Bruce whips off his cap branded with the tri-colour Irish national flag and his eyes widen with the gravity of what he’s just learned. The hat he bought innocently as a momento of his time in Ireland, brandished a symbol that could make a Loyalist froth at the mouth – especially when worn on their side of the ‘peace line’, where Bruce had just been. Put simply, he could have been pummelled. “Have you been wearing that the whole time?” asks Big Eamon, our tour leader. Bruce gives a reluctant nod. “You are lucky no one pounced – it’s like a red rag to a bull over the other side.”
The peace process may be under way, but the Northern Ireland capital has long been the violent hotbed of a divided land and the residual hostility in the air is palpable.
We have come to believe so far in our travels through Northern Ireland that the war between the Irish (Catholic/Nationalist) and British (Protestant/Loyalist) communities is over. Our tour leader in Derry even proclaimed: “I can finally stand before you as a free man in the most exciting period Northern Ireland has ever seen.”
But in Belfast, we get an unglossed version of the way things are as Eamon, a black-cab driver who also chauffeurs tourists around the city, gives his own account of the Troubles.
We pull up at an imposing concrete wall that stretches as far as the eye can see and we learn that it continues to separate the warring factions – the Loyalists in Shankill Road in the north, and the Republicans along Falls Road further south. Erected in 1975 and scrawled with messages of peace from visitors, this ‘Berlin Wall’ of Belfast is a stark illustration of the murderous feud that inflicts the city.
“There is a presumption that because we are undergoing a peace process, it should come down, but If this wall comes down now, it will set the clock back 20 years,” Eamon says.
Among a three-car convoy of rattling cabs, we journey to the lower Shankill Road and Eamon’s colleague, Bobby, takes the floor. We draw in close to decipher his Northern Irish accent as he explains a series of broad, bold murals daubed on the walls of estate houses.
Pointing to a larger-than-life portrait of a strong, goateed man wearing a cap backwards, he says: “This is the Loyalist paramilitary Stevie ‘Topgun’ McKeag. He was from Shankill Road and accused of killing 13 Catholics, but never once got convicted”. McKeag was a ‘top operator’ among the
UDA’s assassination squads in the Greater Belfast and, indeed, hailed as something of a hero by some. But Bobby makes a point of not overdramatising.
We push on through the huge steel gates of the wall into Catholic territory. At Bombay Street, houses are clad in cages and the Perspex windows are fixed with metal grills to protect the homes from projectiles launched over the wall. Now Belfast is beginning to feel more like a warzone.
Standing at the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, there’s a discernable fire in Eamon’s belly as he begins his address.
“You’ve heard the Protestant side of the story, now I’ll tell you the truth,” he half jests. “During the Troubles, a majority of the homes burnt down were Catholic. It was a Loyalist aim to ‘burn all Catholics from their homes’.” The names of Catholic freedom fighters killed are etched into a marbleslab and their portraits surround the site. Eamon points out they were killed by the “British death squads”.
His sensibility is echoed by fellow Republican and driver, Paddy, as we take in a striking strip of murals along Falls Road. There is a beaming Bobby Sands, the Republican revolutionary; and Picasso’s Guernica, which reflects the Spanish Civil War – a reminder that Northern Ireland’s Troubles chime with those across the world.
“We used to get stopped constantly. We were IDed, searched and our cars checked for bombs,”Paddy says. “Those days are over, but as long as this part of Ireland is under British rule, there will always be a risk of violence.”
And he is right. The day after we leave Belfast, riots break out once again. Bruce had never moved so fast.
Where to eat, drink and sleep
You’ll find a host of hungry students wolfing down huge Ulster fries at lunchtime at Maggie May’s, a classic little cafe with murals of old Belfast.?(maggiemaysbelfast.co.uk)
Vegetarians flock to Cayenne by the minute because of its extensive non-meat menu. Plus, it’s just got a very funky vibe. (cayenne-restaurant.co.uk)
No trip to Belfast is complete without a pint at the illustrious Crown Bar. It keeps the character of a Victorian gin palace, with gas-lit lamps and booths with buzzers for service. (crownbar.com)
When the pubs shut up shop, kick on at Laverys, which has been keeping punters cheery for years with live music and DJ sets in its network of bars. (laverysbelfast.com)
Paddy’s Palace is a budget hostel in downtown Belfast’s university district. It’s a new place to lay your head in the city. A dorm bed goes from £9ppprn. ?(paddyspalace.com)
After a hard day’s sightseeing, retire to the Days Hotel, a comfortable, three-star establishment with double rooms from £49pn. (dayshotelbelfast.m.netaffinity.com)