We take tour of Crumlin Road Gaol attraction

Prison’s past becomes its future

By Francesca Ryan

 

Crumlin Road Gaol has a long and fascinating history and as of next week it’s looking to a bright and prosperous future. The former prison opens its doors on Monday (November 19) as Crumlin Road Gaol Visitor Attraction and Conference Centre. We took a tour of the building ahead of the opening and were thoroughly impressed with what we found.

The prison, which officially closed in 1996, ending a 150-year history of imprisonment, conflict and executions, has been given a new lease of life following a mammoth transformation that is nothing short of remarkable.

Gone are the days when the only people entering the building were prisoners – an estimated 25,000 in total – and prison staff, now the Gaol is selling itself as a prestigious and unique venue for conferences, corporate dinners and events as well as a friendly place for the many visitors wishing to explore first-hand the building’s colourful past and gain a unique and memorable insight into the daily lives and routines of both prisoners and prison officers down through the Gaol’s history.

Opened in 1846, Crumlin Road Gaol is the only Victorian era prison remaining in in the North. A Grade A listed building, it was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon of Queen’s University fame. Over the years, the Gaol has housed all manner of prisoners, from young Victorian children to Ian Paisley and Eamon de Valera.  It has an underground tunnel to the old courthouse opposite, four wings of four storeys that fan outwards from a central control area, known as The Circle, and Victorian era punishment/flogging rooms. All are still accessible and all constitute part of the fascinating tour.

Our guide was Brian McKibbin, Communications Director of the Centre, who is not only well-versed in the Gaol’s history, but also its plans for the future.

“In the Gaol’s lifetime, 17 men were executed by hanging, their bodies buried within the prison walls in unconsecrated ground,” he explained. “The only marker was the men’s initials, scratched into the wall against the year of execution.

“No jail is without its escapes,” he continued, “and Crumlin Road Gaol is no exception. Despite the prison’s heavy security, overseen by the British Army in the adjoining Girdwood camp, several daring escapes were carried out by IRA prisoners during November and December 1971. But some 30 years earlier, on January 15, 1943, the IRA’s Chief of Staff and three other republican prisoners escaped from the Gaol, launching Belfast into the biggest security operation since 1922.”

The escapes are now in the past as the centre focuses on attracting people who want to get into the prison for the informative and interesting tours that trace the prisoner’s journey from reception to cell.

“The Gaol was built to house between 500 and 550 prisoners in single cell accommodation, each cell measuring 12 by seven feet, and 10 feet in height,” explained Brian as we moved through the wing with its tiny, claustrophobic cells. “In later years, depending on the influx, up to three prisoners might have occupied a single cell, as was the case during the early 1970s. Of the four wings in the Gaol, A-Wing was the longest with 31 cells on either side of three landings. Extensions to the Gaol were made in 1890, clearly seen today in the brickwork on the exterior and inside the front wall.”

But perhaps the most grimly fascinating part of the tour is the condemned cell with its hidden door connecting to the gallows next door. An original noose used in an actual hanging bears mute testimony to the prison’s melancholy past.

The modern conferencing and hospitality facilities include the main Lanyon Conference Suite, which can accommodate up to 200 delegates, the Forbes Boardroom, which can accommodate 42 people, whilst C-Wing can seat up to 80 and the circle holds up to 75. There is also an IT suite, a training room and, of course, the famous tunnel that leads from the Gaol under the Crumlin Road to the courthouse, which is also available as an exhibition area.

Despite its often melancholy  history and prolific stories of resident ghosts, the Centre is fast attracting the kind of attention it has set out to achieve.

“We have 20 functions booked already,” said Brian.

“Organisations from the US Consulate to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board have expressed interest. In terms of entertainment, we have plenty including a Johnny Cash tribute night coming up in December where people can hear the Folsom Prison set live in the Gaol. That is going to be a lot of fun.”

But the Johnny Cash tribute isn’t the only man in black that could be centre stage at the building, as Brian explained.

“We are willing to cater to all events and we have had people express an interest in holding their wedding reception here. We have even organised a wedding fair to sell the place as a wedding venue. You would not believe the interest!”

Crumlin Road Gaol has certainly come a long way and looks set for a successful future, ironically with its past leading the way.

For more information or to book a tour, telephone 90 741500.

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