A flying visit to Northern Ireland to see family, we also managed to squeeze in a trip to something completely different – the Crumlin Road Gaol. Opened in 1846, around 25,000 convicts have passed through this place from then until 1999 when it closed. Amongst these were some of the most notorious prisoners involved in paramilitary violence during the dark years of the Troubles. The whole place and the tour was engrossing and intriguing. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
We pre-booked a couple of weeks in advance on-line so had no issue with tickets – it does get popular though so I’m not sure if turning up on the day would work. Our biggest challenge was finding the jail and the car park – not so easy. Driving into the grounds I felt a real sense of foreboding, you could really imagine how prisoners entering here must have felt.
We checked in early and had some time before the tour to browse in the small museum. Lots of interesting artefacts, things to read and even the death mask of Albert Pierrepoint, the famed executioner. Some quirky photo opportunities here too.
Our guide arrived, took us outside and told us about the history of the prison and the buildings. Having recently undergone a £10 million restoration the whole place looks as it would have done in Victorian times.
We saw the holding cells then went down into the tunnel, built in 1850 connecting the prison to the Crumlin Road Courthouse on the opposite side of the road. Unfortunately the courthouse is in a sorry state, it was sold to a private developer some years ago, nothing was ever done with it and it is now virtually derelict. As a result of this you can only go halfway through the tunnel. Interesting aside, apparently the phrase “take him down” originated here. The judge would order the condemned prisoner in the courthouse to be “taken down” to the tunnel below and on to the jail.
Entering via the governor’s office we emerged in the famous C Wing. Incredibly impressive flooring and wrought iron work but a creepy feel, enhanced by all those wax figures “watching” you. Maybe something even more spooky too – apparently this is one of the most haunted buildings in Ireland.
We saw various cells including the padded cell and another which housed some political prisoners who painted a mural on the wall.
Last was the condemned man’s cell. Seventeen men were executed here before the death penalty was abolished. We entered the cell and the execution room – just thirteen steps away from the bed. The prisoner didn’t realise what was behind the door until it was opened and the whole process was completed very quickly. The noose swings still in the middle of the room. To say the atmosphere is chilling would be an understatement. Sobering and solemn, we passed through and Son was completely freaked out.
Downstairs we saw where the body was prepared and laid out in the coffin. Outside we were taken to the area where these men were buried. The graves are unmarked and unconsecrated, however in places there are initials carved on the wall which shows some of the graves and who is buried there. No-one knows who did this.
A walk through the exercise yard and the tour was done.
Fascinating and gripping, this is definitely a Belfast must-see. A place full of history and incredible stories from long ago and the not so distant past, it definitely sent a chill down my spine.