestants to colonize Virginia and others to Northern Ireland.)
On the wall across the road, known as the “International Wall,” one painting shows female combatants, another a soldier waving the tricolor Irish flag above a harp and other Celtic symbols, and next to him a soldier firing a pistol beside men in street clothes with rifles. For good reason, this is known as the “bombs and bullets” tour of Belfast.
Back in the car, we drive past a section of small businesses — a pizza place, a dentist’s office and an Irish dance shop that, according to its sign, can also meet your hip-hop and disco needs — and Kevin turns onto a side street, parks the cab and reminds me again to consider how life would be if North Korea took over America.
Not sure how to respond, I cross the street to inspect a mural advocating for the Gaelic language and another depicting global freedom fighters. Images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Geronimo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Marley, Nelson Mandela and others stare defiantly from the wall alongside quotes on freedom and liberty.
As I later discover at an exhibit on the Troubles at the Ulster Museum across town, such scenes are in keeping with the themes of the Irish nationalist murals, which focus on Irish identity and individuals fighting for freedom from oppression — especially American civil rights leaders. The loyalist murals typically spotlight historical events, paramilitary groups and local heroes. By unspoken agreement, both sides refrain from defacing the other’s murals. In the past decade, newer artwork has bypassed the hard-edge partisan messages and instead advocates for tolerance and inclusion.
To see examples of the loyalist point of view, I walk through a steel gate, open during the day but closed at night and on weekends, and pass into a section of Protestant Belfast off Shankill Road. The British first started building the gates and peace lines in the 1970s to keep the two sides apart. Both sides of the divided street look the same; brick rowhouses, small shops, churches, warehouses, people out and about. But the Union Jack flags and murals provide a ready reminder of this side’s sentiment, with one featuring a black-and-white photograph of the aftermath of a bombing and questions about justice.
“It’s like a living museum,” I say of the murals when Kevin swings around and picks me up. “Ah, but it isn’t, see,” he replies. He points out that although 20 years have passed since former senator George J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Maine), as the special envoy for Northern Ireland under President Bill Clinton, helped broker a peace accord known as the “Good Friday Agreement,” the Troubles continue to simmer.
Yet as we head through West Belfast, there are signs of change. We pass a conflict-resolution center and murals calling for ending sectarianism and removing the peace walls. (The government has plans to bring them down by 2023.) Driving through the city, there are Turkish barbershops, Tandoori takeout places, Caribbean restaurants and African grocery stores — all reflecting a new face of Belfast and seemingly unburdened by the local enmities. Elsewhere, tourists flock to visit the Titanic Museum, nearby “Game of Thrones” sites and scenic landmarks such as the Giant’s Causeway on the coast.
“So how would I do if you just dropped me off?” I ask as we drive down a particularly scruffy street with houses marked with hard-edge political messages, an old tire on the road and kids riding aimlessly on bikes.
“Ah, you’d be fine,” Kevin says. “Belfast is now one of the safest cities in Europe and has low crime.”
Our next destination, a section of murals painted across a long peace wall on a curving road bordered by green hills, drives the point home. Unlike the careful artwork of the other murals we have seen, the drawings here come across as more improvised and graffitilike, and include scrawled signatures. Kevin explains people began writing messages of peace and their names here soon after the 1998 agreement. He hands me a marker to add my own. I do.
In this spirit, we head back to downtown Belfast, once straitjacketed by security gates and checkpoints but now open and busy with rush-hour traffic and people heading out in the rain to the many pubs and cafes. As we go, we pass one colorful mural celebrating equality, painted by schoolchildren, and another depicting the arms of people from different backgrounds linked in solidarity. They’re more reminders that in these turbulent times, in a city that has known plenty of turbulence, peace is possible.
Biggar is a writer based in Northern California and the District. Find him on Instagram: Instagram @hughbiggar.
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If you go
Where to stay
Great Victoria Street
The centrally located hotel claims to be the most-bombed one in Europe, with 36 logged attacks during the Troubles. Fortunately, the last occurred in the 1990s; today, the nearly 50-year-old Europa has been refurbished to provide a stylish stay. Rooms start at about $109 a night for a single and $121 for a double.
Where to eat
Crown Liquor Saloon
46 Great Victoria St.
Across the street from the Europa Hotel, this saloon transports you back to the Victorian-era with its restored interior and semiprivate tables — with bell service. Originally a gin palace, the Crown now offers cask and craft ales with a diverse menu that includes fish and chips, as well as meat pies. Entrees run from about $11-$20.
30-32 Bank St.
For an even older establishment, this one dates to 1720. Tour driver Kevin and others say it has the best Irish stew in Belfast; I was inclined to agree. At lunch hour, the stew (about $4) goes quickly. Arrive early.
What to do
Peace Lines and Murals
Belfast Welcome Center, 9 Donegall Square N.
Several companies offer tours of the more well-known mural sites and sectarian neighborhoods. The tours are in black taxis, last about 90 minutes and include commentary from the driver. To arrange a tour (about $45), visit the Belfast Welcome Center.
The historical and scenic university provides a good starting point for a different side of Belfast. Many bookstores, cafes and bars are situated nearby. Walk across the leafy campus to the Ulster Museum, which has several exhibits on area history and culture. Nearby Ormeau Road offers a diverse selection of stores, multiethnic restaurants, parks, traditional pubs and craft breweries.
1 Olympic Way, Queen’s Rd.
A short bus ride or walk from the city center, the museum is an impressive mix of the Belfast-built Titanic’s history and immersive experiences to illustrate shipboard life. Designed like a ship itself, the museum also has a helpful overview of Belfast history leading up to the construction of the ship. Allow plenty of time for the visit and to navigate the museum’s many layers. Tickets start at $10 for a child, $23 for an adult, and $57 for a family pass.
Day trips from Belfast
Popular day trips from Belfast can be arranged at the Belfast Welcome Center and include guided tours of “Game of Thrones” shooting sites (about $57 for a student or $63 for adults) and visits to ancient stone castles along the coast. The coast is also home to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unique geological formations that brings to mind a staircase for giants. (Parking costs about $10.) The friendly and helpful center staff have maps, and can offer tips and information on tours.
For the author’s full list of recommendations for Belfast,