Colourful characters abound in ‘Belfast Taxi’

Belfast Taxi by Lee Henry
Belfast Taxi by Lee Henry

LEE Henry’s fascinating account of the role of the taxi in Belfast’s rise, fall and rise is a unique documentation of an occupation that has much to tell us about the development of Northern Ireland’s capital.

Subtitled as ‘a drive through history, one fare at a time’, Belfast Taxi is a brilliantly researched root and branch history of taxiing in Belfast.

Henry has interviewed a wide range of drivers and cab company owners to create this oral history, but has backed up the tales and memories of a multiplicity of workers with research ranging from the impact of the Motor Traffic act of 1926 to the introduction of the Austin FX4 to the Belfast market.

If that makes it sound like a nerd’s account – up there with a guide to the bus routes of the south Down area – Belfast Taxi is far from it. The legislation is referred to when relevant, but it is the wide collection of characters, and their wild and oftentimes unbelievable stories, that take centre stage.

Henry has an obvious respect for taxi drivers in Belfast – perhaps because his adopted grandfather worked as a public hire cabbie in the 1950s – but also through a journalist’s interest in the details that make up driver’s lives.

Who now, for example, remembers Silver Cabs, the forerunner of today’s FonaCabs and Value Cabs? Luckily, Henry managed to track down 91-year-old Ralph McMurray, who began working for William John McCausland in the 1950s after working for Anytime, Anywhere cabs.

Belfast Taxi highlights the huge impact of the Troubles on the taxi industry in Belfast, on long gone private hire firms like Enterprise Cabs of the Albertbridge Road, as well as on individual drivers, such as Charlie O’Brien, who recalls driving Kate Adie and the media corps through the debris strewn streets of the 1970s.

Many taxi drivers lost their lives during the Troubles, and the story of survival through the long years of tit-for-tat killing – when taxi and delivery men were easy targets – chills the blood, pervaded as it is with a sense of those surreal nightmarish days.

One interesting chapter concerns the Shankill and West Belfast Taxi Associations. The WBTA grew up to replace the receding bus service of the early 1970s, and was a community service run on collective terms. Their unique approach of collecting passengers en route as opposed to one passenger hiring the whole taxi has developed into a part of the folk memory of Belfast people.