Belfast and Black Taxis: Discerning Contested Pasts Through Art and Mobility

A classic, London-style black taxi rolled up directly in front of our hostel. Its driver, a thin grey-haired man with slumped shoulders stepped out, taking one last drag of his cigarette. He introduced himself to us as Patrick—or Paddy for short, our tour guide. For the next two hours or so, he took us through the suburbs of Greater Belfast and its murals connecting the city to its recent past.

It was the second last day of me and my cousin Christine’s six-day trip to Ireland on an April Spring Break while studying abroad in England. The Black Taxi Tour was certainly going to be a drastic mood change after a night of Irish-style drinking and dancing with fellow travelers. By this point, we’ve had our fair share of ruins, cathedrals and churches, and I started to feel “castled out.” This and the Giant’s Causeway were two big reasons why we chose to visit Belfast. We were about to learn an important story about a city still healing from its wounds – and experience it through mobility, art, and symbolism.

Christine and I climbed into the back seat of the cab, which had two long benches facing each other, divided from the driver’s seat by a pane of glass. We were still parked in front of the hostel when Paddy sat across from us in the back and began his story.

“The Troubles,” was a thirty-year conflict between two ethnic and national identities, two religious denominations, and two stark visions of Northern Ireland’s future. The Unionists, who held control over the country for several years, intended on remaining within the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the Catholic Republicans sought to break free and join Ireland. Political debate deteriorated into violence, claiming the lives of over 3,000 citizens. The Good Friday Agreement in 1996 reinstated self-government with an arrangement between the two dominant parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin- but not without unresolved matters.¹ Today, a series of walls, or “Peace Lines” divide the city, with the gates open by day and closed by night.

Paddy gave us a preview of what we were going to see.

“First,” he said, “I’ll be taking you through the Republican stronghold of Falls Road, then through the other side of the wall, to Shankhill Road.”

He opened the door to move towards the driver’s seat, but not before casually adding, “And then get us all shot…I mean…back into the city,” leaving us laughing uncomfortably at his morbid sense of humour.

As Paddy’s black cab whirled through the city streets into West Belfast, he told us about the early 1970s, when life in Belfast for him was riddled with anxiety, uncertainty, and eventually tragedy. With a young family, he left the city amidst confusion about their future.

“Just started a family, was ‘round 1971. My family and I, well we were just leaving Belfast,” he said, “But one day I got a call. Found out a bomb, put there by the Loyalists blew up a bar one night, an’ killed my brother.”

Once he told us this, he slowed down the taxi and gestured to the left side of the street. Where the bombing site once was, now stood apartments and storefronts. But he chose not to stop and drove away.

We arrived at Falls Road and joined the line of fellow taxis. In the meantime, Paddy explained to us the purpose behind these cars. They used to be carriers of the West Belfast Taxi Service, a ride-sharing operation where fellow nationalists, yet strangers, would sit and face one another before hopping off at their destination. It was like a mix between Uber and your local taxi and bus services. Of course, what side you were on determined your eligibility to ride.

Paddy let us out here, and we were looking at murals spanning over multiple blocks along Falls Road. They glowed with glaring political imagery, such as one in bold, black lettering engraved, “END BRITISH INTERNMENT OF IRISH REPUBLICANS 2014” displaying hands clutching bars of a jail cell. A montage of galvanizing statements shrouds one portion of the wall alongside faces of familiar activists, like the infamous Che Guevara silhouette, as well as hands forming peace signs.

The murals’ activist qualities demonstrate a crucial part of Republican self-identity -victimhood, revolution, and resilience to tyranny. One, in particular, was a tribute to the women who marched to protest a curfew instigated by the British Army in July 1970. A slogan on the top read “OPPRESSION BREEDS RESISTANCE” followed by “RESISTANCE BRINGS FREEDOM” at the bottom, with paintings of barbed wire tracing the borders.

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Murals of Falls Road

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Paddy then led us to the street corner. Staring down at us was a man with bright blue eyes, reddish-gold hair, and a beard. His name was Kieran Nugent, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) revolutionary, prisoner, and “The first blanketman”, according to the words on top. Paddy told us that “blanketman” meant refusing to wear his prison clothing unless it was “nailed to his back”, thus instigating a “blanket” and a “no-wash” protest in Maze prison during the mid-1970s. ² 

But perhaps the most popular one of Falls Road beside Sinn Féin headquarters was the face of Bobby Sands. He was a young man with long brown hair and a glowing smile. White lettering at the bottom read, “Bobby Sands, MP: Poet, Gaeilgeoir,³ Revolutionary, IRA Volunteer.” Like Nugent, Sands was an activist and political prisoner, but the first to die of a hunger strike in 1981 after years of solitary confinement.³ Many Republicans looked up to him as a martyr, through his steadfast spirit amidst hardship and physical deterioration.

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Bobby Sands

Sands’ memorial was our final stop on Falls Road, and Paddy led us back into the taxi. Our final stop was Bombay Street, before crossing to the other side. It resembled a typical suburban side street upon first glance – quiet, with long row houses aligned with chimneys on top. But towering over them, was a seven-metre high wall, made of both iron and caged steel. No child could even kick a soccer ball over it.

Paddy let us out in front of the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden on the street corner, which was actually a commemorative space enclosed with red bricks and an Irish crozier and flag in the middle. Sprawled from left to right was a plaque listing names of deceased men and women of this neighbourhood, from the Easter Rising of 1916 until about 1980.  

“Bombay Street was infamous,” Paddy said, “From the riots of August 1969, this entire street was burnt to the ground by Loyalists. In the middle of the night, families—women, children—perished in their homes.”

He pointed with his cigarette to a mural splayed across the side of a row house on the right, a visual reproduction of what happened nearly fifty years ago. In black and white, was the face of a 15-year-old boy named Gerald McAuley who died that night, beaming down at us. Directly above, read in capital letters: “BOMBAY STREET, NEVER AGAIN.”

“‘Never again’ they said,” echoed Paddy, “‘Never again will you let this happen. Never again will you leave us undefended.’”

The emotional resonance of memorializing Bombay Street mixed with present-day stillness was enough to unsettle any visitor. I began to consider my role as a tourist and outsider, separated by time – observing through sites of memory. The Memorial’s purpose served to educate others, immortalize names of the dead never to be forgotten. It taught us to see Bombay Street as it is now, as it should have been in 1969, and their deaths were not for nothing. Yet at the same time, this wall – this Peace Line – still looms above, like an elephant in the room.

It was time for us to cross to the other side. Paddy veered the taxi to the right and pulled over near the curb. Here, we could see the wall trail endlessly in both directions. A canvas of graffiti-covered almost the entire bottom half. In this section, we saw an odd mix of 3D style “tags” in block lettering with people’s names and peace signs scribbled in pen and spray paint. Sadly, we had no pen available to contribute. Paddy mused about the day in which Belfast might have its “Berlin Wall” moment.

“One day,” he said assuredly, “That wall will come down. Give it twenty years or so. It’ll come down. I know it.”

I hoped that he is right – mostly right. Perhaps someday, only fragments will exist solely for pedagogical reasons, thus stripping all of its segregational purposes.

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The other side of the wall

Our next stop was Shankhill Road. Like Falls Road was for Republicans, we were entering the nucleus of Unionist territory. As Paddy drove along, I sensed a completely different tone and atmosphere, in such a short distance. Even right down to Shankhill’s physical layout from the shops and houses contrasted its counterparts in many ways. The suburbs resembled the outskirts of Greater London, with smaller townhouses of red and white. Shankhill itself had qualities akin to its home country – with bright storefront shutters and Union Jacks flying on every street corner.

Unionist murals were mainly declarations of patriotism and sovereignty, laden with overt militaristic symbolism. Often they were First and Second World War memorials, or tributes to Queen Elizabeth II and members of the Ulster Fighting Force. We didn’t go about two blocks without seeing images of armed men clad in black and camouflage, with the red hand of Ulster forming the shape of a fist. Shankhill’s territorial nature was enough to make any visitor feel like a trespasser.

Paddy stopped the cab and let us out, gesturing us toward the side of the house.

“See this man up here with the mask? Look at his gun, look at the barrel.”

Christine and I were face-to-face with a soldier in a balaclava pointing an assault rifle directly at our heads, his eyes squinting behind the holes of his mask. He was simply labeled below as a “U.F.F. Member.”

Paddy beckoned us forward.

“Don’t take your eyes off that gun,” he said.

As we crossed to the other side of the house, the barrel was still pointing at the same target—our heads.

“A common message here, and a little friendly reminder to all those who cross ‘em,” said Paddy, “No matter where you are, they’re watchin’ you.”

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Always watching you

The last mural was a memorial to a man named Stevie McKeag of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who died in 2000.  His appearance was certainly no Bobby Sands. In the picture, he had a stony expression with a five-o’clock shadow on his face, wearing a ball-cap worn backward and a chain necklace. His tough persona was likely intended to match his nickname “Top Gun,” inscribed in bold lettering.

We learned, however, that despite its canonizing nature, this mural is riddled with controversy. Throughout the 1990s, McKeag was one of the highest-profile assassins in Belfast. A notorious man who led UDA’s ‘C’ Company, he was responsible for the deaths of about a dozen Catholic citizens. He spearheaded a violent paramilitary cult that terrorized the Falls Road community, yet he still remains lauded as a hero among the younger members – many from ‘C’ Company.⁴

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Memorial to Stevie McKeag

Naturally, I was baffled at the thought of eulogizing men like McKeag, especially in a city still bearing the weight of trauma on its back. But despite my obvious reaction, my historian side made me question the relationship between conflict and youth self-identity. How did young Belfastians orient themselves within a community plagued by violence? Circumstances such as this may have easily incited a clan-style mentality under the guise of “camaraderie”, influenced by powerful individuals. Perhaps this is a common side effect of conflict – leadership cults fueled by the desire to belong to a particular group and hatred of the other. Evidence of this on both sides from the IRA to the UFF demonstrates the very slow and difficult transition to peace. But it is much more perplexing than “one versus the other”, and the story itself is so complex and deep-rooted in history to easily understand. I was still left wondering why “Top Gun” McKeag had his own mural on the side of someone’s house.

It was time to wrap up the tour, and Paddy began making his way back into the city to drop us off. He concluded his story with a mixture of optimism and ambiguity. I wondered if, at certain times, he could detect uneasiness or negative thoughts from what we have heard and seen throughout the tour. If so, this may have prompted him to assure us of Belfast’s exceptional safety record for tourists.

“An’ don’t worry, we only shoot each other,” he said bluntly as if there was no other way to conclude a sensitive topic than with a smidge of dark humour.

A year later, Christine shared with me a short documentary film about what we had seen. About a few minutes into watching it, I saw Paddy. As usual, he was driving his little black taxi throughout Belfast, talking to the film crew in the backseat, who sat exactly where Christine and I once did last April. He guided viewers to the same murals we saw, but this time he made a special detour. I watched him as he walked away from his cab and stood in front of the very spot where his brother died. As he stopped at the street corner, his gruff, sarcastic exterior broke down. I never thought until that moment that he too, like thousands of others, grapple with pain and loss and searching for a means to channel personal tragedy into something meaningful. Perhaps teaching others is his way of honouring his brother’s memory.

It also made me think about the messiness of it all, by mixing personal testimony with competing commemorations. According to public historian Thomas Cauvin, “The use and selection of the past according to ethnic identity resulted in the celebration of some events and the oblivion of others.” I saw how the Irish Republicans, through murals, actively chose to commemorate victims of Unionist violence and imprisonment, obviously hiding actions of their own, while the Unionists celebrated its deep sovereign roots and military power. Historical objectivity is nearly impossible, and thus Cauvin argues for the importance of local community initiatives to open up a space for witnesses on both sides to interact with one another, in a way that avoids refueling strong group identities.⁵

Murals are significant learning objectives for outsiders like myself and Christine who are distanced by time and personal background. Belfast demonstrates how pain and trauma channeled into art form become sites of memory and contention. They are intrinsically a part of Belfast’s historical fabric and serve as constant visual cues for all as they move about their daily lives.

However, there is without a doubt that Paddy is one storyteller I will never forget, and it all began with a little black taxi.

*Notes:

¹ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles

²http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/blanket_no-wash_protests_maze

³’Gaeilgeoir in Irish simply means “Irish person” or “Irish speaker”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/oct/01/northernireland.henrymcdonald

⁵ Thomas Cauvin, “Public Historians and Conflicting Memories in Northern Ireland”

All pictures are taken by me.

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