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Belfast Taxi Tour: Part 2 – Crossing the Peace Lines

Submitted by on July 23, 2010 – 2:33 pmOne Comment
Peace Wall

Peace Wall Mural

Leaving Lower Shankill again, we head up Crumlin Road and past an army barracks on the right. Girdwood Army Barracks, once largest outside the mainland UK, is the base from which the British Army attempted to control West Belfast during The Troubles.

Interestingly, our driver tells us that soldiers from Girdwood used to escort the police around Belfast and that for each copper they had to have 6 armed soldiers guarding. He told us about Army Land Rovers, which used to have guns mounted on top, manned by soldiers, and how Republicans succeeded in decapitating a few using piano wire stretched out across the narrow streets of Nationalist West Belfast. And with that, we head back across the main Shankill Road and go South towards the dividing line between West Belfast’s Nationalists and Unionists – the quizzically named ‘Peace Wall’.

There are over 21 miles of ‘peace lines’ still in Northern Ireland. This one, the biggest, separates the Protestants of the Upper Shankill estate from the Catholic Springfield and Falls Roads. It was originally built 8 ft high when it was erected forty years ago but has had to be extended several times to prevent missiles reaching their targets on both sides. You can now see where the different sections have been added and it now stands over 20ft high, cutting West Belfast in half. You can cross from one side to the other via access roads at Lanark Way and Northumberland Street but the gates are closed at 5pm – 9pm some days – and a full lock down occurs as soon if trouble looks likely or events happen which may spill over into sectarian violence. When the gates are closed you need to take a huge detour to get to the other side.

Peace Wall - Closed

We learn that “urban planners” have been brought in to ensure the walls are hidden with trees and to try and give greater subtlety to this very unsubtle monster of a barrier and that graffiti contests take place every 3 months to give the wall a new look and give the local kids something to do. I suppose these are positive things, if indeed you can be positive about something which essentially stops people throwing deadly pipe bombs at their neighbours. We pass through the open gate on Lanark Way onto Springfield Road into the Republican heart of West Belfast. In a few hours the gate will be closed and the Catholics and Protestants will be sealed off from each other until the morning… when they’ll probably go and work together in the same places, where they’ll talk about the same things and get along just nicely.

Our driver takes us to Bombay Street, just off Springfield Road, right up next to the Peace Wall on the Nationalist side, which was the scene of one of the most notorious sectarian clashes in Northern Ireland’s history. During rioting across the Province in 1969, which escalated sectarian violence to a new level, all the houses on Bombay Street and some of the houses on Kashmir Street, Conway Street, Norfolk Street and Cupar Street were set alight by Loyalists who had entered the areas behind RUC Police lines who had previously driven back Republican rioters. It is claimed the RUC stood by and did “very little” to stop Loyalists burning Catholic homes, effectively making refugees of hundreds of families on their own city. On Bombay Street there’s a mural dedicated to IRA volunteer Gerald McAuley, who was killed on August 15th 1969 during the rioting in which Bombay Street was destroyed by fire, and a large blown up photograph of the fires there with “Never Again” across it.

Bombay Street, West Belfast

Bombay Street - Nationalist West Belfast

We take the road out towards the hills that surround West Belfast, close to where FC United had played Cliftonville and Donegal Celtic’s ground the previous afternoon. The driver points out a police station on the right, repeating a line he’s used several times already – “it’s not somewhere you’d go and ask for directions”.  The place is very well fortified, its windows encased in steel grilles. We’re told the walls are cleaned every couple of weeks but they’re absolutely covered in splatters of paint. It looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for thirty years. “The kids”, he tells us, “just walk up and paint bomb the place and the Police don’t do anything, they don’t want to antagonise anyone”.

Further up the road, now well away from any red, white and blue, we pull in to a quiet residential street, on the corner of which is a stone-walled memorial garden. It commemorates fallen volunteers from the Republican movement. There are several small murals, variations of the Ulster flag which I haven’t seen before and a large plaque listing the names of some of those who have lost their lives fighting for a united Ireland. In contrast to much of what we have been shown already, the memorial is immaculate. “Local youths”, we are told, “don’t dare touch it or else their families get a knock on the door in the early hours asking their kids to come outside for a quick word”.

Joe McDonnell - Republican Martyr

"you dare to call me a terrorist while you look down your gun"

One Comment »

  • brillantcity says:

    Myself and 2 American friends of mine made the trip to Belfast with the hope of taking one of the famous taxi tours http://www.belfastattractions.co.uk . Being Irish i have a very general grasp of much of the history of ‘the Wee North’. My friends were far less well informed. However, none of us was prepared for what turned out to be a truly excellent look at Belfast’s history and some of the many people and events that have shaped this city.

    Gerard (our driver and guide) collected us after we had enquired about the best ‘Taxi Tour’ in Belfast over lunch at ‘The Crown Bar’. From the moment we sat into his luxury taxi we knew this was going to be a special tour. His enthusiasm for the city, its history, inhabitants and little quirks was obvious and we were taken on a journey through time given a view of Belfast from the Ulster Plantation right up to the present day.

    Along the way we stopped at various significant points of interest and Gerard gave us the history of these places and told us of their significance in the greater scheme of things. Gerard’s use of old newspaper cuttings, photographs and personal stories gave us a very vivid look at Belfast City. Opportunities for photos were taken and Gerard was more than willing to take the snaps as we posed in front of some of the points of interest. At times he would stop the taxi and sit into the back with us to explain a particular point of interest and to be sure my American friends understood what he was saying and why things were relevant. I helped as much as i could to contextualise things with more general Irish and World history, but most of the time my input was redundant as Gerard did a phenomenal job of giving not only my American friends, but me as well, a real look at life in Belfast through the years.

    If you are to take a trip with any Taxi Company, i can’t but recommend Belfast Attractions. Myself and my friends were told later on that evening, by some locals who’d asked about our visit, that we had been given a proper tour of Belfast and they were proud to think that a tour company was making such a good job as Gerard and his colleagues at Belfast Attractions.

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