Joel is driving me through the notorious Shankill neighborhood where he grew up in Belfast—ground zero of the Protestant loyalist movement during “The Troubles“—when civil unrest wracked this city for three decades during the late 20th century. I didn’t know a lot about the conflict before coming here. I think many people in North America look at it as an anomaly, not really understanding what the IRA was all about or why the Irish were fighting themselves in the first place.
It becomes vividly clear after spending an hour with Joel, who is one of a handful of ex-political prisoners operating Black Taxi Tours. Gaining worldwide attention, the guided tours venture into the Shankill neighborhood and the Catholic area known as “The Falls,” located on the other side of the 45-foot-high “Peace Wall.”
Oversimplified, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until the Irish War of Independence in 1921. While the Irish Catholics seceded from Britain, Protestants loyal to the British in the far north maintained a majority. So the island was divided in two. About 4/5th of the land became the autonomous Republic of Ireland with its central government in Dublin. The other 1/5th remained sovereign British territory—Northern Ireland—governed by Protestants in Belfast. However, there were still a lot of Catholics living in Belfast, which is where the problem begins.
Following decades of uneasy coexistence in Belfast, the Catholic and Protestant communities erupted in violence in August 1969. Eventually the British army was called in to suppress the civil war. Realizing how unprepared they were for extended conflict, both sides established paramilitary groups including the infamous Irish Republican Army (IRA), who were determined to protect Catholic interests and unify Ireland. For the next 30 years, Belfast was basically a civilian militarized zone.
Joel says that peace was finally negotiated during the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today, the streets are safe and both sides of the wall are working toward building a more unified city.
“People want things to be normal and they’ve seen the benefit of it,” says Joel. “Over the last 10 years, some schools have been integrated. Everyone goes to clubs together; it’s really the younger ones who are coming together.”
As we drive around, Joel stops at the Peace Wall and large murals in Shankill paying homage to the men who perished from the neighborhood. We also stop at “The Garden” in the Clonard Catholic neighborhood directly on the other side of the Peace Wall. The memorial recognizes the Catholic “martyrs.”
I ask Joel, “Were you active during the Troubles?”
Joel looks at me for a second, wondering where I’m going with these questions. I’m curious only, as a journalist, to confirm the background of the guides leading these Black Taxi Tours. But I don’t want to pry too much because everything here in Shankill and the Falls seems personal and emotionally charged.
“I was born and raised here; I’ve lived here all of my life,” says Joel. “So I saw everything that happened every day in the Shankill. You couldn’t really not be a part of it.”
So I let it go at that. I think if I spent some more time with Joel and had a few pints, he might talk my ear off. Everyone here wants to share their side of the story.
During the tour, I’m with a middle aged Catholic lady who lives outside Dublin. We get to talking afterward and she says she is a little surprised about how Joel portrayed the history of the area.
I ask, “So was it that Joel’s story wasn’t accurate, or are there just a lot of different, individual histories here?”
“There’s a lot of different histories here,” she answers. “But you need to go on another tour with a Catholic driver.”