Prisons seem to have something of a macabre fascination for those lucky enough never to have been subjected to enforced detention. Belfast’s Crumlin Gaol, known locally as “The Crum”, is one such “attraction” and it is particularly interesting for the part it has played in the living memory of Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
Crumlin is a Victorian prison, opened in 1846 to replace the old prison at Carrickfergus. The first 160 prisoners were forced to walk about 40 miles from Carrickfergus to their new home in chains. Since then it has housed young children jailed for theft, suffragettes, criminals and political prisoners.
The latter include Eamonn de Valera, who later became President of Ireland, Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA, who later died on hunger strike in the Maze prison, Ian Paisley of the DUP, who later became First Minister and Martin McGuinness, a leader of the Provisional IRA who became Deputy Leader of Northern Ireland and greeted the Queen there on her visit to the Gaol in 2014.
The entrance is appropriately forbidding. The black basalt rock reflects its dark and severe nature: the small windows indicate the restriction of light and sun inwards. There is a guided tour available, or you can simply follow the designated route.
It begins with the history and explanations of the gaol’s role between 1841 and its closure in 1996. Various showcases have artefacts, and panels on the walls give details of executions and escapes over the years. There is then a video of actors including the Governor, supposedly from the 19th century (which I found a little irritating as it seemed to deal in a somewhat trivial fashion with the sadness and horror that must have been the main features of life in this building).
Inside the Gaol itself you go down below to walk a little way through the underground tunnel which connected directly to the courthouse on the opposite side of the road and through which many a prisoner walked - from remand to the courthouse and very probably back again.
Back upstairs in the exhibition is one of the original cell doors complete with peephole and small hatch for passing food. Next to it stands the menacing “flogging rack” used for corporal punishment with birch rod or cat o’nine tails. It is shocking to note that this type of punishment was used as recently as 1961.
In the Circle the layout of the prison is apparent. It is a panopticon designed following the principles of Jeremy Bentham - the Circle is the hub with four spokes containing the cells radiating outwards. This allowed the warders maximum supervision of the offenders.
The visitor then has access to C wing where the harshness of Victorian prison life becomes clear. It operated on the “separate and silent” system where prisoners were forbidden to communicate or even see their fellow inmates, having to wear a mask in the exercise yard. In the corridor is an example of the “bumper” - the machine prisoners had to use to polish the floor - and the “crank”, a completely mindless punishment where the incarcerated had to turn the hand screw many thousands of times. Apparently this is the origin of the term “screw” still used for prison warders.
Through each open cell door visitors can see different aspects of prison life. They include some staff offices, a child prisoner’s cell, a padded cell, a woman’s cell and the condemned man’s cell and execution chamber. There seems little difference in comfort between the 1846 cell and the 1970/1980s cell, and certainly overcrowding was evident as by the 1980s cells housed two or three men instead of the one each was designed for.
One cell had a video relating the experiences of two genuine past inmates which was sobering to listen to but gave a true flavour of what internment was like during The Troubles. Another had a video detailing the history of the Troubles - the pictures were in cartoon form, but the commentary was of a serious nature and provided a good, balanced summary. There is a somewhat gruesome audio to listen to in the execution chamber.
Out in the yard you can visit the Matron’s House and the Sanger (watch tower) as well as see a decommissioned Wessex helicopter, once a familiar sight in the air above Belfast during the Troubles.
The visit can be linked to either a Walking Tour or Black Taxi Tour for those who want to understand how the years of the Troubles affected the city and to be aware of the legacy of those times on the citizens of today.
Read about taking a Black Taxi Tour of the Troubles >>
Visiting Crumlin Road Gaol
How to get there
Crumlin Road Gaol, 53- 55 Crumlin Road, Belfast, BT14 6ST
Car parking is available
Bus routes 12A 1A 1D 57 all run from the city centre and stop near the gaol.
Open 7 days a week 10.30 - 1530
Refreshments are available in the restaurant Cuffs.
Family of 4: £30.00
Discounts available if booking online.
Book your tickets here, either for your visit to the gaol or combined with a fascinating Black Cab tour. Both can be cancelled up to 24 hours beforehand with a full refund.