After an early night, we woke up bright and early (trying not to wake the rest of the people in our hostel room), packed up our things and grabbed a very quick (included!) breakfast in the Barnacles Hostel kitchen. We were extra rushed that morning because we were also trying to check in for our Ryanair flight to Edinburgh in a week’s time and print our boarding passes before leaving for our tour! Unfortunately the WiFi wasn’t great at the hostel and we weren’t able to send our boarding passes to reception. We just couldn’t get it figured out in time, so we grabbed our bags and decided to figure it out later.
It was a good thing we picked the Barnacles Hostel – as it was literally 30 seconds away from the Shamrocker Tours departure point. We knew, as much as we planned to wake up early and be ready to go, we would need as much time as possible! So it worked out really well for us to stay at Barnacles – it was in the heart of Temple Bar, clean, breakfast was included, close to airport transportation and close to our tour’s departure point.
*We’ve just checked the Shamrocker Adventures website and it seems their office has moved – to the Four Courts Hostel. We have not stayed at this hostel before, so we can’t vouch for it. But it would sure be convenient to stay there before your tour starts!*
We got into the queue to check-in. There was also the option to sign up for the Optional Add On’s. We had already added on the Blarney Castle months ago, but because we didn’t do much research on Belfast or Derry, we decided to opt in for the Black Cab Tour in Belfast and the Derry Walking Tour, as well. The last thing – we also picked up our bright green wristband. Fan-feckin-tastic indeed!
Once everyone was checked in, we followed our guide for the short walk down to where the bus was parked. Once the luggage and people were loaded, our guide did a quick headcount and we were off!
Our guide was Dave – or Disco Dave as we would later find out. Our bus driver was Fred and he did a wonderful job getting us safely to where we needed to be! (He could also sing!)
Dave introduced himself and began our tour by telling us a bit about the city of Dublin and its history, as we made our way out of the city. He pointed out some famous landmarks – Ha’penny Bridge, O’Connell Street, the Spire and the Samuel Beckett Bridge (Dave loves bridges). Just with that introduction, you could see the passion Dave had for Dublin, for Ireland and how proud he was of being Irish.
Once we were on the highway, we had a round of introductions to get to know our fellow trip mates. There was a good mix of different nationalities on our trip – Australia, New Zealand, United States, India, Germany, Singapore, France and a couple of us from Canada!
Our first stop of the day would be Belfast in Northern Ireland. Dave then told us about the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the “Troubles”. I will admit that I didn’t know much about this at all. Although much of the conflict occurred before we were born, I was still a bit surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about the more recent conflicts, considering some of these events did occur in my lifetime. Dave explained the history of the plantations, the conflicts between the Catholics/Nationalist/Republicans and the Protestants/Unionist/Loyalist, the violence, the bombings and the terror that occurred during the Troubles. There has been some progress in peace making and there is hope that this will continue in Belfast and all over Northern Ireland. As we would be taking the Black Cab tour of Belfast later on, it helped to have this introduction.
Over 2 hours later, we had crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland and were driving into Belfast.
*Remember: If you are visiting Northern Ireland, don’t forget your £ sterling. Some larger stores may accept Euros but this is not a guarantee; and smaller stores will likely not accept Euros. The other option is to use your credit card or withdraw money from an ATM.
Here we are in the city of Belfast:
Once Fred parked the bus, Dave gave us a return time and set us loose. One thing we liked about this Shamrocker Adventures tour is that you have the option to opt in or out of certain activities, according to your own preferences. So in Belfast, there is the option to take the Black Cab Tour, or plan your own itinerary – wander the streets of Belfast, go shopping, check out the markets or visit the other well-known Belfast attraction: the Titanic Experience. Unfortunately due to the limited time we had in Belfast, we were told that by the time the Black Cab tour finished and you made your way to the Titanic Experience, you might not have enough time there to do it justice. So we’ll just have to save that for our next visit! Some people from our group chose to visit the Titanic Experience instead of doing the Black Cab tour, so they headed off in that direction.
Those of us on the Black Cab Tour waited by the bus for the cabs. We split up into groups with our 3 cab drivers and set out on our tour of Belfast.
Our little black cab
We had a lovely cab driver guide, who wanted to hear about our stories, as much as we wanted to hear his. (He asked us about Canada and hockey – we were more than happy to oblige!) He had many personal stories about living through the troubles and shared these with us as he drove us from stop to stop.
At each of our stops, we all got out of the cabs and met up as a group. Then one of the cab driver guides would tell us about the stop, the history and significance of that particular stop – whether it was a mural, a monument, a memorial or a peace line.
We appreciated how the tour and all the stops were conducted. We could take a guess as to whether each of our cab driver guides were unionists or nationalists – and there was a mix of both. Yet, there were no jabs at each other or blaming each other for events that occurred in history or are occurring now. The entire tour was presented as objectively as possible, with personal stories from both sides. And this allowed us to see the events from different points of view.
First, we stopped in a Unionist/Loyalist (and mostly Protestant) area. We walked around to look at several murals and learned about the history and the individuals for whom the murals were dedicated. It was also very easy to identify which area you were in – by the banners and flags that were on prominent display.
We then learned about the “peace lines” or the “peace walls”. These were first built at the start of the Troubles in 1969 and were meant to be temporary measures to help keep the peace by minimizing the movement and thus the attacks and violence between the Nationalists and Unionists. Unfortunately some 46 years later, these walls are still standing.
We stopped at this peace line, located along Cupar Way, separating the Shankill Road (Unionist/Protestant) and Falls Road (Nationalist/Catholic) areas. This was a particularly volatile area during the Troubles and to this day, there are still incidences in this area.
We heard about how this concrete wall had to be extended up with corrugated metal sheets and up even further with weldmesh fencing. This was due to continued violence, with glass bottles, pipe bombs and other objects being thrown over the wall.
This particular section of the wall is a big tourist draw now and there are many messages of hope and peace written on the wall by visitors from all over the world. As we learned on the Black Cab Tour, there are some people in Belfast who want these walls taken down to continue the progress for peace and integration. They feel these walls are leading to further segregation instead of conversation and progress. However, the majority of Belfast residents, especially those living in the interface area between Nationalist and Unionist neighbourhoods, still believe these walls are necessary for them for their safety and to prevent the violence and attacks from occurring again.
There has been some progress since these walls were erected. Now, there are gates that allow for movement across some walls during the day time hours. Gates, such as this one on Lanark Way, stand open during the day to allow the flow of people and traffic but are closed later in the day to prevent any sectarian clashes in the evening and overnight.
Driving through the opened gates on Lanark Way
We had a discussion in the cab about segregation, integration and the progress that has been made. We learned that there are more integrated schools now – although mostly nursery or primary schools. But it is a start. Perhaps this represents a new generation, who will be accustomed to having friends and classmates of Catholic, Protestant or other faiths. Perhaps having the children learn and grow together will foster a sense of community, acceptance, peace and respect. We heard multiple times from our driver guides that no one wants their children or grandchildren to grow up with the terror and violence that was experienced during the Troubles.
Passing through these gates on Lanark Way, we entered the predominantly Catholic and Nationalist area – known as the Falls Road area. Our next stop was the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden on Bombay Street.
Entering the the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, with the peace line or peace wall clearly evident in the background.
Here, we heard about the violence and conflict that occurred in August of 1969 – intense fighting, gunfire and the burning down of almost all of the houses on Bombay Street. This led to deaths, injuries, property loss and large numbers of terrified residents being forced to flee their homes.
The memorial garden dedicated to both the fighters and civilians killed as a result of the conflicts.
The last stop on our tour was at the “International Wall”. Here, the murals touch on human rights, political and other issues from Ireland and across the world. And that concluded our Black Cab tour of Belfast.
The International Wall
Review: We would definitely recommend doing a tour like this in Belfast, if you are interested in learning more about the history of the “Troubles”. It can be disheartening but it gives you an understanding of the history and what shapes the cultural fabric of Belfast and Northern Ireland. There are tour buses that also provide similar tours. However, we really appreciated getting to know our driver guide and sharing stories and thoughts with him. It made for a more personalized and intimate experience. Because we were part of a larger group, we were fortunate to meet 3 different driver guides. It was interesting having both Protestant and Catholic driver guides and seeing history through different point of views.
Since we had some time before we had to get back to the bus, we decided to check out the famous St. George’s Market. Our kind cab driver guide dropped us off just outside the market. He also gave us directions to walk back to the bus – very helpful. It wouldn’t do to get lost and left behind on the first day of our tour!
There were about 10 of us from Shamrockers all checking out the market. We decided to set a time to meet up after lunch, so we could make our way back to the bus together.
We enjoyed our time at St. George’s market. There were food and drink stalls, fresh vegetables and fruit stalls and vendors selling handmade goods, art, crafts and little souvenirs. We had a good wander through the stalls, before grabbing some food for lunch.
Inside St. George’s Market
And just like that, it was time to head back to the bus. We had a lovely walk through the city, taking in the beautiful architecture, back to where our bus was parked.
Once we were all accounted for, we were back on the road, headed out of Belfast. The next stop on our All Ireland Rocker tour is The King’s Road! I’m sure some of you will know the reference! 😉 And if you don’t, you’ll just have to wait for our next post!
It was too bad we didn’t have more time in Belfast. It seems like an interesting city, with lovely architecture, markets and history. It does have a history of conflict and strife and although most of our day was spent learning about its conflicted past, Belfast is more than that. It is more than the peace lines that curve their way through the city and more than the murals that dot the city. I see it as a city that is trying to move forward, to hope and to look to a future of peace and harmony.
What else should we see or visit if we are back in Belfast? Any off-the-beaten-track suggestions? We would love to hear them!
From Vancouver with Love,
Ioana and Natalie
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