About the Belfast Mural Tours
One of the best things to do in Belfast is to take a walking tour to see the city’s famous republican and loyalist murals. There are a few different Belfast mural tours to choose from. In this article, we will look at the different options, as well as review one of these tours.
There are three main options for seeing Belfast’s murals:
- a walking tour
- a back taxi tour
- venturing off on your own
Although Belfast is a reasonably safe city, wandering around the divided estates of East and West Belfast on your own, camera in tow, might raise a few eyebrows. It is certainly not recommended to visit these areas alone after dark as trouble can and does flare up sporadically.
The best way to witness the murals is with a guided tour, and personally, I found the three-hour “Conflicting Stories” tour to be fantastic. The tour is split into two, with the first guide being an ex-prisoner on the republican side, and the second half with a former loyalist prisoner.
The other option is a Belfast black taxi tour. These tours take you around both republican and loyalist areas to see the murals and peace walls. This is an especially good option if it rains, which unfortunately Northern Ireland has more than its fair share of!
For anyone interested in so-called “dark tourism“, a Belfast mural tour is a must!
- Conflicting Stories Mural Walking Tour – Book here with Get Your Guide
- Conflicting Stories Mural Taxi Tour – Book here with Get Your Guide
- Political Wall Murals and Peace Lines Tour – Book here with Get Your Guide
Geography of Belfast and Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is made up of six counties in the north of the island of Ireland. These provinces are (currently) part of the United Kingdom and not part of the Republic of Ireland.
When the Republic of Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom after the 1922 war of succession, these six counties remained part of the crown and thus partitioning Ireland.
IRA – Provisional Irish Republican Army
INLA – Irish Nationalist Liberation Army
UDA – Ulster Defence Association
UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force
UFF – Ulster Freedom Fighters
It’s impossible to condense the troubled history of Northern Ireland into a few paragraphs, or indeed a three-hour tour. However, I will outline the basics below along with a timeline of key events.
Northern Ireland, including Belfast, is divided into two distinct populations. Catholic/republican and protestant/loyalist (though these terms are not mutually exclusive i.e., it is possible to be republican and not catholic and not all loyalists are protestant).
The former see themselves as Irish and want Northern Ireland to be reunited with the rest of the country. The latter see themselves as British and want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Going back to the middle part of the last century, the Catholics in Northern Ireland were in a minority and saw themselves as second-class citizens in their own country.
They saw the protestants taking the best jobs, having the best schools etc (which ironically is the complete reverse today, with the protestants being the minority and making similar complaints as the Catholics at the outbreak of the troubles).
Alongside these resentments and associated violence from different paramilitaries, a war was being waged by the IRA against the United Kingdom to end British rule in Northern Ireland. This war lasted 30 bloody years from the late sixties until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process in 1998.
Both communities continue to live in close confines, especially in Belfast, which has led to the erection of the so-called Peace Lines; large walls keeping each community apart from the other.
Although the worst days of the troubles are now receding from view, old resentments remain and Belfast is still something of a divided city. The Peace Lines have increased, and the communities are separated by locking gates that close at 7 pm and reopen at 7 am the following morning.
Timeline of key Events from the 20th Century
1905 – Sinn Fein formed to free Ireland from British rule
1913 – Formation of the UVF to stop attempts at Irish home rule
1916 – Easter rising in Dublin and formation of the IRA
1920 – Partition act separating Ireland into two states
1948 – Irish Free State granted full independence from the UK
1967 – Formation of civil rights movement in Northern Ireland
1969 – Battle of the Bogside; widespread rioting in Belfast
1971 – Internment (imprisonment without trial) introduced
1972 – Bloody Sunday; British paratroopers kill 14 civilians in Derry
1981 – Bobby Sands dies on hunger strike
1985 – Anglo-Irish agreement gives Dublin a say on Northern Ireland
1993 – Downing Street Declaration
1994 – IRA Ceasefire
1996 – Peace Talks
1998 – Good Friday Agreement brings an end to 30 years of violence
About the Belfast Murals
The murals in Belfast, on each side of the divide, are some of the most prominent reminders of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. These murals can be seen in areas like the republican Falls Road and protestant Shankhill Road.
Since the 1970s some 2,000 brightly-coloured paintings have appeared across Northern Ireland, with the most famous of these being located in Belfast and Derry.
These murals depict the culture, struggles and lives of each community in Northern Ireland. Some of the murals depict historical figures, sporting heroes and martyrs to each cause.
The republican murals depict the Irish struggle for independence and associated figures. There are also many murals painted in solidarity with other political causes around the world from Palestine to Cuba.
There are also murals championing Irish culture, Gaelic sports and so forth.
The loyalist murals, by contrast, show of the solidarity to the UK and celebrate “Queen and Country” as well as figures related to the struggle against the IRA and republicanism.
About the Peace Lines
The so-called Peace Lines are a series of walls and high fences separating the two communities. These walls and fences can be found across areas of the city where both communities live in close proximity.
The primary aim of the Peace Lines is to de-escalate violence and stop attacks on either community. You can see that there are distinct sections that have increased in height over time to stop the throwing of missiles and petrol bombs.
In addition to the peace lines, there are many gates which allow traffic to pass through during the day, but are closed for a curfew every night at 7pm.
How to book your Belfast Mural Tour
Our partners at Get Your Guide offer a great selection of Belfast Mural Tours, from walking to taxi tours.
You can book direct on their website and you will be issued a receipt. Simply show this to your guide (they will cross-reference against your name on a list).
Cost of Belfast Mural Tours
The cheapest Belfast mural tour is just £23 (Conflicting Stories) up to around £60 for the Belfast Black Taxi Tour.
The tours range from one hour to three hours in length.
Belfast Mural Tours are suitable for adults and those aged over 15 years old. Due to the subject matter of the tours, they are not suitable for children.
Review and Personal Experience of the Conflicting Stories Political Tour
The tour starts off on Divis Street which is about 600 metres northwest of the city centre. It then continues along Divis Street onto the Falls Road to take in different murals there. From there a right turn onto Clonard Avenue to visit Father Alec Reid’s former church, and an IRA memorial garden.
It’s then a short walk onto Springfield Road and onto Lanark Way and through the gates and across the Peace Lines. From Lanark the tour turns onto Cupar Way and follows the wall until turning off onto Lawnbrook Avenue and then the Shankill Road where the tour ends.
The meeting point for the tour was outside a large tower block on Divis Street, less than a kilometre from the city centre. The first half of the tour was to be with an ex-prisoner from the republican side, presumably a member or former member of the IRA.
Even though we were only a few hundred metres from the centre of Belfast, it was possible to see the large fence of the Peace Lines behind some houses. Republican murals depicting scenes of Gaelic sports adorned some of the walls nearby and an Irish tricolour hung from one of the windows in the tower block.
There were around 20 people on the tour and we were greeted by our first guide; a stocky, bald-headed republican in his mid to late fifties from West Belfast. He had served 10 years in Long Kesh Prison (also known as the Maze) for offenses relating to the struggle for Irish independence. Presumably, this meant he was a member of the IRA or a similarly affiliated group. Now he works for a republican prisoners’ association.
The Falls Road
Our guide started off with a 20-minute talk giving a background to the troubles and outlining each side and what they were fighting for/against. There was a strong wind blowing down from the hills and across the city, making difficult to hear the guide at times, but thankfully the rain had held off.
We set off west along Divis Street, which then turns into the famous Falls Road; scene of so many street battles with protestants and the British army during the 30 years of the troubles. Now it looks like a normal road in any industrial city, save for the murals, memorials and large fences/walls separating the two communities.
The first large set of murals we came to were painted on the side of what looked to be an old factory. There were paintings celebrating figures from those the republicans sympathised such as Palestine, Cuba and so on. Other paintings depicted Irish prisoners, freedom fighters and martyrs throughout the years.
Bobby Sands Mural
A little farther on we came to the famous mural of Bobby Sands; the famous IRA hunger striker and member of Parliament who died from his protest on 5th May 1981. The building was home to Sinn Fein; the republican political party active in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Our guide also pointed out the large gates that were currently open letting traffic pass through the two communities, and informed us that these gates close every day at 7 pm and open again at 7 am the following morning, separating both communities at night.
Clonard Cathedral and Father Alec Reid
Next up we visited the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer (also known as Clonard Monastery) on Clonard Street which was part of Father Alec Reid’s diocese. Father Reid was instrumental in bringing about the peace process thanks to secret negotiations with both sides. He later went on to help broker peace in Spain’s Basque Country and other conflicts across the world.
Clonard Martyrs Memorial
After the church, we moved on to the Clonard Martyrs Memoria, a small red-bricked, gated enclosure and garden dedicated to the fallen volunteers of “C” Company, 2nd Battalion, Belfast Brigade of the IRA.
Our guide explained that these types of memorials are erected in public land and built without permission, knowing that the authorities will not do anything about it in an effort to maintain the peace.
We made our ay from Springfield Road onto Lanark Way which separates it from the loyalist Shankhill Road. Here we crossed through heavy mechanised iron and concrete gates that close each night as with the others. We learned that there had been some rioting and petrol bombs thrown at police at this exact spot the previous night (you can read the news report here).
Once through the gates, we met up with our second tour guide, a loyalist ex-prisoner from the Shankhill Road. Our republican guide exchanged pleasantries with our new guide and I managed to get a photograph of them standing together (with permission of course). I was going to jokingly suggest they give each other a kiss, but thought better of it!
From what I could gather, our new guide seemed to be a former member of the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group. He was decked out in blue and white sportswear with a mop of grey hair and a thick Ulster accent.
Belfast Mural Tours – The Peace Lines
We left the dividing gates on Lanark Way and made our way onto Cupar way, which runs adjacent to the peace lines. You can see three distinct sections; the concrete bottom, and then two metal mesh layers that were later added to stop petrol bombs and missiles from being hurled over.
The bottom section of the wall was covered in graffiti, a lot of which has been added by tourists.
The Shankhill Road
The guide led us through a housing estate and out onto the Shankhill Road. We passed houses decked out in Union Jack flags and poppies (it was close to remembrance Sunday) before coming to the Rangers Supporters Club, an outfit for fans of Glasgow Rangers Football Club.
Our guide told us that the previous day, a car with Irish number plates had been torched right outside the club and showed us pictures of the burned-out car from his phone. You can read the news story here.
The first loyalist mural we saw was a large painting on the gable end of a row of houses depicting five men carrying large, automatic weapons. The five men were all members of UVF – C COY from West Belfast.
Next, we visited the site of a former fish and chip shop that had been bombed by the IRA on 23rd October 1993. The blast killed ten people, including the bomber, a member of the UDA and eight protestant civilians, including two children.
IRA Victims Memorial
Our guide then explained that we would be visiting a memorial to the victims of the IRA and that behind the memorial was an enclosure with a lot of graphic photographs. The pictures displayed victims of various bomb blasts and so forth. He warned that the pictures were not for the faint of heart and that we were free to view or pass it by as we wished.
I didn’t notice anyone stay outside and everyone entered the area behind the memorial. As we had been warned, there were many graphic pictures detailing the devastating effects of IRA bombs.
There were also many news headlines and what can only be described as propaganda. One piece that sticks in my mind is a headline screaming “ISIS and IRA are No Different!” or something along those lines.
It was a stark contrast to the memorials across the fence and I can’t help but feeling it was not particularly respectful of the victims.
Walking back into central Belfast
The tour ends on the Shankhill Road and it’s a ten-minute walk back into the centre of Belfast.
I can highly recommend this as one of the best Belfast mural tours thanks to the unique perspectives given by each tour guide.
Whichever of the Belfast mural tours you choose, you will be sure to learn a lot about one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. However, as with places like Bosnia, Belfast and Northern Ireland, in general, are a great destination in and of themselves regardless of their troubled past.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.