Europe / Travel

Dead Center Tours Revisits Belfast’s Darkest Decades:

City Hall Belfast (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

True and Unbiased Accounts of the Troubles that will Haunt You Forever

Paul, Our Guide from Dead Center Tours (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Paul, Our Guide from Dead Center Tours (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Paul was four years old in 1972 when a business a few doors down from his family’s home in a volatile neighborhood of North Belfast was bombed. The tot slept through the sounds of the blast and the imploding glass. But what he clearly remembers is watching his father and uncle boarding up the windows and loading furniture into a truck as his parents and two siblings prepared to move to another part of Belfast. In 2018, Paul was our guide on the Dead Center Tours walk around Belfast’s city center called the “History of Terror Tour”.

“The house was repairable and inhabitable,” Paul recalled, “but the sanctity of our home had been violated. And what if something similar happened again? We might not be so lucky.” At that time, far too many families throughout Belfast shared this common concern on a daily basis.

The period of sectarian violence between 1971 and 1994 is known in Northern Ireland as “The Troubles”. Paul called it, “a human tragedy.” and after our two-and-a-half-hour tour, we would have been hard-pressed to disagree.

The History of Terror Tour began at Belfast City Hall. After a few pleasantries, Paul explained that the tour would cover the period between 1972 and 1975, the most violent years of the Troubles in Belfast. Before we set off to visit the locations of some of the most notorious and heartbreaking episodes of violence, Paul gave us a historical background to help us better understand how a modern Western European city had taken on the appearance of a Middle Eastern or Central American war zone for more than a quarter of a century.

History of Hate

Tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland go back hundreds of years. Episodes of violence came and went in cycles. But in 1921, Ireland was partitioned, creating the predominantly Catholic independent Republic of Ireland. while predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland remained with Britain. As time went by, however, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland became more and more dissatisfied. 

By the late 1960s, Catholics were regularly marching in protest of what they felt was blatant discrimination against them in employment and other aspects of daily life since 1921. Feeling like second class citizens, they demanded reforms. The protests reflected the Civil Rights movement taking place in the United States and the general unrest in Europe. On the surface, there was nothing unusual about yet another disgruntled group of citizens. Nothing that is until the situation began to turn deadly.

Republicans, Catholics who would evolve into the Provisional IRA, wanted to have no link with Britain and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic removed. The IRA killed hundreds of police officers. The force was predominately Protestant, and there was strong mistrust in the Catholic community. When Britain sent the army into Northern Ireland in 1969, the Catholic community welcomed them, believing they would be neutral. But in the end, the IRA killed hundreds of British soldiers as well.

The violence escalated when the IRA mounted a bombing campaign aimed at businesses, bars and restaurants. Buildings were heavily damaged, but a warning was usually called in, which allowed time for the targeted area to be evacuated. By creating so much economic disruption, the IRA hoped the British would say to Ireland, “You want it? Claim it under your constitution and you can have it.” But as we all know, it didn’t work out that way.

At the same time, the Protestant Loyalists were afraid if Northern Ireland became part of the Republic, they would be swallowed up in a Catholic country and, for the first time, become a small minority. The radical Loyalists claimed they were at war against the IRA, but gangs and extremists regularly targeted and killed Catholic civilians.

The Tour

Since 2013, Dead Center Tours has been making it possible for visitors to learn about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The company’s aim is to explain Belfast’s conflicted history and how it still affects daily life.

The History of Terror Tour consists of a moderately paced two mile walk from City Hall to the waterfront area. On the day of our tour, we saw lots of activity around City Hall. Paul noted that this casual enjoyment of a weekend afternoon showed how much life in Belfast had changed since the Troubles.

In 1972, 496 people were killed in Belfast alone, and 2,000 bombs spread terror and destruction across Northern Ireland. Paul brought us back in time with him, showing us life during the Troubles through the eyes of someone who lived through them. He shared his first-hand accounts of how it was: “Doing the most mundane things – shopping, going to work – we had to go through barriers to do those things for a long period of time.” Some survival behaviors adopted by the population during the conflict are still in evidence today even after nearly 20 years of peace.

Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The History of Terror Tour isn’t your typical sightseeing stroll, As we walked, Paul pointed out buildings and sculptures including the Albert Memorial Clock. “It’s a combination of Big Ben and the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Paul described. “It sits in the heart of Belfast, with a river running underneath. The clock will never stand totally upright.“

As a college student in Canada, I saw the news reports of the bombings, murders and destruction taking place in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. I understood that there was bitter hatred between the Catholics and Protestants, but that was all I understood at the time. And here Paul and Dead Center Tours were giving me the opportunity to push aside the sensational headlines of the 1970s and begin to understand the devastating social, economic and human impact of the Troubles.

The tour was an exploration of one of the darkest periods in modern history. What occurred during this time saddened me beyond belief. But I came away with a deep appreciation of the effort that went into the reconciliation that led to the rebirth of Belfast. 

Terror, Tears and Trauma

The sharp uptick in violence began on January 30, 1972 in Londonderry. On the day that would go down in history as Bloody Sunday, 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators were killed and 17 wounded by British soldiers. As the world watched in horror, protests and violence increased exponentially, as did the presence of British troops.

What spawned the Londonderry protest in the first place? It was the British government’s “internment without trial”, which had been instituted the previous August. This was a piece of emergency legislation allowing the authorities to take people off the streets and imprison them without recourse.

IRA retaliation for the Londonderry killings may not have been swift, but it was brutally effective. Less than six months later, on July 21, 20 bombs exploded simultaneously in Belfast. Bloody Friday, as it came to be known, took the lives of nine, injured hundreds and traumatized thousands more.

In response, Britain sent in twice as many troops along with tanks. The Troubles were marked by each side trying to make the other back down, but in truth, just the opposite occurred.

Paul shepherded us from one site of violence to another. The original buildings where bombs exploded and people died are no longer standing. New structures and a vibrant atmosphere now take their place in most areas of the city, but in Belfast’s Dead Center, everything still looks dead. “Where is everybody,” is a common question asked by tourists. All the shops, movie theaters and restaurants from the 60s, along with the crowds that came with them, are gone, replaced by punks on skateboards.

Paul spoke of the fine hotel where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones once stayed. It had been commandeered by the British army who erected concrete barriers with soldiers looking at passersby through rifle sights. “These abnormalities became the norm,” Paul informed us.

We visited the site of a nightclub bombing where one IRA bomber was shot down by police, an 18-year-old female IRA member paralyzed for life by another police bullet and 400 civilians traumatized. “And this was just one small incident,” Paul said. We were soon to hear the dreadful stories of many more.

The Cornmarket, Also Known as Arthur Square and the Spirit of Belfast Sculpture (Affectionately Known as the Onion Rings) Close to the Location of the Abercorn Bar - the Site of a Fatal Bombing in March 1972 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Cornmarket, Also Known as Arthur Square and the Spirit of Belfast Sculpture (Affectionately Known as the Onion Rings) Close to the Location of the Abercorn Bar – the Site of a Fatal Bombing in March 1972 (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

On July 18, 1972, a Ring of Steel surrounded Belfast City Center, complete with roadblocks and searches. Paul showed us photos of women having bags and strollers searched. And you think having to deal with airport security is bad?

The murder of three young British soldiers by the IRA may have been the proverbial straw that gave rise to violent Protestant gangs. Their style of killing was particularly brutal and led to the torture and murder of many Catholic civilians.

And so the violence escalated. By 1975, however, the incidents began to decline. Perhaps it was the common ground established by punk rock that brought young Protestants and Catholics together. But whatever it was that opened a dialogue, the seeds of peace were finally being sown. As our tour continued, however, we learned how fragile those seeds were and how long it would be before they finally took root.

Far too quickly we reached the River Lagan where our tour ended. This had been the sight of the Bloody Friday bombings. The area, once rundown and deserted, has been transformed into a green and open space where people are free to stroll, congregate and enjoy a carefreeness unimaginable in the not-too-distant past.

Our Guide

Paul, is tall, bald and one of the most articulate and effective tour guides we’ve ever known. With his deep, calm voice, he drew us into the tragic events and individual suffering of Belfast’s citizens during the height of the violence.

A teacher of Irish history by profession, Paul’s transition to mediator and international tour guide was a natural. He worked in adult and community education for 20 years. His experience in conflict resolution led Paul to become active as a coordinator and facilitator in interfaith peace-building projects.

Ten years ago, Paul became a key facilitator in face-to-face dialogue involving former loyalist and republican prisoners. He also worked in projects designed to bring education, understanding and perhaps some form of closure to groups of victims and survivors of the Troubles.

“I saw real progress”, Paul said, “as communication and friendships developed between people who for two-and-a-half decades would have killed each other. That’s a real barometer of progress.”

Paul has been leading Dead center Tours for the last 4 years. During this time, he has earned several prestigious awards. Paul’s History of Terror Tour was named Tour of the Year in Belfast by the Luxury Travel Guide.

Throughout the tour, Paul emphasizes the heavy toll the Troubles took on the lives of everyday people in Belfast. And the scars left by those years are still deep and fresh. When people suggest those times must have been exciting, Paul counters with, “imagine your father goes to the pub and comes out in a body bag. There’s nothing exciting about that.”

Hope and Reconciliation

Although the peace treaty ending the violence in Northern Ireland was signed in 1998, the process leading to that point was a long and complicated one. As far back as the mid-80s, British and Irish governments whose relationship was frigid, to say the least, began to work closely to put aside “Peace Moneys” designated for rebuilding, education, restoration of the economy and reconciliation projects in a future post-war Northern Ireland. With support and assistance from the EU, £14 billion was accumulated.

For two decades, no common ground could be established between the warring factions. But with the establishment of the 1994 cease-fire people began speaking more freely to each other, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, began to gain traction. Both the EU and the United States were instrumental in helping bring the long-awaited peace to war-ravaged Northern Ireland. On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Accord finally made it possible for Northern Ireland and her people to begin the long, slow journey out of the destruction and human misery of the Troubles.

“We’ve come a long way,” Paul noted, “but there is still much to do.” In winter the wind blowing off the river can be ice cold, but Paul said, “I would rather be standing here in the cold today than on a beautiful summer’s day in July 1972.”

In answer to my question regarding how the Troubles was being taught in the schools, Paul responded, “It isn’t. It’s still too soon.”

In the center of Thanksgiving Square, you will see the statue of a woman standing on a globe with a large ring encircling her. This is officially known as Beacon of Hope.

However, the citizens of Belfast prefer to call it “Thing with a Ring”, “Doll on the Ball”, “Lula with the Hula” or “Janet on the Planet”. This is a small sample of the dark and irreverent humor that most likely helped the residents of Belfast cope with the tragedies unfolding around them.

Final Thoughts

The History of Terror Tour will take you back to the darkest and deadliest years in Belfast’s recent history. But along with the horror, revulsion and sadness it will evoke, you will gain a deep respect and appreciation for the continuous reconciliation and regeneration now taking place in Belfast.

Listening to the words of someone who survived the Troubles and yet managed to remain professional and unbiased was an experience I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Belfast. We had no idea if Paul was Catholic or Protestant until the end of the tour. And, no, I won’t tell. You’ll just have to take the History of Terror tour yourself, and when you do, you will learn far more than that.

Have you taken a tour that has touched you emotionally while giving you perspective on a dark period in history? Please drop us a line in the comments and share your experience.

If You Go

Dead Center Tours

Email: cu@deadcentretours.com

Phone: +447716949460

https://deadcentretours.com/

The History of Terror Tour is offered daily Sunday – Friday, 10:30 am and Saturdays, 2:00 pm.

The 2018 cost per person is £15 and is restricted to individuals over 12 years of age.

The tour is on relatively flat terrain, with no stairs involved and, as such, would be accessible by wheelchair.

Tours for school groups, universities and private tours can also be arranged.

Along with the History of Terror Tour, Dead Center Tours offers a West Belfast Walking Tour and a Belfast City Church Tour

Disclaimer: Our heartfelt thanks go out to Mark Wylie and Dead Center Tours for generously hosting us for this unique experience. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

4 Comments

  • avatar image

    Jill

    Aug 30, 2018

    Reply

    Sad story Penny. It should be a lesson to everyone that we need to treat everyone with equality under the law. Lack of freedoms and individual liberties will eventually create resistance and violence until people see some justice. I see it happening all over the world, again and again. Hoping we don't wind up with it here in America, but seems we might be headed that way.

    • avatar image

      Penny Zibula

      Aug 30, 2018

      Reply

      Yes, Jill, those times were horrible. But throughout our tour, the stark difference between Paul's descriptions of the past and what we observed in most of the areas we visited held out the hope that the people of Northern Ireland had come away both better and wiser. Can the same be said for us? I don't know. The bad guys always seem to loom larger than life, but I still see a lot of good in the people I meet every day, we may just come through this with some bad bruises and scratches.

  • avatar image

    To Travel Too

    Jul 22, 2018

    Reply

    A terrible time in Belfast's history. So interesting to have a guide who lived through it and can remember.

    • avatar image

      Penny Zibula

      Jul 22, 2018

      Reply

      It was indeed a terrible time for all of Northern Ireland. There was no anger or blame in Paul's narrative, but his telling of what he saw, felt and lived through was more chilling than any historical tour I've ever taken. The world needs more people like Paul, who can survive those horrific times and use what he learned to teach others.

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