Best in the UK... the Belfast tour guide who helps visitors (and locals) navigate our troubled past
A Belfast tour guide who walks visitors through the complex and contested history of the city during the Troubles has won a major UK award.
Paul Donnelly from DC Tours was recognised for the two-hour-and-15-minute guided strolls he offers.
The 50-year-old, who started the Belfast Troubles City Centre Walking Tour six years ago along with his friend Mark Wylie, said telling tourists and locals about his home city, past and present, is a labour of love.
"It's all a bit surreal," he told the Belfast Telegraph shortly after receiving the top UK prize at the Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2019 on Wednesday night.
"I never anticipated anything like this happening to me but it's very pleasant.
"DC Tours has won a number of awards but as an individual award this is pretty significant.
"It's fantastic to get such positive feedback for what we've been trying to do."
Not only has Paul wooed visitors with his easy charm on the walks through Belfast, which tell the story of the city from a civilian point of view, he caters for locals too - which he described as a "tough gig".
The tour guides use a photo file showing how things looked in the early 1970s and how much things have changed, from City Hall through to the Cathedral Quarter, which has evolved and been reborn as a hub for the nightlife in the centre.
TripAdvisor reviews for Paul, from Cregagh, reveal how he has managed to silence potential critics with his impartiality.
One recent entry praised the father-of-one for "an extremely clear narrative history, with a civilian perspective".
On that occasion the Queen's University Belfast graduate did not reveal his religion until the end of the tour - and, when asked to guess, most of the group got it wrong.
He added: "If people question me about my background I ask them to tell me what they think at the end of the tour but I don't put it out there as a Catholic-Protestant thing.
"If people raise it I'm absolutely happy to reveal my perceived colours at the end. I would never invite it but, equally, I never shy away from it if it's raised. That can be interesting."
For the past four years Paul, who previously worked in adult and community education, has been doing tours full time.
He said it has "got steadily busier" for a three-person team consisting of himself, Mark and another guide, Gabe Nelson.
"We're punching above our weight at this point," he said, adding that they take out between 20 and 30 people a day seven days a week.
"It's quite a heavy footfall. We're bringing several hundred people a week, even through the winter months.
"The demographic changes in that we're bringing through slightly fewer tourists but we also do a huge amount of work with schools and university groups as well as members of various European political parties."
Having lived through the Troubles, Paul said members of his family had been directly affected by them but added that he "doesn't like to talk about that, because it's our own personal stuff".
But, sharing a snippet about growing up, he said: "In childhood we lived in north Belfast and our house was bomb damaged and I have very vivid memories of my father and an uncle boarding up windows of the house as a four-year-old child."
Paul said "it's always a challenge" to deliver tours impartially but added that his "background working in community education" across Belfast has given him "a tool box that I can bring to the tours".
In terms of Belfast people being his toughest gig, Paul said their view speaks volumes.
"They're closer to the coal face so when their reaction is positive - and it is overwhelmingly positive - it carries an even greater amount of authority," he said.
"This isn't just a wee day out for them.
"It is very real to them so when they respond positively it makes you feel as though you've done something very valuable because local people's opinion carries weight."
Asked what is next on the agenda, he replied: "Being out in the wind and rain, doing the nitty-gritty, walking round Belfast with another tour group."