"" Writer's Wanderings: Belfast, The Black Taxi Tour

Monday, November 21, 2011

Belfast, The Black Taxi Tour

We stood in front of the Titanic Quarter where our tour had ended to wait on a Black Taxi that was about to pick us up for our scheduled Black Taxi Tour, a tour to take us through the area of Belfast that was most active during The Troubles. When the taxi arrived the astute members of our group realized. . .it wasn't black. It was gray. When we pointed that out, we got quite a barrage of language explaining that not all "black taxis" were black. We moved on.

The taxi driver/tour guide who looked like he might have lost a few battles in the street, or the bar, wanted to know where our car was since he would not be bringing us back to where he picked us up. He drove us the short distance to the lot where we'd parked, spoke a few moments with the guys as they determined where our B&B was, and then led the way to the B&B so the guys could leave the car there. Still not where he would drop us off but we could return more easily there.

That left my sister-in-law and me in the car with the driver. We just kept giving each other glances wondering what would come out of his mouth next. But without the men there, he was very polite.

Still feeling a bit uneasy about this whole thing, I relaxed a little as the guys joined us again and even had to laugh at the looks on the other three faces when our driver asked if we'd had any "crack" in Ireland. Actually the word is craic (pronounced crack) and means fun. They looked at me like I was crazy when I said, "Yeah!"

The tour consisted mainly of stopping to look at all the murals Belfast is so famous for. Depending upon which neighborhood you are in, Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Republican or Loyalist, the murals change expressing that point of view. With all the labels associated with basically two groups of people, it got very confusing. Even after researching, it still is.

Since the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, things have quieted down. As in Londonderry our guide had emphasized that Troubles were over, our taxi driver repeated the same thing. It was hard to be convinced when each time he got in the back of the taxi to sit on the extra jump seat and give commentary, he kept looking around the area and over his shoulder. While I read that the Black Taxi drivers are both Catholic and Protestant, I'm guessing ours was maybe Catholic since when we appeared to be in the Catholic area he relaxed a bit.

The tone of the murals has changed somewhat. There are 17 walls in the city that separate the Catholic areas from the Protestant. On one such wall along Falls Road, the murals have been toned down a bit and are now more generally political and often have to do with international issues. In the Shankill Road area, there is a housing project that surrounds what look like practice fields for soccer perhaps. I shudder to think that there are lots of children playing on them because the mural that made the greatest impact on me was one our driver said was so very unusual in its perspective. The gunman's eyes in the picture, as well as his gun, seem to follow you no matter where you stand on the fields. The UFF under his picture stands for Ulster Freedom Fighters a part of the Ulster Defense Association.

The history of the Catholic vs. Protestant struggle is very confusing to me especially since it doesn't really seem to stem from religious beliefs so much as that your religious preference (or what you were born to) determines your political affiliation. With all the historical places we visited the best I could piece together to try to understand how it all began was that when Henry VIII was king in the 16th century, he broke with the Catholic church. Remember the eight wives? Rome was not pleased with him. He tried to force Ireland to become a Protestant country as well sending his emissaries to destroy monasteries and do away with anything Catholic.

Animosity developed. Then later, in the 17th century came a struggle for power between William of Orange and King James. William was Protestant and James, you got it, Catholic. This is the struggle that led to the gates of Londonderry being barred as King James tried to storm the Protestant city loyal to William and the slogan, "We will not surrender." Now all of this is a little too simple an explanation but it points out one thing--hate festers.

In more recent history, the rule of England (the UK) over Ireland led to the Protestant politics invoking severe sanctions against the Catholic contingency often sending Catholics to jail for minor reasons. Remember there was also that potato famine. In 1922, the majority of the Irish island seceded from English rule and formed the Republic. For some reason, Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the UK. So you see, there are actually two different countries that have a common heritage.

Are you confused yet? I still am.

In a way, I wish we had not taken the Black Taxi Tour--oh, by the way, the taxi driver's language improved greatly when he realized we weren't users of certain words. The tour was depressing in that we could see that even with the peace agreement in effect, there are still walls that separate, still back yards completely screened for protection, still places where mistrust and hate appear to brew. It cast a shadow on our view of Belfast which had been so positive in the morning on our Titanic Walk.

The taxi driver left us off at the Crown Bar in the "neutral" area of Belfast, the area he claimed where everyone got along. The Crown Bar was beautiful inside and out. It is one of the oldest landmarks in Belfast. We looked around and then headed across the street for a coffee. We needed to sit and absorb all that we had seen.

We walked a bit around a very nice shopping area. Perhaps had we been able to stay an extra day, we would have enjoyed it even more but we called it a day and found a taxi to take us back to our B&B in a nice residential area of Belfast.

One more note and I will finish my philosophizing. Over the years, we have been to many places all over the world. Just a glance at the category listing of my posts will show you that. Lots and lots of history has been explored in each place and the struggles of the world all seem to stem from two things: the desire for power and greed. Enough said?

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