West Belfast - A Walk Through the Troubled History of Northern Ireland

  • 01 of 08

    A West Belfast Walking Tour - Madness?

    Northern Ireland In The Shadow Of The Peace Process
    Christopher Furlong/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    "You mean I am actually supposed to walk in a war zone?" Well, yes, of sorts - but times are a-changing.

    When I first walked the streets detailed below in the very early 1980s I would not have recommended the experience for the faint-hearted. Some kids took time out from talking to me to throw a few handy bricks at a passing police car. After getting a snack in a shop under the serene glance of Queen Elizabeth II a few concerned citizens asked me about my business in their neighbourhood with a bit more than a hint of madness in their eyes. And then there was the moment when I fumbled with my camera when an armoured car passed by, earning me the undivided attention of some British soldiers. One of which was pointing a deadly weapon at my head.

    Retracing my steps recently I realized just how much things had changed. Not only the scenery minus barricades, barbed wire and burnt-out cars in front of sub-standard housing. People too have changed and a stranger with a camera no longer causes a knee-jerk (or -capping) response. So let's go for a walk in West Belfast ...

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  • 02 of 08

    City Hall - Stepping Out

    Belfast's City Hall
    Belfast's City Hall. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    One thing that is amazing is how near to the city centre two of the main hotbeds of sectarian violence actually were. If not a stone's throw away, a sniper's bullet would make the distance. So we start our walk at Belfast's splendid City Hall in Donegall Square (yes, the double L is correct).

    The City Hall's front lawn borders on Donegall Square North and Donegall Place, one of the city center's shopping streets, leads northwards. Years ago there were checkpoints and searches when you wanted go this way - after an IRA car bomb exploded here in 1972 (killing seven and injuring 150) this became necessary.

    Follow Donegall Place until Castle Street branches off to the left. In Castle Street you will maybe notice subtle signs that you are entering a nationalist area - like a takeaway seemingly catering for Celtic Glasgow fans.

    Soon you will reach a gigantic crossing, which will take you over the Westlink towards Divis Street.

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  • 03 of 08

    Crossing the Westlink Motorway Towards Divis Street

    Divis Tower, West Belfast
    Divis Tower, West Belfast. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    The landmark Divis Tower is on your left as you cross the intersection - dwarfing everything in sight. A monument to a failed experiment. The Tower and the once nearby Divis Flats were designed to provide low-cost housing for families. While the housing was low-cost, it also was of low quality and in effect a modern Catholic ghetto was created, a cauldron of unrest. Now only the Divis Tower remains while more sensible housing has been erected in the vicinity.

    The seventh victim of the "Troubles" was killed in the Divis Tower - lying in his bed, Patrick Rooney was instantly killed when hit by heavy machine-gun fire from a police armored car. He was nine years old when he died on August 14th, 1969.

    Follow Divis Street and the "Garden of Remembrance" is soon on you left. This is a Republican monument to various dead of the "Troubles" - members of the IRA in active service, former members, Sinn Fein members and civilians from the Falls area. A memorial to and for a close-knit community.

    From here we soon turn left, for a detour to take in Saint Peter's Cathedral.

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  • 04 of 08

    Saint Peter's Cathedral

    The Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Belfast
    The Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Belfast. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    "The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter" serves the dioceses of Down and Connor, which intersect in Belfast. Built between 1860 and 1866, its twin spires were not finished until 1885 - ever since then it has been a landmark hard to miss when approaching Belfast from the Southwest.

    Upon closer examination the imposing cathedral seen from the motorway loses some splendor. Situated in the middle of a housing district it does not present a good view. And while its exterior has been called "not especially remarkable", its interior has een rated as being less than "strikingly beautiful".

    This landmark building of West Belfast may be best described as a working-class cathedral in a working-class area, a "citadel of prayer and faith in an otherwise depressing neighbourhood" (all quotes from Peter Galloway's "The Cathedrals of Ireland").

    Pay a visit St. Peter's while exploring West Belfast ... then continue towards Dunville Park.

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  • 05 of 08

    Towards Dunville Park and Back

    Sinn Fein Offices in West Belfast
    Sinn Fein Offices in West Belfast. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    On leaving Saint Peter's, turn right and then left again on the main road, heading towards the Royal Hospitals and Dunville Park. You will notice many murals now - depicting everything from fairy tale creatures to assorted struggles of the oppressed. An inconsistent mix at best of times, Palestinian youths becoming fellow travellers with Basque separatists and Fidel Castro. It is a very simplistic view of the world that you’ll notice in many parts of Belfast - black and white, them and us. Lacking, at the same time, definition and shades of grey.

    Once you have reached Dunville Park you can think about turning back. At the crossing next to the Royal Hospitals look westwards first, across Dunville Park - you will see the massive cranes "Samson" and "Goliath" of Harland & Wulff dominating the skyline. Within sight of the Catholic community big ships like the "Titanic" were built, bringing pride and wealth to Belfast. Well, at least to parts of Belfast ... it was an unwritten policy not to hire Catholics in the shipyards.

    On this sobering thought let us begin backtracking down Falls Road. On the left side of the road you’ll notice the Sinn Fein offices with the massive mural of Bobby Sands. The old Carnegie Library nearby is one of the few remarkable old buildings in the area.

    And if you look into the streets branching off to the left you will realize that many were designed as through roads ... but are now dead ends. This is "the divide" you are about to cross ...

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  • 06 of 08

    Townsend Street - Crossing the Divide

    Peaceline in West Belfast
    Peaceline in West Belfast. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    After you pass the Divis Tower, you will see a small business estate on the left and Townsend Street, running parallel to the Westlink. Turn left here and follow the road through the massive steel barrier that these days is open most days. The first building on your left is a Presbyterian church. From Catholic to Protestant area in a second. With a stout wall (dubbed somehow optimistically a "peace line") to interrupt contact in times of need.

    The not-very enchanting view across some wasteland further on will bring you face to face with a massive mural honoring B Company ... the outfit that brought us the appropriately nicknamed Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair. Who fled Northern Ireland when his own community threatened to relieve him of command by terminating him with extreme prejudice.

    Not the only example of the wrong assumption that the "Troubles" were a total "Them v Us" scenario, being "Brother against Brother" many times. It was nearby that in 1969 (Protestant) Police Constable Victor Arbuckle became the first RUC officer to be killed in the "Troubles" - shot dead by members of the Loyalist and Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

    Further evidence of this madness awaits you in the Unionist heartland off Shankill Road.

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  • 07 of 08

    The Shankill Area - Unionist Heartland

    Memorial to a Fallen Loyalist Comrade
    Memorial to a Fallen Loyalist Comrade. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Cross the road near the Gospel Hall and follow Shankill Parade. At the end of this short road you will have a stunning view of an unremarkable green bordered by some remarkable murals.

    Remarkable in many ways - witness the mural honoring Oliver Cromwell, who made ethnic cleansing a brief and brutal fashion in Ireland. The quote attributed to him on the mural states that there would be no peace in Ireland until Catholicism was eradicated. Winning hearts and minds was not high on his agenda.

    Other murals honor the Loyalist dead, paramilitaries sporting often grandiose ranks and not prone to passing away peacefully in their sleep. Sometimes the cause of death is given in a blunt manner, like "Murdered by the UVF" - another example of Loyalist feuds.

    Just a few years lingering here as a stranger, let alone taking photos, would have earned you the brief but close acquaintance with an ad-hoc vigilante committee. These days people are more likely to point out the shortest way to their favorite mural to you. It is, however, still advisable to ask permission if you want to photograph anything but the murals and the area in general - close-ups of people or private residences are often frowned upon.

    After you have taken your pictures, it is time to return to the "neutral" city center.

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  • 08 of 08

    Into the City Center

    Castlecourt Shopping Centre in Belfast
    Castlecourt Shopping Centre in Belfast. © 2008 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Once you have rejoined the main road near the KFC, follow Peter's Hill across the Westlink and back towards the city centre. Soon you will reach Royal Avenue (on your right), which is part of Belfast's shopping district.

    Follow the Royal Qvenue and you’ll notice the entrance to the Castle Court shopping center on your right - in which a large food court offers some refreshments.