The Crumlin Road Gaol Attraction and Conference Centre was opened on November 2012. Two and a half years on and I still hadn’t been on a tour (I did attend the Spooktacular in 2013). So, one sunny Tuesday morning, Mum arrived in Belfast and wanted to explore somewhere new. It wasn’t long before we decided to book a tour for ‘the Crum’.
The Gaol opened in 1845 to replace Carrickfergus Gaol as the Antrim County Gaol. Interestingly, the 106 prisoners (men, women and children) at the time walked the fifteen miles from Carrickfergus in shackles. Some of the Gaol’s most famous inmates were former Irish President Eamon de Valera, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, former First Minister for Northern Ireland Rev. Ian Paisley as well as the current First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Ironically, the latter two officially opened the visitor and conference centre.
We booked our tour online, saving £1 each from the standard price (there was a £1 booking fee too). We arrived with plenty of time to spare before our tour. The attraction is well signposted, and I found the car park with ease (last time, I abandoned my car on the Crumlin Road). Collecting the tickets was straightforward and you are issued with a colour coded wristband.
There was spare time before the tour began, so we were able to walk around the exhibits in ‘The Basement’. Artefacts displayed included a signed copy of ‘Messages from the Prison Cell ‘, written by Rev. Ian Paisley during his stay, materials used for corporal punishment and examples of artwork prisoners completed during their stay. This room has low lighting which made some things more difficult to read.
The tour was started promptly by our guide, Eoghan, who gave a health and safety briefing, along with a brief and basic history of the Gaol. The first stop of the tour was the reception area. This was where each prisoner was logged, completely stripped off their clothes and identity before being bathed and sent to their new quarters.
Next, we went to the governor’s office. There are no original artefacts in this room. It is not known if they were stolen or lost between the Gaol closing and the restoration project commencing.
We then made our way through the ‘Glass Door’ (named for the glass windows surrounding it), into ‘The Circle’ – where all four prison wings joined together. It was here it was explained that in more recent times, republican and loyalist prisoners were kept separately in A and C Wings with the ODCs (Ordinary Decent Criminals) kept between them in B-wing. We learnt about the Suffragette prisoners. They held hunger strikes and after force-feeding did not work, they were sent home to get themselves better, to return to the Crum on a specified date.
The only wing opened to the public is C-Wing and along this passageway are examples of the various cells. Prisoners during Victorian times had a cell to themselves, generally sleeping on a hammock in the middle of the room. During the Troubles, the prison population increased and rooms were shared.
The padded cell was moved from B-Wing to C-Wing for tour purposes. It was not the most pleasant smelling cell. A prisoner was held here if they were at risk of harming themselves. Other cells included the parcel sorting room, Medical Officer room and a cell used to scare children out of reoffending. There was no sanitation in these cells and chamber pots were used. What I found to be fascinating was that the same heating system was used right from the Victorian era to the closing of the prison in 1996.
At the end of C-Wing, is the ‘Condemned Man’s Cell’, which is two cells joined together with an ensuite bathroom. This is where the person condemned to be executed stayed. They had privileges such as better meals, three assigned prison officers and clergy visits. What they did not realise until their day of execution was that they were never more than twelve steps away from their death. A bookshelf in the bathroom was a door that led through to the execution chamber.
Seventeen executions occurred at the Crum. Robert O’Neill was the first in 1854 and the final man executed was Robert McGladdery in 1961. There was no hangman in Ireland and one was brought in from England. The execution procedure was explained in detail and I found it to be rather gruesome, however the children of the group did not seem to be phased about this at all.
Next up was the ‘Drop Cell’, which as you can guess is where the condemned ended up. It was explained to us how the body was handled after death – prisoners were to be buried in an unmarked grave in unconsecrated ground within the prison perimeter.
The tour continued outside where the exercise yard once stood.
The tour concluded at the graves of those who were executed. Each man was given The Royal Prerogative, however only two bodies have been exhumed and reburied in Milltown Cemetery, west Belfast.
Eoghan was a fantastic tour guide. He has a vast knowledge on the Gaol and answered all the questions my Mum and myself asked. I learnt a lot about the Crumlin Road Gaol on this tour and I’m glad we had such a brilliant guide.
After the tour, we had a nosy through the bookshop. As usual, I wanted to buy every historical book and immediately begin reading them. In the end, I purchased the souvenir guidebook (£2.50). At the end of the bookshop, it is possible to walk along the tunnel that links the Gaol with the Crumlin Road Courthouse. It is believed 25,000 prisoners were escorted along this tunnel from the early 1970’s to the closing of the Gaol in 1996.
It started to rain at this point, so we decided to have a cup of coffee at The Crum Coffee shop. I had a lovely mocha to round off my visit. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Gaol and I hope to be back to cover some of their special events.
Crumlin Road Gaol. Visitor Attraction and Conference Centre. 53-55 Crumlin Road, Belfast. BT14 6ST
- Adults: £8.50
- Children: £6.50 (5-15yrs)
- Concession: £7.00
- Family: £25.00 (2 Adults & 2 Children)
Do you enjoy visiting old prisons? What other morbid attractions have you been to?