With a Belfast firm winning plaudits from TripAdvisor, Niamh Campbell took a trip to see what all the fuss was about
Belfast is arguably best known for two things: the Troubles and the Titanic.
As a result, it has also become renowned for its tourism — a fact reflected by a taxi firm securing 17th spot in a TripAdvisor list of the world’s best experiences.
Cab Tours Belfast is the only entry from Northern Ireland to achieve the feat.
It scored higher than a snorkelling break in Dubrovnik, a three-day guided tour of Istanbul and a Puerto Rico river cruise.
The company was formed by Thomas Campbell and Isaac Swindell, both from north Belfast, in January 2017.
The business partners are from opposing sides of the sectarian divide, with one a Protestant and the other a Catholic.
TripAdvisor awards accolades based on the quality and quantity of reviews, and both Thomas and Isaac believe their approach to explaining Northern Ireland’s troubled history goes some way to explaining their popularity.
“The question I get asked the most when I’m taking people on tours is whether I’m a Protestant or a Catholic,” said Isaac.
“I tell them they can have a guess by the end of the tour.”
The second most asked question they hear is how to tell the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic.
Thomas often jokes that the L and R-plates seen on cars denote ‘loyalist’ and ‘republican’.
He believes that their recommendations for places to eat and visit also make them big hits with visitors.
When I joined the company for a tour on Friday morning, Isaac joked: “You’ve only got one problem on this tour today. If you see me running, you run in the opposite direction. It’s me they’re chasing, not you.”
The pair and the drivers they employ always refer to “we” and “our” when giving their tours.
Atrocities committed and suffered by both loyalist and republican communities are given equal time and empathy, and they are always described as “our communities”.
The tour starts at the “beginning of Protestant west Belfast”, with a stop on the corner of Gardiner Street.
“You’ll see your very first piece of artwork in the city — ‘Welcome to the Shankill Road’,” explained Isaac.
“There are lots of languages there saying ‘Welcome’ [20 in total], but there’s one language missing: Irish.”
At the mural of King William III, he continued: “1969 is when the modern-day Troubles broke out, but if you look at the gable wall on the left, you’ll see that our Troubles started a long time before 1969.
“The first and last murals you’re going to see today are the most important in our city.”
After an explanation of who King Billy was, tourists are invited to observe the ‘Respect, Remember, Resolution’ sculptures adjacent to the mural.
“Our attitudes and mindsets are changing, and so is our artwork,” Isaac said.
The project was created 11 years ago as part of an initiative led by the Lower Shankill Community Association. It replaced a previous sectarian mural that depicted Oliver Cromwell.
Also nearby is the Women’s Quilt, a relatively new piece designed by local women to reflect and represent their experiences. “It’s a patchwork quilt. Every patch inside it is going to have a different word that means something to them — respect, inspire, mum, sister, auntie,” Isaac said.
“But they had to put in two words for the men to make it civil — stubborn and loud.”
After being taken along the peace wall dividing the Falls and Shankill Roads, tourists are invited to jump out and sign it with messages of hope in the same way thousands did before them, including the Dalai Lama and ex-US President Bill Clinton.
The former wrote: “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”
This is precisely what the Cab Tours Belfast experience does. It is balanced, compassionate and informative about politics and the past while also looking towards the future.
Thomas said: “Our ‘unsinkable’ ship sank and we killed each other for years but at least we aren’t anymore.”
At the peace wall, Isaac described the events of August 14, 1969 — “the day the Troubles began” with riots between Dover Street and Divis Street that went on for days, resulting in 50,000 Catholics and Protestants being displaced from their homes
“The best way I can describe the city to a person visiting is that the centre is neutral. All the affluent areas are neutral,” he added.
“The working-class areas where I come from are predominantly Catholic or Protestant.
“If you look at our city from the air, we’re like a checkerboard, with black and white squares all dotted round the place.
“Where these squares meet in contentious areas, you’re going to get security gates or walls.”
Next, tourists are brought through the peace wall gates at Lanark Way, which often shocks visitors the most. “People are surprised when they see the peace wall, but they’re even more surprised when they find out the gates are still opening and closing every night, 24 years into the peace process” Isaac said.
After visiting Bombay Street, where Catholic families were burned out of their homes 53 years ago, travellers are taken to Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. Almost last up is the International Wall on Divis Street. Here, the murals change regularly but usually relate to republican history or revolutionary movements around the world.
It also currently has a painting dedicated to the Community Rescue Service that is sponsored by Cab Tours Belfast.
Isaac said: “On this tour, we talk about heroes and martyrs in both communities. These are living heroes. It’s a voluntary group of young men and women, Catholic and Protestant, who give up their spare time to go looking for [missing] people. More often than not, those people have committed suicide.
“Nearly 3,800 people were killed in the recurring conflict, but from 1998 and the signing of the peace agreement, up until Covid hit us, we’ve lost nearly 5,000 people to suicide.”
The last stop is the famous Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road. The 1981 hunger strike and Sands’ death and election as an MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone is explained in detail.
Cab Tours Belfast offers tours of the Giant’s Causeway, a combo package with Crumlin Road Gaol and shore excursions, but their black taxi mural tour is by far the most popular, with the majority of their customers coming from the Republic of Ireland.
Isaac said he loved seeing people delighted at how much the city has changed over the years, especially since many people, including guests from the Republic, would never have dreamed of visiting in the past.
He concluded: “This leaves me to say that this is the end the tour. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it.”