For 150 years, Crumlin Road Gaol housed Belfast’s thieves, murderers, other ne’er-do-wells and political prisoners. As its Victorian façade looms over you impressively, your brain places it firmly into the past which makes it all the more surprising to discover that its gates were closed for the last time only 20 years ago!
First Harry, our knowledgeable tour guide, led us into the processing room where every prisoner – men, women and children as young as 10 – was brought on arrival. It was a cold, soulless room with a red and black tiled floor, surrounded by about 15 wooden partitioned cubicles.
Layers of graffiti were etched into each door; all but the most recent scrawls were masked with thick brown paint. Here, prisoners would be assigned a dehumanising number, locked into the compartments and instructed to strip. Numbered cloth bags, hanging on the doors, were for their clothes which were then confiscated until the prisoner’s release. After that, everyone received a bath and a de-lousing scrub with carbolic soap: the temperature and depth (1-4″) of the water was dictated by their behaviour thus far in the gaol.
Throughout the gaol’s 150 year reign, there were 26 wardens. The first, and by far the longest-standing (at 27 years), was a man named John Forbes.
Prisoners would be escorted to him on arrival and he would read out the rules and regulations. Since the prison was originally run based on the separate system, one key restriction which would have been explained was that inmates were forbidden to communicate with each other. Even when being moved around the premises, their faces would be covered by veils. Punishment for the contravention of the rules could result in beatings with a cat ‘o nine tails or birch branches, or in extended sentences at the warden’s discretion.
Sentencing and re-trials took place in the court house over the road. Once very grand, it is currently privately owned and has suffered several arson attacks so is now in a state of disrepair.
To get there without gaining public attention, prisoners would be walked, in their shackles, through an 84m tunnel which also housed the gaol’s heating pipes. It lies only 1.5m below the road and is far from weather-proof.
Our tour then progressed to the main cell block, based on London’s Pentonville and consisting of ‘The Circle’ from which four three-storey wings fan out. The stark contrast between its white walls and black painted railings created an oppressive atmosphere. Even in winter coats and hats, it was freezing. Although silent, but for Harry’s commentary, it was easy to let your mind wander back in time to imagine the guards, the inmates, the jangling keys, the heavy doors closing and the shuffling feet accompanied by clanking chains.
Originally A wing was for women, D was for children and the other two were for men. Later, women and children were no longer admitted and, during The Troubles, the different wings were used to segregate the Loyalists and the Republicans. Although this worked for a time, ultimately the conflict was instrumental in the prison’s closure in 1996, in addition to the judgement that the building was no longer fit for purpose.
Offices for administration, parcel searches, letter censorship and medication dispensation lined the ground floor, as well as a tiny kitchen, communal showers and toilets. Some cells were also set up for visitors to view. For punishment there was an example of one of the sixteen ‘boards’ cells where a prisoner would have nothing but a plank of wood, a water container, a chamber pot and a Bible.
There was also a padded cell.
At Crumlin Road’s opening, regular cells were 12 x 7′ and meant for one inmate each. However, the start of The Troubles in 1969, and the introduction of internment without trial meant that there were often three men to a cell in later years. Even by the time the gaol was closed in 1996, there was still no in-cell sanitation, with chamber pots being ‘slopped out’ morning and evening.
The final part of the internal tour was both the most interesting and the most harrowing. A double cell was assigned to prisoners condemned to death. It was simple still, with the addition of a cross on the wall plus prisoners were allowed daily access to family. They would reside there for three or four weeks whilst an executioner and his assistant were called; none lived in Ireland so they would travel from England.Three men from the Pierrepoint family were frequently called upon.
The cell also had the luxury of an adjoining bathroom. Inside was a tall wooden bookshelf filled with books and games. As our tour group crowded into the sombre en suite, Harry suddenly and theatrically pushed aside the bookshelf, and with an echoing bang, the hanging cell was revealed. Imagine the shock of discovering how close to death you had been living. The subject was then led to the noose suspended over a trapdoor, operated by a lever.
Twelve men were executed in this way, the last in 1961. Prior to this, five others had been executed outside, three in the courtyard but two before that outside in public view. Thousands came to watch, bringing children, picnics, games and plenty to drink. Indeed there was such merriment that many people were unable to work the next day: a hangover.
Next we descended below the hanging cell, to where a simple wooden coffin stood. From here the body would have been carried outside and buried in an unmarked, unconsecrated grave on the prison grounds. Meanwhile, the hangmen would make their way through the tunnel to the courthouse in order to pay the fine of a shilling for their own crime of premeditated murder, to show that no man was above the law.
With that, and a walk around the road built over said graves, the tour was over. A fascinating, if grim, experience.
On a much lighter note but sticking with the Victorians, we next headed to Belfast’s Botanical Gardens to view its impressive Palm House, built in 1840. Here are a few photos: the only bright, blue skied part of our trip!
The next few days were spent driving the Causeway Coastal Route. Had it been summer, this would have consisted of views of cloudless blue skies, turquoise seas and the famous emerald green hills. However, they were left to our imaginations and replaced by stormy seas, grey skies and mist-shrouded hills. We didn’t let that stop us though: we spent a lot of time very wet and ever so cold exploring (and enjoying) all the main touristy highlights.
Carrickfergus castle and harbour:
For several hours we drove without seeing any living things but sheep! These were rather photo shy:
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. A bridge has been in this location for 350 years to enable salmon fishermen to reach their nets:
The Giant’s Causeway. The legend goes that Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway as stepping stones to Scotland in order to fight Scottish giant, Benandonner. Geology attributes the basalt rock’s formations to lava. Such wet and windy weather meant that we weren’t allowed to climb part of it and most of the photos have rain on!
Dunluce Castle featuring some if the geometric basalt from the Giant’s Causeway. It was home to the mercenary MacQuillan Family from 1480s-1550s and last resided in by Randal Og MacDonnell in 1642:
And a final stop at the Dark Hedges which were apparently one of the many Northern Irish locations featured on Game of Thrones.
It’s been great to get away for a few days but we’re looking forward to coming back and experiencing it again in the sunshine!