Murals and Museums: Dark Tourism in Belfast

Dark Tourism

Updated On: May 07, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

After a period of difficulty in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles, ‘ Belfast has slowly reinvented itself as a tourist destination globally. Northern Ireland’s museums have also been establishing themselves on the world stage. In 2016, the Titanic Belfast Experience won the World’s Leading Tourism Attraction Award at the World Travel Awards.

There are plenty of things to do in Belfast, but the area of tourism that is getting the most attention is the darker side of Belfast’s history. For many years, Belfast was deemed a no-go area due to ongoing conflict. Now safe to visit, Belfast is attracting people fascinated with its violent and morbid history—this is the development of dark tourism within Northern Ireland.

With options like Crumlin Road Gaol and Belfast Troubles Tours becoming increasingly popular, Belfast tourism is seeing an acceleration in visits. I voted Lonely Planet’s best place to visit in 2018, and there’s never been a better opportunity to see it.

Dark Tourism: The World’s Morbid Fascination

The term ‘dark tourism’ refers to the desire of the general public to visit areas or scenes that have some form of a link to tragedy or, in some cases, atrocities. Historical sites that have had horrendous activities occur around them draw people from all over the world.

Places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration camp that saw millions tortured and murdered; Chornobyl, which saw an unprecedented nuclear disaster; ‘Ground Zero’ in New York, which was the site of the Twin Towers terrorist attack from 11 September are examples of spaces that have now become hotspots for tourism. 

Despite this dreadful notion, these spots are essential parts of cultural history and have increasing value as a means of making sense of these awful events. A commercial interest helps build the economies of those countries that capitalize on people’s desire to learn more.

Belfast is a city new to these concepts but has successfully rolled out various tourist attractions to meet the demand. With the best places to visit in Belfast, from a tourist perspective, being fuelled by dark tourism, there has never been a better time to visit Belfast to learn more about its fascinating history. 

Sinking Ships: The Titanic Belfast Experience 

One of the most famous places in Belfast, the Titanic Museum, is considered the seminal museum to visit regarding Titanic studies. While not a free museum, Titanic Belfast is a thorough retelling of the Titanic tragedy in a sympathetic and informative manner.

The self-guided option begins with the industrialization period when Belfast is transformed into ‘Minneapolis’. The demand for linen expands the shipyard, and ships are built to cope with the exponential growth in linen exports.

The gallery then explains the shipbuilding process and provides a short ride of life on the shipyard. The following galleries explore the launch of the Titanic, her maiden voyage, and her sinking. The last galleries explore the aftermath: the transatlantic inquiries, Titanic as she is today, and a further gallery on ocean exploration today. 

Titanic Belfast Museum
Titanic Belfast Museum

Titanic Belfast has benefitted from the global phenomenon that occurred in 1998 – the release of the Titanic film. Since then, people worldwide have watched countless documentaries and now take part in pilgrimages to the site where the Titanic was built, ideally located right behind the museum. Titanic Belfast is a prime example of dark tourism in Belfast.

A tragedy that brought shame to a city is now driving crowds of people to the city. Last year, Titanic Belfast welcomed its 5 millionth visitor and is still a hugely popular stop. With options for guided and self-guided tours, Titanic Belfast is conveniently located, only a 20-minute walk from the city centre. It is a perfect example of successful dark tourism and an iconic addition to museums in Northern Ireland. 

Darker Times: The Belfast Troubles Tour

Belfast’s history is marred with blood and violence due to sectarianism that permeated communities, particularly in the 60s and 70s. This dark time is referred to as ‘The Troubles’ and is why many tourists ask if it is safe to visit Belfast. Following a turbulent few decades, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 to broker peace for Northern Ireland residents.

After 20 years of peace, Belfast capitalises on its past sores by giving tours of flash points throughout the city. These key interfaces have become a dark tourism pilgrimage for those wanting to know more about Northern Ireland’s bloody past. 

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Part of the murals in Belfast promoting the end of sectarianism

Belfast Troubles tours take you to areas that were contentious spaces during the conflict. The Peace Wall is Belfast’s most significant reminder of The Troubles. Situated between the republican Falls Road and the loyalist Shankill Road, the walls represent a time of instability and conflict in Northern Ireland.

Most of these tours are run by locals from both sides of the conflict – nationalists and unionists. They give a unique insight into the cultural norms of that time and the political attitudes of those living in Belfast and the surrounding areas. 

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Belfast murals as part of the Troubles Tours in the city

While the Peace Wall remains a major attraction, mainly due to its ability to contribute to public graffiti, other murals are incredibly popular with these taxi tours. Further down The Falls Road, murals commemorating members of the I.R.A. are on display. Another favoured area for tourist consumption is East Belfast.

The East Belfast murals pay homage to the loyalism prevalent there. These areas also have their own museums highlighting their specific histories. The Eileen Hickey Museum is a museum of Irish Republican history, showcasing memorabilia from both sides of the conflict. Located on The Falls Road, it houses over 5,000 artifacts.

East Belfast also has a dedicated museum to its history. At the Andy Tyrie Interpretive Center, the Loyalist Conflict Museum was set up to educate about life for working-class, unionist communities at that time.

Multiple museums in Northern Ireland showcase memorabilia from this time and provide opposing narratives from all perspectives, so it’s hardly surprising that Belfast has become a pilgrimage for those interested in historical tragedy. The Belfast Troubles Tours are another insight into the dark tourism of Northern Ireland. 

Crumlin Road Gaol: Belfast’s Prison Museum

At the top of the Crumlin Road, Belfast’s prison museum sits perched opposite the notorious Crumlin Road Courthouse. A cold, narrow tunnel made of basalt rock connects the gaol and the courthouse. The esteemed Charles Lanyon designed both buildings, and they have striking aesthetics.

Completed in 1845, it was called the County Gaol for Antrim. It was the first prison in Ireland to be designed on the ‘Separate System’ – an architectural and prison management system centred around solitary confinement. This system lapsed during the internment of Republican prisoners in the early 70s, having as many as three prisoners per cell during the Troubles.

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The tunnel between the Crumlin Road Gaol and Courthouse

Serving as a prison for 150 years, the Crumlin Road Gaol replaced Carrickfergus Prison and housed inmates of all genders and ages. During the fight for female suffrage, suffragettes, including Dorothy Evans, were imprisoned in the gaol.

The prison was not constructed with a gallows, as most executions occurred in public view. An execution chamber was designed and built within the prison until 1961, when the last person was hanged in Ireland. Robert McGladdery, a convicted murderer, was hanged and remains the last person executed on the island of Ireland. 

Over the years, the Crumlin Road Gaol has had a series of intriguing inmates. Later in the century, we see various political prisoners imprisoned for involvement in the Troubles.

People of note who have had a stint in the Crum include Eamon de Valera, Bobby Sands, and Martin McGuinness on the Republican side, as well as Ian Paisley, Johnny Adair, and Michael Stone on the Loyalist side.

While it hasn’t operated as a prison since 1996, the Crumlin Road Gaol was restored and opened as a tourist attraction in 2012. The Gaol has become an essential tourist stop, considered a premium museum in Northern Ireland, with traditional guided and ghost tours and a popular venue. Its terrifying history makes it a must-see for those wishing to experience dark tourism in Belfast. 

Dark Tourism: Belfast’s Attractions

 Undoubtedly, some of Belfast’s best attractions are dark tourism hubs. However, despite the bloody past associated with Northern Ireland, Belfast tourism is thriving due to the demand for learning more about these tragic events.

With some of the museums in Northern Ireland ranking globally, Belfast has become a significant stop for those who want to learn about conflict resolution through the Belfast Troubles tours or the incredible contributions made to engineering through the building of the Titanic. With plenty of things to do in Belfast, there has never been a better time to see it.

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