I’m currently in the middle of a month off between jobs. For the most part I’ve just been hanging out at home: both in Belfast and Dublin. Trying not to get too idle, one morning I decided to do something new.
So I walked to the Crumlin Road Gaol. This is somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit, but was too scared to go on my own. I really have a talent for working myself up about jails and graveyards. Although I’m not even sure how much I believe in ghosts and the like, there is such a strange and terrible aura in these places.
I eventually realised Tiernan wouldn’t have enough time to come with me (although I could have waited a week since he finally had a day off with me on Sunday) and I’d just have to do it. I booked a tour and went alone (o.o).
Crumlin Road Gaol is another beautiful building designed by the architect of Belfast, Charles Lanyon. You may remember him from my Queen’s University blog. It might be a prison, but I’ll allow it to be architecturally awesome. The jail is enclosed in a five-sided wall – think the Pentagon. Within the walls, the four wings for containing inmates fan out from a central room – think sunburst.
I walked in through the main gate feeling intimidated. Then, somewhat appropriately, made my way to the basement museum to meet the tour. Our guide was a young woman named Orlagh, who had a wicked sense of humour. Her first joke: “You’re all so quiet, someone would think you’re in a prison or something.”
In 1846, the first 106 prisoners – men, women and children – were marched in after making the journey from Carrickfergus on foot. The prison closed its doors for ‘justice’ on 31 March 1996.
Perhaps most disturbing of the whole tour was a visit to the condemned man’s cell and the execution room. Crumlin Road Gaol was the site of Northern Ireland’s last execution. A man named Robert McGladdery was hanged for the murder of Pearl Gamble on 20 December 1961. A total of 17 men were executed at this place, by some of England’s top executioners, and buried in unmarked graves around the grounds.
The tour wasn’t as political as I’d expected. In fact, it wasn’t political at all. The only reference to this jail holding such men as Eamon De Valera (the leader of the Irish rebellion), Bobby Sands (the Irish republican who died after a hunger strike in 1981), and Martin McGuinness (Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, former IRA leader, campaigned for Irish presidency in 2011), was a vaguely 70/80s themed cell.
Still, it was one of the fastest hours of my life, taking that tour. I learned a lot about the hanging process and the life of the condemned man. Perhaps a bit more than I really wanted to know and see, looking at the noose hovering over a trapdoor in the floor boards. But it was good. I probably wouldn’t go back at night… Felt a bit relieved for those on death row that it would all be over in a matter of minutes.