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Literary Cartography: Dark Tourism in Post-Troubles Belfast

Thong Kar Mun[1], Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick


Dark tourism in Belfast is a thriving industry that promotes the violent history of the Troubles. After the 1994 IRA (Irish Republican Army) ceasefire, Troubles tourism is one that sells a Europeanised and safe 'post-Troubles Belfast'. However, the spaces of the city and its literary oeuvre speak against that narrative. This article proposes that an understanding of post-Troubles Belfast could be achieved through the method of literary cartography, which is here defined as the juxtaposed reading of a city's spatial narratives and its literary narratives on the city's spaces. Through the inclusion of the literary in social analysis, this article traces the ruptures in the predominant touristic narratives of Belfast, producing alternative cartographies. The results show that Belfast and its tourism industry is currently in a battle of narratives, and that the city struggles to achieve a truly resonant idea of a post-Troubles Belfast. I conclude that Belfast needs to move from superficial reimaging to ground-up reimagination, so that Belfast's palimpsest of narratives can finally coalesce and make free the process of shared redefinition.

Keywords: Belfast, the Troubles, literary materiality, dark tourism, cartography, space and place.


Tourism has never felt more like reading. Upon first setting foot in Belfast city, the average unaware tourist could stay ensconced in the sanitised city centre, or the city's allocated 'culture quarters', without ever heeding the whisper of the Troubles that has so marked nearly three decades of the city's history. However, if the tourist eye follows the pages of the cityscape, the lines between the lines begin to emerge. A turned corner from big-brand shops to graffitied and burnt-out lots. A gradation from concentrated commercialism to political murals if one wandered a bit too far from the City Hall. A shelf of haphazardly designed leaflets advertising tours with ex-prisoners in the left corner of the sleek new Visit Belfast centre. Follow these lines and the tourist will find a plot twist, an entire section from the point of view of a different character.

Troubles tourism in Belfast is a local manifestation of a phenomenon named dark tourism. Philip Stone defines it as the act of visiting 'sites associated with death, tragedy or the macabre' (2005: 109). In Belfast, it translates to gawping at murals of anonymous gunmen, victims or hunger strike heroes; red, white and blue pavements; memorial shrines and gardens; and the miles and miles of ever expanding barricades. After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Belfast is technically 'post-Troubles'.

In this article, I will be tracing how the spaces of Belfast city present their narratives to tourists, and I will juxtapose this with the ways in which some of Belfast's literary work narrativises the city's space. From this comparative overview, I aim to illustrate the porousness between the literary and the spatial in Belfast's representation, and to consider 'literary cartographies' as a way to begin the making of a post-Troubles Belfast. In the Conclusion of The Prose and the Passion, Nigel Rapport writes:

Literary criticism, it is argued, represents a valuable adjunct to social-scientific analysis. As Hoggart spells it out, Literature affords its own distinctive kind of social knowledge, and without 'a full literary witness' at once intellectual, imaginative, emotional, physical, mythopoeic, one will not see far and fully into any aspect of social life: 'without appreciating good literature, no one will really understand the nature of society'.
(1994: no pagination)

Rapport emphasises the role that literature plays in codifying the secret lives of humanity. Any consideration of social life will lose a significant dimension of its character if its literary manifestation is pushed aside. So too, dialogue about any city that is divorced from its literary counterpart will result in a wispy and ghoulish hologram. I aim to use the 'literary cartography' method in this article, which I define as mapping out the constant intersections of a city's spatial narrative and its space as represented in the literary. Through this article, I propose that the 'literary cartography' method could effectively address Belfast city as a whole. Only through social-scientific analysis carried out hand in hand with 'a full literary witness' can the city palimpsest begin to cohere.


I collected materials for this article through two separate visits to Belfast. The first was undertaken as a tourist on an impulse trip organised by a friend. As an international student, I had no prior knowledge or expectation and thus was open to an un-chartered experience. My curiosity was piqued through a tour of the city centre with Dead Centre Tours. My second visit was undertaken as a student of literature intent on unravelling the devices behind the 'experience industry' that first sold Belfast to me. Materials such as promotional leaflets, booklets and tour scripts, other than the city space itself, were considered. Tours included a sightseeing bus tour, a Falls and Shankill Road tour with Dead Centre Tours, and a tour of the Falls Road with Coiste, led by a Republican ex-prisoner. I also interviewed Paul Donnelly from Dead Centre Tours. The rest of my second trip was spent walking around the city to seek out parts that were excluded from the tourist experience. The textual, visual and oral materials accumulated are here subjected to techniques of literary analyses and compared to novelistic representations of Belfast. Novels used are chosen based on their focus on the city space. Publication dates range from 1992 to 2005. Reading Belfast as text and its actual literary texts side by side is the execution of a methodology that I would like to call 'literary cartography'. Through this method, I hope to achieve a more three dimensional understanding of post-Troubles Belfast.

Narrative in space

Burton Pike states that 'real city' and 'word city' represent the dialectics between physical and narrative spaces (Pike, 1981, cited by Schweter, 2007: 236). It blurs the boundaries to enable a questioning of touristic narratives. By highlighting the causal relationship of narrative to space, the production of the 'word city' of Belfast through the tourism industry can be identified, and its effects on the 'real city' can be revealed. Bree Hocking argues that:

Shifts in the symbolic landscape are representative of wider aspirations to create new civic identities for Belfast and Londonderry on a global stage. Far from being merely cosmetic, however, these symbolic changes provide a vehicle to explore how dominant discourses are materialized in the landscape, and the means by which these discourses, and the ideologies underpinning them, are contested and constrained.
(2015: 3)

Part of the symbolic landscape mentioned by Hocking is the widespread mural form. It is evident that Belfast's citizens understand the materiality of the mural narrative. In the novel Eureka Street, Robert Wilson writes that 'the city keeps its walls like a diary' (1998: 212). These diaries are constantly updated to reflect the back and forth of ideologies mostly between the Unionists (usually Protestant communities in support of union with Great Britain) and Nationalists (usually Catholic communities in support of separation from Great Britain). This sentiment continues in 2014, as seen by the Gaza mural painted in June at Divis Road.

Gaza mural

Figure 1: Gaza mural. Source: author's own image.

The Gaza mural is painted on the International Wall, and is attributed to the Nationalists. It is a continuation of the Nationalist narrative of being the wronged party. Some Nationalist murals were painted as cries for justice against sectarian criminals, usually Unionist, who were not put under trial. Now, in a time of peace, victimhood continues as a theme, and becomes the basis for the Nationalists' identification with the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the Unionists have taken up Israel's cause on the common ground of legitimate statehood. The mural shows that the Gaza issue is adopted as a new binary for old oppositions. Visible dialogue continues across communities on the city's walls.

Murals also play the role of identity markers, demarcating psychic barriers and manifested memories. The buffer zone between Shankill Road (Unionist/Protestant) and Falls Road (Nationalist/Catholic) is a perfect example of the extent to which spatial narratives can throw up psychic barriers that are just as effective as concrete and wire.

Buffer zone inter-community mural

Figure 2: Buffer zone inter-community mural. Source: author's own image.

Typically Catholic art from the Falls give way to a gaudy collage of inter-community activities in the buffer zone. Once through to the Shankill side, the inscriptions on the peaceline immediately declare condemnation against streets denied to the Protestant 12th of July marches (celebrating Prince William of Orange's victory over King James II during the Battle of the Boyne, securing Protestantism in Ireland). One step makes for a different Belfast altogether.

This psychic division is reflected in the novel Fat Lad when Ellen's granny claims to 'have lived in two different countries without ever moving more than three doors from the house where she was born' (Patterson, 1992: 166). A 2005 novel, Woundlicker, continues this theme. Its protagonist, Fletcher Fee, straddles the divide because his house is located at the end of the curvature of a peace wall, and thus could neither be satisfyingly classified as either Protestant or Catholic. The disturbance this causes in the novel indicates a continued association between space and identity. 'I live in no man's land, so I do. People would just love me to pick a side and be done with it. Any side at all, just so I could be counted. But fuck them' (Johnson, 2005: 67). These novels codify how ideological narratives in Belfast are capable of making places out of space. The 'word city' directly affects the 'real city'. These novels voice what the mural narratives already suggest: the potency of narrative in remapping a city without building a single thing.

Cartography as language of space

The concept of the map is the bridge-way between the 'real' and 'word' city. The map is the language of space. Without its expression, space loses its context, its part in a larger picture. Thus, it becomes yet another viable symbolic battleground. The contest of contexts is enacted through maps presented to the tourist. A map produced by Fáilte Feirste Thiar entitled 'West Belfast Mural Map' features the Falls Road and adjoining areas while removing the Shankill Road. However, tourists would be under the impression that this is a map of West Belfast, not just a part of it. The removal of the Shankill is a narrative claim over the context of West Belfast. Removing the Shankill removes also the connotations of union with Great Britain. It also claims for the Catholic areas a suggestion of independence, a self-sustaining community ensconced in a sea of blue and white. This map as an image speaks of a spatial psyche that can best be communicated beyond the map, through narrative.

Map of West Belfast by Failte Feirste Thiar

Figure 3: Map of West Belfast by Fáilte Feirste Thiar. Source: Visit West Belfast.

Eoin McNamee hints at the ingrained spatial psyche available to the inhabitants of the city in the novel Resurrection Man:

Ryan […] was trying to develop the knowledge that the inhabitants of the city had. The sense of territory that guided them through hundreds of streets […] He stared at the lines and circles that proposed something beyond the capacity of maps.
(1994: 13)

These words speak of embedded memories, buried history, past comrades. And just as space without a map is without context, then also is a map without its narrative. The Falls Road Garden of Remembrance features a mural that maps where young IRA men in active service died (Anon, 2014: 22). Every instance of ideological importance is used to assert narrative claim over a back alley or a street corner, creating an entirely new psychic map. As shown in the mural, the map implies a second layer, a stratum of space where memory is invested.

Falls Road Garden of Remembrance mural

Figure 4: Falls Road Garden of Remembrance mural. Source:

In his travel book about Northern Ireland, Martin Fletcher interviewed Gusty, a founding member of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). He told Fletcher that 'in those days an 'invisible' peace line divided the Shankill from the Falls' (2002: 265). Jonathan Highfield reiterates this experience:

To move through the streets of Belfast, therefore, is to negotiate a way through contested maps — maps that stretch back to the very founding of the city and are made of memories rather than pen strokes. These psychic maps create a divide more solid than the wall separating the Falls from the Shankill, built to keep Protestant and Catholic working classes from clashing.
(2003: 172)

Cartography here, especially prevalent through maps designed for tourists/foreigners, becomes a tool to lay claim over entire sections of Belfast for one narrative or another. Behind the bold lines and ninety-degree angles, there is a battle in the shadowlands for the communicated city. Through the rehearsed ceremonies, like their annual parades, and located memories implied through the maps of Belfast, the contest for the city's psyche continues.

Battle of narratives

Coiste director and former republican prisoner Michael Culbert stated: 'a battle for the narrative is going on'. In this battle, mouths are constantly speaking, hands are writing, eyes are reading and the mind is roaming, for the battlefield is nowadays located in the mental sphere.
(Maanen, 2013: 9)

Through this analysis of narrative in Belfast's spaces and the investment of narrative in contested maps, this 'battle' becomes apparent. Rival black taxi tours vie to tell it their own way. Companies like Coiste, and EPIC, the Protestant equivalent, are bringing ongoing politics into the everyday tourist experience. All this is happening while official parties hover with bare tolerance, and while locals blot out the tourists swarming their streets and peering into their windows.

I have identified three major, but not exhaustive, strands of narrative in the battle over Belfast: official, sectarian, and on-the-ground.

Official narratives

Official tourism organisations have been fighting the city's violent image ever since the Troubles began. At the end of paramilitary violence in 1994, the city centre entered into a new 'post-modernist aesthetics' that 'seek to induce historical amnesia' (Neill, 1992: 9). Belfast was to join the ranks of the new world: rubbed raw and thoroughly Europeanised. However, a conflict that had bled so thoroughly into the city could not be easily erased.

When the Troubles as part of Belfast's narrative refuses to be buried, official image-makers respond by museumising and peripherising. Wall murals become 'cultural heritage'. Peace lines turn into 'historical heritage'. If the conflict is mentioned it is often in relation to reconciliation and peace: 'both agencies [NTB and Belfast City Council] have taken great care to promote the city centre as a neutral place for the large percentage of visitors who visit Northern Ireland' (Maanen, 2013: 48–49).

Instead of completely denying the Troubles, any signifiers of the conflict are swept out into the periphery like so much debris. All the Troubles leaflets in the Visit Belfast centre direct tourists to West Belfast — the assigned theatre for the conflict, leaving the city centre as Troubles-free as possible. Meanwhile, East Belfast is ignored altogether. The fact that the UVF is still in active operation there makes East Belfast difficult to museumise. The Titanic Museum almost seems intentionally placed between the city centre and East Belfast as a spectacular distraction. Due to this strategy, I argue that Belfast, more than most cities, is segmented into squares of identity extremes.

Tour route map

Figure 5:Tour route map. Source: City Sight Seeing Belfast.

The map in Figure 5 is found on the leaflets of the City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off bus tour. The route of the tour is numbered and, through live tour narratives, divided into thematic segments. First, from 1 to 5, travel to the Titanic quarters for a taste of the global city and its romantic past. Next, from 6 to 7, move towards the city centre for its architecture and shopping. Then, from 8 to 15, to the Falls and Shankill Road for your share of gore and glory. Lastly, from 16 to 21, a home stretch on the Golden Mile for fun and culture. This definable grouping is uncommon in the tour narratives of other cities, which tend to focus on landmarks instead.

The influence of these practices on the psychic cartography of Belfast is best diagnosed in prose. Colin Bateman, in Divorcing Jack, calls it 'the usual terror tour' (1995: 61). Glenn Patterson, in Fat Lad, mirrors the touristic segmentation:

A few of the sights. Drew […] surprised to discover that he still harboured something of the old suspicion of these words; the distaste for tourists, common to those of his background, who knew that all too often seeing a few of the sights involved nothing more than a ghoulish fairground ride up the Shankill and down the Falls, gawping at murals and fortified bars, having the potentially life-saving nuances of the rival black taxi services explained and a murderous significance ascribed to every street corner, public house and patch of waste ground. The this was where and the over there of twenty years of violence [...] go looking in any direction other than narrowly west in Belfast to find a different city altogether.
d(1992: 224)

This kind of strategic identification loads the entire burden of representing the Troubles on the streets and homes of the most affected communities. By corralling dark tourism into the direction 'narrowly west in Belfast', the living space of the Falls and Shankill become museumised. Locals who try to live a life no longer defined by the conflict are reminded of it every day by the black taxi services and red tour buses, filled with a narrative that assigns them their sectarian roles.

Patterson also comments on this act of urban violence in Fat Lad:

The dead above all needed watching here. Containing the dead, it could be said, was the beginning and end of policy in Northern Ireland. Containing the dead, it could even be said, was the whole rationale for the country's existence. But, whatever the policy or the rationale, the dead continued to leave their traces wherever you looked.
(1992: 304)

Twenty-two years later, Northern Ireland's image policy had extended from containing the dead to mummifying the living. Rather than keeping the conflict in remembrance, which is a running theme on many wall murals and street memorials, the Troubles became a past that could not be forgotten. The inhabitants of West Belfast, especially those who are still drawn into sectarian activities, are inconvenient inheritances of that past.

Mural at East Belfast, with the theme of remembering those who died in the Troubles

Figure 6: Mural at East Belfast, with the theme of remembering those who died in the Troubles. Source: author's own image.

This constructed 'word city' affects the actual structure of the 'real city'. The locals either reinforce an isolated and self-sufficient group identity, as they do in the Falls, or collapse under the urban alienation, as they do in the Shankill, where most of the population has moved out into the middle-class rural fringes. Woundlicker, repeating the sentiment in 2005, expresses this psychical segmentation in a way that is difficult to communicate outside of the literary. Fletcher, with amused acceptance, pours out from his collected psychic maps the sense of territory and identity that still pervades the city:

In Belfast the passengers all change in the city centre. They'll all be mixed as fuck there, but then slowly when you go towards one area or other the bus will start to get more Prod [Protestant] or more Taig [Republican]. By the time you get to the Woodstock or the Falls, your bus is basically orange or green. It's class to watch. You can tell the difference between them. You could stick me on a bus anywhere in Belfast and I'll tell you which way it's going.
(Johnson, 2005: 71)

Sectarian narratives

'As part of a project aimed at tackling the physical manifestations of sectarianism, Belfast City Council, in 2010, provided £1,500 to replace a previous UVF mural with the image of Best' (Anon, 2014: 83). In 2013, the mural has been replaced with a new UVF mural.

Mural of George Best in 2010

Figure 7: Mural of George Best in 2010. Source:

Mural of UVF lone gunman

Figure 8: Mural of UVF lone gunman. Source:

This replacement is an upfront example of how place identity in Belfast is being contested. The official narrative of a safe and shiny city is torn down and replaced with a narrative that is seen as a 'backwards step' (Anon, 2014: 83). The paramilitary group identity is consolidated because of this contest, and the anonymous lone gunman surfaces again after years of gradual extinction. Despite the government's efforts to hunt down these manifestations of sectarianism, they are not truly addressing the issues behind such expressions. 'The "narratives of progress" that often inform official discourse on Northern Ireland are undermined further […] The effect of the Belfast Agreement has, therefore, been to reproduce and legitimate many of those forms of ethno-political feeling and competition that sparked the Northern Irish conflict in the first place' (Coulter et al., 2008: 15).

This quote emphasises the role of 'narratives' and 'discourse' in the exacerbation of continual sectarian feeling. The official initiative in imposing narratives upon the two sectarian sides has sparked not just a competition for resources but also a competition for story-making. Sectarian narratives are still emerging because the real issues are ignored and covered over by 'narratives of progress'. In Belfast Confidential, Dan Starkey partakes in this dismantling of official narratives:

An ex-squaddie found the city and its people totally transformed: everyone was lovely and friendly and helpful and he'd absolutely changed his opinion […] if he cared to look beneath the surface he'd find this place hasn't changed at all. It's just waiting to explode again. If he'd worn his uniform they would have torn him to shreds.
(Bateman, 2005: 45–46)

The novel expresses an underlying and continual anxiety, seven years after the Good Friday Agreement, about the illusion of peaceful and neutral spaces in Belfast. The novel reflects my own tourist experience. If I 'cared to look beneath the surface', I would be able to converse with people like my Coiste tour guide, who said: 'I can't go into Shankill Road, I'll get killed.' While progress has been made, the sectarian narrative is far from dead. In the rare occasions of 'mobilisation across the ethnonational cleavage', Nagle diagnoses it as a largely middle-class endeavour, and does not satisfyingly involve the working class districts that are most embroiled in the violence (Nagle 2009b: 188).

On-the-ground narratives

During my time in Belfast, I arranged to have a personal interview with Paul Donnelly of Dead Centre Tours. The company organises 'History of Terror' tours in the city centre. Guides bring tourists to spots where a previous Troubles event happened, and show them pictures of the immediate aftermath of those events. When compared with the unsuspecting space that now exists, a stunning merger of space and narrative is created. For example, on a street close to the City Hall, the official Liverpool Football Club shop is the site of one of the most devastating bombings at the height of the Troubles. No memorial or indication of the event can be seen in the space.

Liverpool FC shop currently on the site of past catastrophic Troubles event

Figure 9: Liverpool FC shop currently on the site of past catastrophic Troubles event. Source: author's own image.

Despite the educational and non-sectarian nature of the tour, Paul Donnelly informs me that Dead Centre Tours have been denied full support from Visit Belfast as part of a 'risk management strategy'. In juxtaposition with explicitly political tour companies like Coiste, the exclusion of Dead Centre Tours can only be reasonably attributed to their infringement of the official narrative of a neutral city centre. A representative from the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau was quoted as saying 'ten years ago, there was hardly anything in the Cathedral Quarter [...] the heart is truly back in now and beating in the city centre' (Maanen, 2013: 42–43). The very name 'Dead Centre' Tours is a denial of that narrative of progress. The city has undeniably been regenerated economically and politically, but this was an '"ultimately cosmetic approach" that failed at a deeper level to engage with "cultural and identity meanings" in a space that could be naively seen as neutral' (Neil, 2004, cited by Nagle 2009b: 185). This has driven the emergence of narratives like that of Dead Centre Tours and that of novels that continue to speak of the unsubstantial cosmetic approach to Belfast.

Reimer aptly describes the effects of this unsubstantial approach to redefining the idea of Belfast:

In a city that repeatedly appears as either a denatured backdrop or as a theater so exoticised and dangerous as to deny its citizens normal lives, the carceral streets become, in the words of Aaron Kelly, 'the arterial occlusions of a terminally afflicted heart of darkness'. The cartographic processes at work in the standard Troubles thriller often reveal the tension between the stark clarity of sectarian geographies and a shifting, insecure spatial imaginary. Emptied of their local meanings and largely mystified from the perspective of the common citizen, urban spaces tend finally to deny possibilities for negotiated identities or the pursuit of an efficacious ground-level politics.
(2010: 93)

Citizens are 'insecure' as they are told to let go completely of their sectarian narrative, but given insufficient basis on which to build another. The theatrification of the Falls and Shankill Road has made them 'carceral streets' that emanate from a 'heart of darkness' — the supposedly neutral city centre. The city centre can only be painted as a vibrant and buzzing place through the violence of peripherising an unwanted past. What is needed instead is the creation of shared urban spaces, both in word and in fact, to enable 'possibilities for negotiated identities' and to make free the process of redefinition.

The literary world of Belfast has been engaging with this for years. Wilson, in his novel, comments that 'the characters in these novels tend to live in a "mystified" Belfast, and they struggle — without anything like "the grand name of principle"' (1998: 381) — to find the language to talk about the Belfast that they know day by day. These characters deny the inexplicably clean divide between 'peace process' and the past. They do so by acknowledging but also striving to demystify sectarian narratives. For example, the UVF mural that replaced that of George Best has itself been usurped by Belfast's citizens in the battle of narratives.

Photoshopped parodies of the UVF mural of 2013

Figure 10: Photoshopped parodies of the UVF mural of 2013. Source: checkhookboxing forum, posted by user bhopheadbut.

This on-the-ground act of demystification is mirrored in the novel Number 5, where two young boys roaming the streets inscribe their own narrative everywhere in their neighbourhood:

Tit'n'Tan. He drew a scroll around it, like the scrolls you'd see on paramilitary wall paintings right across the city, like we were a two-man army ourselves. FTA, he wrote underneath. Fuck them all.
(Patterson, 2004: 126)

Here, the Troubles appear in the lives of the two boys, Tit and Tan, as nonsensical acronyms on walls (the acronyms of the various paramilitary groups). In mockery of sectarianism and in a moment of instinct to reclaim their city for themselves, they write 'Fuck Them All'. The boys' disillusionment suggests the futility of sectarian as well as peace process narratives in addressing the real problems in their lives: racism and poverty.

The subversive instinct that drove the boys is also performed in Eureka Street, where 'OTG' mysteriously appears on the city's walls. The city goes wild, assuming that it marks the emergence of a new paramilitary group or political power, but in fact:

You want to know what OTG means? Almost everything. That was the point. All the other letters written on our walls were dark minority stuff. The world's grand, lazy majority will never be arsed writing anything anywhere and, anyway, they wouldn't know what to write. They would change their permissive, clement, heterogeneous minds half-way through. That's why OTG was written for them. It could mean anything they wanted.
(Wilson, 1998: 395)

This acronym becomes hilariously influential in the novel's political arena, to the point where Chuckie, the crazy entrepreneur, decides to run for president using the OTG acronym. The fact that the acronym is essentially meaningless points to the farcical nature of sectarian and official narratives. OTG illustrates the need for On The Ground narratives.

Conclusion: reimagination, not reimaging

William Neill's conclusion, in his article about the architecture and urban planning of Belfast, rings true in my research as well: 'Belfast needs to be reimagined, not just reimaged (Neill, 1992: 10)'. The superficial reimaging of the city, a strategy employed by the tourism board, does little to address the social issues at heart. From A Draft Tourism Strategy for Northern Ireland written by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment:

The resurgence of violence in 2009 and the attendant publicity has set back the image of Northern Ireland on the world stage, 2012 presents an opportunity to work with the news media to present positive stories of development in Northern Ireland.
(Tourism Policy, 2010: 12)

Notably, violence has 'set back the image' of the city, not the actual conditions of peace. The proposed solution is not to address the violence, but to work with the 'news media' in 'stories' — to bury the problem and to shift the world's attention to things like the Titanic Quarter. This is the kind of 'reimaging' that alienates the living stories of the city itself. In Belfast Confidential, this repetitive knee-jerk reaction is parodied: 'This is Northern Ireland, Mr Starkey, image is everything and we intend to protect that image with everything we have' (Bateman, 2005: 286). The same novel also addresses the need to surpass the process of reimaging and to begin on the process of reimagination:

In the old days you could say, 'I'm from Belfast,' anywhere in the world and it was like shorthand: a thousand images of explosions and soldiers and barbed wire and rioting and foam-mouthed politicians were thrown up by that simple statement. You were automatically hard.
(Bateman, 2005: 4)

I felt as though Belfast had finally given up smoking. A twenty-five-year-old hundred-a-day habit had just stopped. I dreaded the withdrawal. What were we supposed to do with our afternoons now? How were we going to look cool?
(Bateman, 2005: 313)

These quotes put the problem of imagining a post-Troubles Belfast in the simplest and clearest terms. For a long time, the defining characteristic of Northern Ireland was its sectarianism. To leave that behind, Belfast cannot just get up and get on with a vacuum of identity. What is needed is 'the right for citizens not only to inhabit urban spaces but also to participate in a city as an "oeuvre", an ongoing work of creation, production and negotiation' (Nagle, 2009c: 331).

Collage hanging in the reception area of the Shankill Community Centre

Figure 11: Collage hanging in the reception area of the Shankill Community Centre. Source: author's own image.

The collage in Figure 11 is found hanging in the Shankill Community Centre, a facility aimed at ex-Unionist prisoners. 'Nothing about us without us is for us' is a phrase that simply states the kind of reimagination that needs to begin with the 'us' of Belfast, not the 'dead centre' of amnesiac aesthetics. Rotella's argument, as paraphrased in Reimer's article, implies that 'when writers, through their stylistic and thematic choices, imbue the "city of feeling" with new possibilities for identity and social action, those possibilities are more likely to be realised in the "city of fact"' (2010: 100). Indeed, it is one of the few mediums where this 'city of feeling' can ever be addressed. That process has long begun within the pages of Belfast's novels, and Belfast's city planners would do well to take a page or two from them.

By using 'literary cartography' — the combined reading of a city's space as text and literary texts on space — I was able to flesh out the palimpsest of narratives lying heavy on the post-Troubles city. This literary cartography shows Belfast to be a battlefield of narratives. Just as official narratives have radically quartered and isolated the city, and sectarian narratives have solidified psychic barriers, so will a victory of reimagination from the ground up affect the 'city of fact'. Belfast's tourism industry should embrace the groundswell of stories in their redefinition and reimagination of a post-Troubles Belfast.


I would like to thank Dr Pablo Mukherjee of the University of Warwick for his consistent and committed guidance, detailed recommendations and unwarranted but much needed encouragement throughout the process of this project and article.

I would also like to thank Dr Nathalie Dalton-King for being an absolute rock in the URSS program, and for making the practical side of things as close to a breeze as possible. Many thanks are also due to Paul Donnelly and Mark from Dead Centre Tours for granting interviews and for their sincere interest in this research, and for the work that they are doing. Also, thank you to my reviewers who have given invaluable criticisms and suggestions for further reading — leading to a much more (personally) satisfying finished piece.

List of figures

Figure 1: Gaza mural. Source: author's own image. Figure 2: Buffer zone inter-community mural. Source: author's own image. Figure 3: Map of West Belfast by Fáilte Feirste Thiar. Source: Visit West Belfast. Figure 4: Falls Road Garden of Remembrance mural. Source: Figure 5: Tour route map. Source: City Sight Seeing Belfast. Figure 6: Mural at East Belfast, with the theme of remembering those who died in the Troubles. Source: author's own image. Figure 7: Mural of George Best in 2010. Source: Figure 8: Mural of UVF lone gunman. Source: Figure 9: Liverpool FC shop currently on the site of past catastrophic Troubles event. Source: author's own image. Figure 10: Photoshopped parodies of the UVF mural of 2013. Source: checkhookboxing forum, posted by user, bhopheadbut. Figure 11: Collage hanging in the reception area of the Shankill Community Centre. Source: author's own image.


This article was written following the completion of a research project conducted as part of the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme, and launched by the University of Warwick. The portfolio of this project and the poster that resulted from it can be found here: I was also fortunate enough to be given the chance to do a spoken presentation at the International Conference of Undergraduate Research 2014 and the British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2015. The presentation slides can be found on this link:


[1] Thong Kar Mun (Carmen) graduated from the University of Warwick with a First-class degree in English Literature. She is now studying for a MSt World Literatures in English at Oriel College, University of Oxford.

The map in the poster and presentation was used with the kind permission of Pretty Useful Maps Company Ltd.


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Alexander, N. (2007), 'The Carceral City and the City of Refuge: Belfast Fiction and Urban Form', The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 33 (2), 28–38, available at, accessed 4 August 2014

Anon (2014), The Belfast Mural Guide, Belfast: MSF Press

Bateman, C. (1995), Divorcing Jack, Croydon: Headline Publishing

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Thong, C. (2015), 'Literary Cartography: Dark Tourism in Post-Troubles Belfast', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 8, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.