One of the many hilarious lines I use during my introduction to our A History of Terror tour is;
“If you’d asked me when I was growing up in Belfast did I think I’d ever be a tour guide, or that people would travel from all over the world to see my city, I’d have laughed in your face. Who would want to come to this violent dump during the Troubles?”
I am deliberately exaggerating for comedic effect – but as with all good comedy, there’s a serious point behind the joke.
I became a professional tour guide, whatever that is, in July 2020, shortly after retiring from a 30 year career as a civil servant. I had been approached by Mark (DC Tours’ big cheese) as I was nearing retirement to see if I’d be interested in joining the small team. I was rather chuffed as I’d known him and Donzo (the UK’s Top Tour Guide*) since our paths first crossed at Queen’s University in the late 1980s. They knew of my interest, nay obsession, with Irish history and politics since encountering each other on local internet chat rooms in the late 1990s/early noughties. [Non-dodgy ones in case you were wondering.]
And so, in my last year of public service I took a six month ‘Level 2 Tour Guide Course’ at Belfast Metropolitan College’s Castlereagh campus. Essentially this consisted of one morning each week where we were taught the fine arts of guiding by the wonderful Christine and also got to sample lots of other tours. What was pretty special for me was that it was a foot outside the door, helping me to ease into the real world after being institutionalised for so long.
The whole educational environment was so different to what I’d been used to….so many young people on campus studying mechanics and suchlike. It made me feel like a right old git, mind you. The classroom environment with “normal” people was a breath of fresh air too. I still keep in contact with many from my course, including Barney Gribben who has set up his highly acclaimed ‘If Buildings Could Talk’ tour – definitely one to catch if you get the chance.
My boots first hit the street for DC Tours under the tutelage of Donzo, who taught me everything he knew – so after a few minutes that was me good to go! Only joking of course – we had a few highly enjoyable weeks together, despite the difficulties of Covid lockdown, which included wearing face masks whilst delivering a 2.5 hour tour – not a nice thing to do at all.
Finally I was set free to inflict myself upon our guests all on my own. My first solo tour coincided with my birthday. I must confess to some nerves before and during it, but I kept my eye on what was important – the fact I was going to the pub immediately afterwards!
Initially the groups of guests were small due to Covid restrictions, but it made for a more gradual learning curve than being dropped in at the deep end. Whilst this was great, I definitely didn’t feel like I was experiencing the full potential of what it was like to be a tour guide. In recent years I had witnessed Donzo and the other DC guides take groups of 25 or 30 around the city centre, so I was busting to get a piece of that action.
As we all know, Covid 19 lingered like unwanted relatives on Christmas Day** and the groups of guests remained fairly small. But by Spring 2022 things were getting back to normal and visitors to Belfast were back in force. Up until then, most of my guests had been pretty local – but as restrictions lifted, pent-up travellers from many far flung countries came to Belfast either on short city breaks or as part of longer holidays to Ireland.
For me as a relative newbie it has been a blast and I’ve enjoyed every tour, even the ones where the Belfast weather threw everything it had at us. There’s nothing quite like finishing off a tour at Oxford Street in winter with the rain and sleet coming at you horizontally off the Lagan. Sometimes it amazes me how some guests dress for a tour, coming to Ireland for a holiday and appearing to have no clue what Irish weather can be like!
I’ve experienced some genuinely joyous occasions on my tours to date – ones that have truly stuck in my memory. Here’s a wee selection of my highlights;
Sacred Heart Grammar in Newry send GCSE pupils to sample the History of Terror tour as part of their History curriculum, an outstanding example in itself. Their syllabus and learning outcomes focus on recent history such as the development of the Troubles, the various groupings and the peace process. The pupils are a joy to take round and the enthusiasm of their teachers is inspirational. I only wish all schools in the north followed their lead.
Continuing along the academic theme, it was my pleasure to take out 30 postgrad students from Pepperdine University, hailing from Santa Monica in California. I was with them for four days in September 2022, taking them up to west Belfast to see the peaceline, murals and memorials, on the History of Terror tour, to Crumlin Road Gaol, to the Ulster Museum and also when they were received by Belfast Lord Mayor Tina Black. An exceptional group of young people who fell in love with Belfast. And I’ll admit it made me chuckle when I was told they referred to me as “Professor James” due to my encyclopaedic knowledge. Not sure how many others would agree with that…
A few weeks before Christmas a film crew from ESPN/Disney arrived in Belfast to shoot scenes for a documentary exploring how sport can overcome religious differences. I chaperoned them around west Belfast and the city centre for most of the day and it was a blast! I learned a lot from seeing how they worked and I trust they learned something from me. We ended up in the Crown for an obligatory pint of stout of course.
Private tours for family, friends and former work colleagues are lots of fun too. OK so there might be some added pressure not to feck it up in front of people who know me, but they’ve always gone well and there’s the added bonus of a pint in the Duke of York afterwards.
Having said all that, at times it’s the more “routine” experiences that make it all worthwhile. I recently took a daily History of Terror tour and one of the guests was a guy about my age, who was there with his partner. They lived on the Antrim Road near the nationalist New Lodge. Their kids had bought them the tour for Christmas, a fact I admit I found quite amusing. I was very conscious that their lived experience during the Troubles may have been traumatic given their proximity to sectarian flashpoints and they may hold strong views on the subject matter we cover during the tour. I can say with genuine pride that he warmly shook my hand at the end of the tour and congratulated me on being so even handed.
And then of course there are the not so good memories….
Memorable for all the wrong reasons was the Italian gentleman who was my sole guest during one of the worst days of weather in the depths of winter. With no concept of personal space, he began asking questions before I even started. So much so that I just decided to walk round the tour route and answer his questions rather than attempt the script. At the end he was still clearly miffed that I didn’t know the bus timetables for how to get to Donegal and the Wild Atlantic Way the next day. Hopefully he enjoyed the tour anyway.
At the start of this year’s academic term I took a group of international students on our Best of Belfast tour. Most of them cleared off with indecent haste moments after their teacher left the to supervise another group. Maybe they didn’t appreciate the history of Presbyterianism in Belfast as much as I do. I admit I took it personally and had to seek solace in a pint of the black stuff afterwards.
And finally, during our rather warm summer, two young English lads left midway through the tour to go to the pub. Given it was a very large group I didn’t notice at first. When I finally tracked them down they innocently claimed they didn’t realise I needed their headsets back. I’m happy to report I refrained from kicking their arses for them.
I can genuinely say I love my new career and here’s to more of the same in 2023….uppa tour guides!
*he doesn’t mention this much
** if you are relatives of mine, please don’t read anything into this