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A Black Cab Tour of the Belfast Murals

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“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” began our black cab tour of the famous Belfast murals that chronicle the Troubles. For more than 60 years, the Troubles plagued Northern Ireland – an outgrowth of the century-long political conflict over the rule of the country.

Thanks to pretty much every person with a travel show who’s set foot in Ireland, we had wanted to see the murals of Belfast and Derry for years. So around 10am on our first morning in Belfast, we piled in to the black cab with Paddy Campbell himself (of Paddy Campbell’s Belfast Famous Black Cab Tours) as our tour guide for our 2-hour drive around the Belfast murals. We quickly learned that we had a lot of incorrect information about these colorful pieces of art history.

Laura and Paddy Campbell, in front of classic black cab
Laura and the man himself, Paddy Campbell

Our first stop was The Shankill Road that runs through a mostly Loyalist working-class area. As we approached the first group of murals, the loyalty to the Crown was obvious. Somehow before we arrived at this stop, I had always thought the murals were meant primarily to memorialize and tell the story of the rebels who wanted Northern Ireland to join its neighbor to the south. I was clearly wrong.

King William of Orange, one of the Loyalist Belfast murals
King William of Orange, our first stop on the murals tour

The second surprise came when we noticed the murals were painted on the ends of row homes and complexes. I hadn’t given much thought to the buildings before, but I wasn’t expecting to see martyrs memorialized next to where children play. I guess there were a few aspects those TV hosts didn’t cover.

Orange H-block mural on the side of an apartment
Murals are painted on the sides of apartments around Belfast
Blue mural depicting William "Bucky" McCullough
William “Bucky” McCullough was a Loyalist with the Ulster Defence Association who was killed in 1981

Information fail #3 came when we realized that the murals get painted over. A lot. Because I’d seen certain Belfast murals over and over, I assumed they were basically permanent. In fact, some change quite frequently, especially when change is made in the name of peace.

In 2011, one of the more famous murals showing Oliver Cromwell, an English military and political leader, was painted over. In its place, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland built a memorial with three critical words — Remember, Respect, Resolution.

Remember, Respect, Resolution memorial replaces one of the murals in Shankill
Peace memorial erected in 2011 as part of a re-imaging campaign

A little further from the Shankill in the Hopewell Crescent is other evidence of re-imaging — a mural showing Martin Luther and the origins of Protestant religion. It’s one of many Belfast murals by the Reimagining Community initiative, which aims to promote more peaceful murals in working-class areas.

Mural showing Martin Luther, part of a re-imaging project
Martin Luther

As we wound our way through town on our black cab tour of Belfast, we encountered a number of other murals with different political slants.

One of the Belfast murals incorporating the Red Hand of Ulster
The Red Hand of Ulster, a Loyalist symbol
Mural showing young boys in 1969
Commemorating the Catholic civil right marches in August 1969

Not every mural showing people was a memorial, but this one of Queen Elizabeth II was no less political.

Mural showing several images of UK's Queen Elizabeth
Loyalist mural dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II

We drove to the other side of town to the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. There, Paddy showed us some of the rubber bullets that have been used on protesters. I was stunned. I’ve always thought of rubber bullets as small, relatively harmless, and meant to scatter the crowd — a bit like paint ball. But it’s easy to see how these huge bullets could kill.

Rubber bullets the size of an outstretched hand
Rubber bullets are clearly not the relatively harmless weapons we had thought

There are also barriers erected to prevent items being thrown over into the memorial garden.

Memorial wall and garden area
Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden with protection screens

The end of our black cab tour took us to the Falls Road and one of the most famous Belfast murals. Bobby Sands was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who died in prison after going on a hunger strike in 1981. He was a prolific writer and activist whose death led to widespread protests.

Colorful mural honoring Bobby Sands shows man and broken chains
The mural depicting Bobby Sands, a Catholic who died from a hunger strike, is one of the most famous

Adjacent to the Sands mural is the ever-changing International Wall, bringing attention to the issues of political groups and prisoners around the world.

Street art mural showing Cubans and the Cuban flag
International Wall showing a mural by Cuba Support Group, Belfast, supporting Cuba’s right to self-determination
Candle surrounded by barbed wire, the symbol for Amnesty International
Symbol for Amnesty International on the International Wall

After talking for several hours about unimaginable violence and people on both sides of the conflict living in fear in their own communities, the tour ended on a upbeat note. Although the situation is not fully resolved in Northern Ireland, there is a tenuous peace, as symbolized by the Peace Wall. We had the opportunity to add our signature to thousands of others made by people who hope for continued peace in the area.

Laura signing the Peace Wall
Signing the Peace Wall

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