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Tourists in Belfast only want to hear about ‘The Three Ts’: Troubles, Titanic and (Game of) Thrones

Guiding visitors around Belfast requires maintaining a careful balance: thankfully most people come looking for enjoyment, rather than a fight

We’re approaching the international peace wall when he begins to speak. Desperately trying to finish my sentence before the traffic light at the end of the Falls Road turns green (I think I must be the only person in the country delighted to see a red light and a line of traffic), I miss the first half of what he has to say. What I do hear does not sound good.

Working as a tour guide, you tend to hear similar questions every day, from the mundane “How long is the tour?” to the frankly unanswerable “Will a United Ireland happen?”. The worst ones are questions you do not have an answer for.

He repeats it again, this time a little louder.

“I don’t think you’re being particularly fair.”


The bus goes silent. Never well equipped for confrontation, I gulp. What could I have possibly said?

Thinking back to my first day tour-guiding for one of Belfast’s open-top buses, a microphone gripped between my shaking hands, I think such a comment would have probably stumped me. Despite being a Peace Baby, for whom The Troubles are as much a part of the history textbooks as the 1798 Rebellion or the Easter Rising, I am fully aware that there is not one version of the Northern Irish past. It remains a painful, sensitive matter.

You only have to pop on the TV or radio in Northern Ireland for a couple of seconds to hear the words “legacy issues” and a fiery debate between political opponents. The past varies wildly between that depicted in the nationalist Falls area and the unionist Shankill area that make up our route, despite each being but a couple of minutes from one another. Coming from a PC generation, for whom the fence is a perfectly comfortable place to perch, aggravating anyone was a significant concern. I even went so far as to write down the number of events I was covering in each area, hoping to split the content of the tour evenly between the nationalist and unionist perspective.

“I’m so sorry you feel that way. What’s the problem?” I manage to reply.

He shuffles in his seat. “You didn’t mention how valiantly the Protestants fought during the second World War.”

Looking around the Falls Road, adorned with republican murals, I struggle to imagine such an addition at this point.

“Bear with me until the Shankill Road.”

To my surprise and relief, my summer was not filled with heated political debate. People were generally very kind. Some wanted a selfie with a “real-life Derry girl” (even though I am a Down girl). Most come to Belfast looking for an enjoyable trip, rather than a fight. In many cases, the less politics, the better. The difference in the enthusiasm at the mention of the names of Mary McAleese and David Trimble, compared to Jamie Dornan and Liam Neeson, could persuade even the most budding politician to try acting. One day not one, not two, but three people drifted off to sleep during a short section of my tour explaining Partition.

To be fair, many of our visitors to Belfast were on packed cruise ship schedules. Anyone concerned about the effects of Covid on the Northern Ireland tourism industry need not worry. Almost every day, we saw cruise ships from all over the world stopping in Belfast, such as the Regal Princess, the Favolosa and the Disney Dream. Interest in ‘The Three Ts’ –,the Troubles, the Titanic, and (Game of) Thrones –,make Belfast a significant draw on an international level. Whilst it spoils the appealing alliteration, I also noticed that if I added an “L” to the list, by chatting about the Belfast-filmed police procedural Line of Duty, I was guaranteed to get a positive reaction from UK television fans.

If I could go back, however, to that first, nervy tour and provide any advice to myself for my summer job to come, it would not be to improve my skills in political debate or to brush up my Spanish for the arrival of the Costa Favolosa cruise ship.

In a documentary I recently watched on the history of cuisine, the narrator muses that food has been our only constant since the dawn of time. In an Irish context, I would add to that rain. If the summer we had proved anything to me, it is the necessity of a raincoat in Belfast. Our sightseeing buses have a roof at the front end of the upper deck, nevertheless some passengers seemed to relish “the true Northern Irish experience” by sitting out in the open air whatever the weather.

On one occasion, when we were leaving the Titanic Quarter, it was raining so much that the top deck began to fill with water. Reassuring the passengers, I reasoned that the puddle would soon drain away.

I wouldn’t get a chance to finish my sentence.

As we approached the Queen’s bridge, the bus moved down a slight slope and this manoeuvre brought a pool of water rushing down the aisle over my feet. Thankfully, all my passengers stayed dry, but the tour did go slightly off track, as we all laughed about the irony of our immersive Titanic experience.

Caitlin Devenport is a history student at the University of Cambridge who works as a tour guide in Belfast during her holidays