Painting a future

Tim Richards hops into a cab for a dramatic tour of Belfast's chequered history.

On the side of a Belfast housing block is a vast painting of sailing ships with decorative prows, approaching a shore. On a rock above the beach is a severed, bleeding hand.

As the story goes, this mythical red hand was cut off and thrown to the shore by the mythical Labraid to win a boat race and become monarch of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ulster.

Ever since then the Red Hand has been an emblem of the north, in this case appearing in a Protestant neighbourhood of Northern Ireland's capital.

There are many such murals across the small city. Once they were symbols of the bitter divisions between Protestants and Catholics during the Troubles. Some still reflect those times but, since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, new, more inclusive scenes have been painted alongside the old ones.

Realising that visitors were intrigued by the paintings, local taxi driver Billy Scott and some of his colleagues set up black cab tours that visit both sides of the old divide.

"People are naturally inquisitive; it's understandable," he says. "They want to know, to be better informed. We try to explain it, tell them the history. The origins of conflict, the mechanisms of conflict and hopefully the resolution of conflict."

Brightly coloured paintings pop up on the ends of numerous buildings as we drive around the Protestant estates. One depicts the 19th-century American president Andrew Jackson, a man with local roots. Others show British rulers King William III on horseback, and Oliver Cromwell with sword at the ready.

Further on, a mural dedicated to the memory of a slain paramilitary commander dramatically contrasts with a nearby mural depicting children looking to the future as they paint pictures of a distant castle. Signage explains that this new work was erected with the support of the local community.

Then we reach the ironically named "Peace Wall", a metal barrier built to separate neighbouring Protestant and Catholic communities. In recent years it's become a drawcard for international visitors to the city, who leave behind messages of goodwill. Scott hands me a marker pen and I add my own.

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We drive on to the Catholic side of the wall, visiting a memorial garden dedicated to victims of the turmoil. Beyond that are more murals, this time referencing the hunger strikes of the Thatcher era.

It's been a dramatic journey through the darkest days of Belfast, a city that has tried hard to move on. I'm told the Cathedral Quarter, where we have lunch,was empty at night in the old days. Now it's a lively zone of bars, pubs and restaurants.

As we sit in the  John Hewitt pub, sipping Guinness and eating sausages, I ask Scott if he's optimistic about Belfast's future.

"Very much," he says. "Too many people here are too invested to let it go back to what it was. The future is within sight."

THE FACTS

TOUR To book the Black Cab Political Tour ($45), see touringaroundbelfast.com.
FLY United (131 777, united.com) flies from Melbourne to Belfast from $2050 economy return.
STAY Malmaison Hotel, 34 Victoria Street, malmaison.com.
Benedicts Hotel, 7 Bradbury Place, benedictshotel.co.uk.
EAT The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street, thejohnhewitt.com.
Deanes Restaurant, 36 Howard Street, michaeldeane.co.uk.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

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