The enduring image of the Northern Ireland Troubles is the burning bus. But, despite being in the frontline of hundreds of attacks, bus drivers have stopped short of withdrawing their services. Now, their contribution to stability in the country is being recognized and celebrated in a city-wide festival.
The Routes Festival, held in May, depicts the lives of bus drivers. "It tells the story of the bus workers through photographs, plays, films and writing in order to focus public attention on the enormous contribution they have made to community relations and relative stability while sharing some of their humor and resilience," said Ruth Graham, organizer of the event.
The opening event, a play titled "Kings of the Road," told the story of three generations of a Belfast family who had all worked on the buses. The play was based on bus workers' real experiences.
Audience members were presented with a specially-produced newspaper, The Busworker, that contained articles and first-person stories about life on the buses. Running through the narratives was a sense of pride in the bus workers' stance against sectarianism in an increasingly divided Northern Ireland.
One of the highlights of the festival was a re-creation of the No. 77 bus route, which crossed Belfast before the city's notorious "peacelines" (10-meter walls) were constructed to keep the warring factions apart. Drivers and passengers who traveled the route, until it was discontinued in the 1970s, were interviewed about their experiences. One bus driver recalled the murder of a colleague, who was shot as he drove his bus along Crumlin Road in North Belfast in May 1977. The murdered driver was shot by militant Protestants because he and other bus drivers were working in defiance of a general strike.
The heroism of bus drivers in the country was highlighted at a seminar held at the festival. Anne Jordan, a photographer whose pictures of bus workers were exhibited, recalled an interview with a retired driver. "He was 75 years of age and he had given 50 years of service to the buses," she said. "At the height of the Troubles in the '70s, he had been taken off the bus, had a bag put over his head and had a gun put to his head. He didn't know what was going to happen. For a bus driver to go through that is ridiculous. He's just out there doing his job -- a completely innocent man."
"We've had 12 bus drivers murdered and thousands of injuries, some so serious that the drivers weren't able to return to work," said David Glover, bus driver and branch chairman of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union, which partly funded the festival. "We felt it was important to tell the story of the bus workers over the past 30-odd years because their story has never been told."
This is the first year the festival, which drew 3,000 to 4,000, has been held. The festival's organizers plan to take the concept to South Africa and other post-conflict zones where bus workers have played a similar role as they have in Ireland.