Though the nexus of the Troubles for 25 years, today West Belfast is as safe as anywhere else in the city to visit. However, there’s little of architectural note among the mainly residential streets and most of the “sights” are associated with the area’s troubled past. Much of the old terraced housing has been replaced in recent years by rows of modern estates, but it’s impossible to miss examples of the partisan mural paintings that decorate walls and gable ends in both Catholic and Protestant areas. Tourist information about the area is available from the West Belfast Tourist Information Point.
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From the city centre, Divis Street, a westward continuation of Castle Street, leads to the Falls Road, which heads on for a further two miles west past Milltown Cemetery and into Andersonstown. The first part of the Falls Road is known as the Lower Falls where most of the land to the left (south) consists of modern red-brick terraced housing estates. The right-hand side of the road is more of a hotchpotch and features some of the local landmarks: the bright blue swimming baths and the DSS (the Department of Social Security, known as “the Brew” – a corruption of “bureau”), cooped up in an awning of chicken-wire. Down Conway Street (by the DSS), stands the old Conway Mill, revitalized by a concerted community effort. Inside you can investigate the wares of the numerous small businesses and local artists who operate from here, as well as an art gallery and a small exhibition depicting the mill’s history. All the way along the Falls Road you’ll spot, blocking the ends of the streets to the right, walls of iron sheeting. These comprise the “Peace Line”, and directly behind them is the Protestant working-class district of Shankill.
Further west lie the red-brick and more recent buildings of the Royal Victoria Hospital, at the junction with Grosvenor Road. During the Troubles, the Royal, as it’s known locally, received international acclaim for its ability to cope with the consequences of the violence. Just beyond it, in a disused Presbyterian church at 216 Falls Rd, is the Cultúrlann MacAdam Ó Fiaich, a cultural centre for Irish-speakers, housing an extensive bookshop (also selling traditional-music CDs), an excellent café and a thriving theatre, often the host to musical events. Although you are unlikely to hear it being spoken on the streets or in most pubs, the Irish language is flourishing in Catholic areas of Belfast and throughout the North.
The Protestant population of West Belfast lives in the area abutting the Falls to the north, between the Shankill Road and the Crumlin Road. As with the Falls, there’s little here of special interest, apart from an array of Loyalist murals (some even including web addresses). Along the Crumlin Road, in particular, are a number of evocative sites symbolizing the worst years of the Troubles. From the Westway you’ll pass between the courthouse and the notorious Crumlin Road Gaol, the two connected by an underground tunnel; former inmates include Éamon de Valera, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley and it closed in 1996. The gaol is currently being refurbished with a view to reopening in 2011 with visitors’ tours and occasional cultural events planned. Despite many other obvious signs of redevelopment and renovation – the most apparent being the recently constructed leisure centre – the area is in decline, its population shrinking in inverse proportion to the Catholic population on the other side of the Peace Line.
The Troubles in West Belfast
The Troubles in West Belfast
The Troubles in West Belfast have their origins in the nineteenth century, when the city’s population expanded dramatically as people flocked from the countryside to work in the booming new flax and linen industries. Many of these migrants were crammed into jerry-built housing in the grids of streets which still today define this part of the city. Conditions were deplorable and did nothing to ease tensions between Catholic and Protestant residents. There were numerous sectarian riots – the worst was in 1886, during the reading of the Home Rule Bill, when 32 people died and over 370 were injured – leading to the almost inevitable definition of two separate neighbourhoods, as Protestant and Catholic families alike began to migrate to more secure surroundings.
In 1968 and 1969, this division was pushed to its limit when, across the city, sectarian mobs and gunmen evicted over eight thousand families from their homes, mainly in Catholic West Belfast. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC, called for government assistance, and British troops arrived on the streets on August 15, 1969. A month later the makeshift barrier dividing the Catholic Falls from the Protestant Shankill had become a full-scale reinforced “peace line”. British intervention may have averted a civil war, but it failed to prevent an escalation in sectarian conflict. Indeed, the army soon came to be viewed as an occupying force and a legitimate target for a reviving IRA, though local sympathies for its aims were much diminished by the 1972 Bloody Friday bombings. In return, Loyalist paramilitaries sought to avenge Republican violence, often through indiscriminate killings, such as the atrocities carried out by the Shankill Butchers in the 1970s, so called because they used butchers’ knives to first maim then murder their Catholic victims. These in turn sparked Republican “tit-for-tat” attacks against Loyalists and commenced a cycle which finally reached its nadir with the Shankill Road bombing, a botched attempt to blow up Loyalist paramilitary leaders supposedly meeting above a fish shop on the Shankill Road in 1993, which instead killed customers and the shop’s owner.
Over the next 25 years, West Belfast remained the major battleground of the Troubles. The busy Westlink motorway separates West Belfast from the rest of the city, and at the height of the conflict the various overhead bridges and roundabouts were used by the police and army as virtual border crossings to control access to and from the area.