For our final day in Belfast, we were doing a Taxi tour, which gives an insight into the Troubles, among other things (see the route here). We filled up our LPG tank in a little petrol station on Shankill Road, every surface covered with the Union Jack. We parked in a car park just off Shankill Road (which, for reasons discussed imminently, may have been a bad idea), and walked down Falls Road to find a taxi.
Upon reaching the taxi depot, we were shown to a cab, and the friendly young driver introduced himself as Seamus[private] (not really, I changed his name just in case — his real name was Paddy)[/private]. He took us first, via a seriously fortified police station, to a mural depicting the great famine of the mid-1800’s, and explained some of the back-story.
As a lot of these things start, the British, doing their scumbag colonial thing, had installed themselves in Ireland as landowners, setting up the Irish people as often very badly treated tenants. During the mid 1800’s, a potato disease wiped out huge amounts of crops, a Europe-wide phenomenon. But, as Seamus explained, in Ireland, the British were syphoning off food still, even during the worst years of the famine, leaving very little for the Irish.
With this kind of treatment, tempers ran high, and Irish history is peppered with rebellion after rebellion; the oppressed Republicans (e.g. the Irish Republican Army, the IRA), typically members of the native Irish community who are mostly Catholics, rising up against the British and the Loyalists (a.k.a. Unionists, e.g. the Ulster Defence Association, or UDA), typically Protestants.
Seamus took us to several Catholic/IRA memorial gardens, remembering lives lost to the Troubles, both civilians and IRA volunteers. Among the civilian names are men, women and children, young as ten months, whole families. These are not all accidental, line-of-fire deaths, but deliberate targets, killing Catholics for the sake of it. In this atmosphere, cases of mistaken identity weren’t uncommon: Seamus told the story of a young Protestant woman drinking in a Loyalist bar with friends; the friends became very drunk and left early, leaving her alone. No one left in the bar knew her, and she was questioned. Being very drunk herself, she evidently didn’t give the right answers, and she was murdered, cut up and stuffed into a bin. Only later was it revealed that she was of a prominent Loyalist family.
Along the way, in response to a question about how he got into the tour business, Seamus told us some of his own back-story. Growing up as a young Catholic, he experienced hardships we found hard to envisage; parents imprisoned, police storming into his house, wanton discrimination. Wanting to steer clear of the IRA and the accompanying violence, he ended up moving to America and joined the army, with the understanding that one achieves citizenship after five or so years’ service. His plans were thwarted, however, when the army were informed by the British government that they were harbouring a ‘terrorist’ (he was, of course, nothing of the kind, but being Catholic…). The army dismissed him, and he became a carpenter in America, where he met his wife, also originally Irish. With the peace process well underway back in Ireland, they decided to come back, and Seamus went to university to study Irish history. Afterwards, the academic path didn’t work out, for reasons I’m not clear on, and Seamus became a tour guide for the taxis. He has received his share of threats, and can’t set foot in many Loyalist areas; he stays in the taxi while his charges hop out and take photos.
The taxi company themselves were started by Seamus’s family after the British shut down the Catholics’ public transport system (among other services like electricity). Many of their taxi drivers were killed by the Loyalist paramilitary, but they persisted and are today an integral part of Belfast’s transport system.
Seamus took us through a Loyalist residential area to show us some of the murals there. One that stood out particularly was a mural commemorating Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag, a thuggish-looking guy wearing a backwards baseball cap and a gold chain. As Seamus explained, McKegg was a commander for the UDA, and celebrated for shooting the most Catholics in a year (“Top Gun”), a grotesque UDA competition. He died in 2000, apparently of a heroin overdose. And yet there he is, memorialised in a mural.
Seamus drove us up Shankill Road, explaining that this is the stronghold area for the Loyalist paramilitary, now basically a mafia-esque crime syndicate, dealing in drugs, prostitution, extortion. He remarked that, as part of the peace process, the IRA have disarmed, but the Loyalists never have. In fact, there are apparently increasing reports of robberies where guns were stolen, in Loyalist areas — particularly, Larne, where we recently stayed, and noticed the vast display of the Union Jack for the first time. The speculation is that the Loyalists are re-arming, perhaps to stock up an auxiliary supply to offer as their ‘disarmament’. We drove past the pub that is the headquarters, and stopped outside briefly, until we started attracting looks in our direction.
An interesting side note: In the picture above, there is a sign proudly displayed, titled ‘Battle of the Somme’. This refers to the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army, Irishmen who were celebrated for successfully capturing an elusive section of the German front line in the battle of the Somme. The interesting point here that Seamus made was that this was a Catholic achievement — the 36th Division were Catholics. So, the name has since been nabbed by the Loyalists who are now displaying the achievement as their own, to their own ends.
The next stop: A looming wall, peppered with brightly coloured graffiti-art and marks from explosions. This is, as Seamus put it, “Belfast’s Berlin Wall”, separating the Protestant and Catholic communities, and part of the divide known as “the peace line”. The graffiti art is the product of a project established by one of Seamus’s contacts to bring together kids from both communities.
We passed out of the Loyalist area, across a divide marked by large gates that are closed every night, and over the other side of the wall. Here was another memorial garden which lists names of, among others, people killed by Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag, mentioned above and being displayed proudly on a mural just a few hundred metres the other side of the wall.
Also on this side of the wall, we could see the back of the houses sitting almost right up against the wall. Unlike the Protestant houses on the other side, these are fortresses, steel mesh in place to stop projectiles.
Back onto Falls Road now, about 400 metres from where we’d parked Nettle, we passed by Northumberland Street, down which we could see smoke pouring off a fire in the middle of the road. Seamus pulled over immediately after, but obviously hadn’t seen the fire, and kept talking about something else. Having brought it to his attention, he peered down the road — Ah. A stolen car on fire.
At this point, already nervous at having parked just around the corner from the Loyalist paramilitary crime syndicate’s headquarters, on the street where we are told strangers are stopped and interrogated about where they are from, and having just seen a burning stolen car, we didn’t take in a great deal of what Seamus told us. He’d raised his eyebrow when we told him where we were parked, but hadn’t expressed too much dismay, so we weren’t quite in panic mode yet.
He talked us through a line of murals on the corner, a stretch known as “the international wall“. One was a memorial to honour the 1980 hunger strikers, who protested prison conditions at Long Kesh prison and, upon being promised a settlement with the British government and being on the verge of death, called off the hunger strike only to have the British government renege. One mural protested America’s blockade of Cuba, another highlighted the political issues in Basque country, which is another story altogether.
Another mural was a reproduction of a Picasso artwork produced by the same group who painted the graffiti-art on the wall mentioned above. There are names scribbled on the painting, which Seamus told us were not, in fact, graffiti. The locals see a parallel between their history and the situation in Palestine;
one of the other murals reads “End this barbarian Israeli aggression!” [Edit: This implied that the locals took the Palestinian’s side, something I didn’t mean to suggest — I get the impression that politics is not a factor; see second comment below]. This is as we understand what Seamus told us: A local school was visited by a delegation of children from Palestine, as an exercise to show the Palestinian children how peace can be achieved. During their stay, there was an Israeli bomb attack in their home town. Unprompted, the local kids together with their Palestinian visitors started writing the names of the dead on the wall.
Tour complete, Seamus drove us to where we had parked, where we were relieved beyond measure to see Nettle safe and sound. He told us to get in touch if there was anything else we wanted to know, and wished us well.
We were thrilled to have met Seamus, and to have heard his story and his take on Ireland’s troubled history — and the continuation of Ireland’s story, which we were surprised to see is not yet over.
Before doing anything once we got back into Nettle, we raced down the road towards safer Catholic territory. We pulled over and got Nigel our GPS system organised, and left Belfast.