Whether you walk West Belfast on your own or find yourself on a guided tour, don’t leave Northern Ireland without a visit to the Peace Wall. With almost 500,000 annual visitors, the Peace Wall remains one of Belfast’s most popular and historically significant sites, separating the conflict-ridden Falls and Shankill Road neighbourhoods.
When the infamous conflicts known as “The Troubles” began in 1969, Belfast quickly erected a set of peace walls to separate the Catholic and Protestant districts of the city. The idea behind the imposing physical barriers was to minimise violence between the Catholic nationalists who identified as Irish and the Protestant unionists who identified as British, and was intended for only temporary existence. However, the walls proved so effective they began to grow in both size and permanence.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the long-awaited removal of the walls became a serious topic for discussion. Five years later, in May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive finally committed to the removal of the walls.
Hearing about the tumultuous history of Northern Ireland through secondary sources is nothing in comparison to witnessing it first-hand. An inspiring tour along the Peace Wall of West Belfast helps visitors gain insight into the area’s past through an emotional and visually stunning experience. Expert tour guides will introduce you to the historical impact made by these walls in such a deeply divided city.
What to see
The vibrant painted murals and graffiti on both sides of the Wall draw almost half a million visitors to West Belfast each year. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland promotes and funds much of the public artwork through its “Building Peace through the Arts: Re-Imagining Communities” program. This initiative aims to put an end to sectarianism and racism through the development of public art displays.
Also popular is the nearby “International Wall” showcasing political and environmental issues along with world-famous figures. Here, a mural based on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, having been painted by two artists, one Protestant and one Catholic, is a visitor favourite and proves that civil collaborations between conflicting groups is possible.
The surreal feelings these murals deliver are mirrored in the messages of peace and hope left by visitors from all over the world. Leave your own message of harmony alongside those of the Dalai Lama and former United States President Bill Clinton.
Found along the Peace Wall are a number of gates that, still today, remain open only for a short part of the day. These gates make it possible for visitors to explore both the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas on either side.
West Belfast’s political and religious murals are a major part of the area’s “conflict tourism” but shouldn’t overshadow the purpose of the Peace Wall itself. The walls that were once built to prevent the ever-present spontaneously erupting violence still stand not only as a symbol of Belfast’s divided culture, but also for the security of those who still harbour fear. Photograph the moving artwork, leave your own signature and messages of peace, and walk through the sporadically open gates that, in less than a decade, may no longer exist.