The Gaol's Impressive Architecture.
On Crumlin Road, within walking distance of Belfast’s city centre, stand two buildings that each played important roles within the Northern Irish justice system; The Crumlin Road Gaol and the Crumlin Road Courthouse. The courthouse is unfortunately in quite a sorry state, though there are plans for its renovation. The same cannot be said of the Gaol as it received its own renovation a few years ago and has been enjoying it’s time in the sun as it reveals to the world its fascinating history.
The Crumlin Road Gaol is a Victorian era prison which was built in the early 1840s; and receiving its first inhabitants in 1846 following a long march from Carrickfergus. This included men, women and children; each were segregated within the gaol with segregation a consistent feature of the gaol throughout its long history. Over the years, the prison has held many well-known figures including Eamon De Valera, the Suffragettes and many members of paramilitaries on both sides of the troubles.
When stepping within the Gaol’s walls for the first time and looking up at the administration building looming over you, the first sight for many once interred here; you get a sense of how it would have felt to be brought here under other circumstances. The large black balsalt building is rather imposing and only allows for glimpses of the cell blocks beyond. Think of the countless people who stood where you stand; their crimes ranged from theft to murder, their sentences from a matter of weeks to life, others never left.
The Tunnel leading to the Courthouse
Within the prison, you will get a taste for what life was like for those interred here. You’ll begin the tour in the booking, first stop for any new prisoners, where new detainees would have their possessions stored, as well as being washed and deloused before being sent to holding cells within the main gaol. These cells were also used for those on remand and awaiting trial at the courthouse; running beneath Crumlin Road is a tunnel connecting the gaol and courthouse for transporting prisoners to and from.
Here’s where you’ll enter into the prison itself and "the circle"; this is where the different wings of the prison meet. Having evolved over its many years of service, the cells contain examples of what prison life looked like in the Victorian era all the way up to the 1990s. There is a cell here of particular importance; further along the main wing is the cell reserved for those condemned to the gallows. Here you’ll see the difference in lifestyle for someone set to be executed and how these men built up friendships with their constantly vigilant watchers. The inevitable always followed; the chamber where many served out their death sentence is not far away.
The theme of corporal punishment continues next door where you’ll find the punishment cells. Learn a little here about the brutality of prison life for those who broke the rules within the prison's walls. Some of tales of these tales are tragic, though we won’t spoil them here, and highlight some of the dramatic differences between the justice system then and now. The tour finishes with the unmarked final resting places of those executed at the jail. Officially, whose buried where is not recorded though there are initials and dates on a nearby wall left by fellow prisoners or guards who, regardless of their position, become friends with the deceased and went out of their way to make sure these men were remembered.
The Circle Where the 4 Wings Meet
The Crumlin Road Gaol, though it's history may be grim and dark at times, is a fascinating visit and well worthwhile. Not only is it a testament to the evolution of crime and punishment with the UK, and especially Northern Ireland, but a down to earth look at how we as people deal with difficult or unusual circumstances. Many a person goes their entire life without seeing the inside of a prison (though this is not a bad thing) and it's an opportunity that should not be missed.
Words & Images by John Temke