Leaving London: Belfast Black Taxi Tour
As promised, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the history of Belfast as I experienced it through a famous Black Taxi Tour. This is the brief version, and it’s by no means comprehensive.
The turbulence of Belfast’s history is more recent than I expected. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, entirely separate from the Republic of Ireland.
I would now like to confess something rather embarrassing, especially for a person who likes to be mostly in the loop when it comes to world affairs: before I applied to study abroad, I knew that Northern Ireland and Ireland had their issues, but I thought they were more separated than divorced. I was quite saddened to discover the permanence of their divide. It turns out that my original ignorance was not too far off from what many Irish (a category that can encompass Northern Irish and Irish nationals alike) think the future holds.
Our cab driver, Eugene, was a Catholic who is married to a Protestant. And this is the perfect metaphor for the state of the Irish island. While religious issues led to the initial separation of the states, the tensions have, for the most part, become less vocal. Eugene told us that for the most part, the Protestants and the Catholics get along just fine and, in fact, the latest census shows that Northern Irish citizens identify themselves as 45% Catholic, 47% Protestant, and 8% other or nonreligious. Eugene said that the majority opinion is that there will be a united Ireland in the next 20 years, as the Catholics are expected to regain political power of the region in that time frame.
There are still religious-political factions that exercise their power to instill fear in the people of Northern Ireland. The way that Eugene described these groups was reminiscent of New York mobs in the 1920s. The persistence of these groups has created continued separation of the population in NI by religious association. There are two main neighborhoods, one Catholic and one protestant, that are separated by the Peace Wall. A dystopic name, but an accurate one for the most part. The Peace Wall gates close at night so that there is only one entrance/exit for patrol purposes.
Eugene took us into a government project neighborhood with murals that depict the struggles of the Protestants. I found it very interesting that the housing, built by the British government, comes at an extremely low price, enticing buyers to purchase their own homes. The issues that follows this purchase, though, is that the socio-economic status of the neighborhood is usually lower class and it is from this lower class that the religious-political extremists draw their soldiers and supporters, promising improved life standards for all. it is also nearly impossible to move out of these tough neighborhoods because there are very few buyers looking in the area, and the homes are already owned outright, excluding the lapse of a lease as a possible out.
The murals here tell of the history of Ulster (the region of Ireland of which Northern Ireland is a part), memorialize gang heroes, and recall the inspiration of church reformation.
I highly suggest looking up the myth of the Red Hand of Ulster and further researching the Troubles between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Maybe even get a little education on where the politics of the island seem to be headed (hint: Eugene tells us that Britain has moved many of its industrial hubs from NI to Wales, simply switching which was the HQ, which shows anticipation of significant change in NI in the next few years). Shout out to Eugene for the fabulous tour! I recommend a Black Taxi Tour of Belfast to any visitor. It’s 30 pounds (about 50 USD) for two or three people for a two hour two. You get to see the whole city and get perspective on the Troubles and the history of Belfast from a local who experienced it firsthand. Thanks for sticking with me for the abbreviated virtual taxi tour. Next time I’ll tell you about my trip to the stunning North Coast of Northern Ireland. Holy smokes, that place is gorgeous. Till then, folks!
Love and taxis,