My favourite part of visiting Belfast was getting to see the Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail). We had an amazing tour guide, learned so much about it’s history, as well as the hauntings that the employees swear have occurred within it’s walls. The Jail is open from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. daily. My advice: try and get on the very first tour of the day. Having gone early Saturday morning, we were the only people on the tour, and so our guide, Roy, showed us a little bit extra since we were such a small group and was able to delve deeper into the goings on at the jail. I felt like we were getting our own private tour (because essentially, we were).
Originally opened in 1846, this jail has held approximately 25,000 prisoners throughout its 150-year lifetime. During this time, 17 individuals had been executed here at the jail.
During the worst years of “the Troubles” in Belfast (1969-1996), the prison held some of the most notorious murderers. This tunnel leads to the courthouse across the street from the jail, and prisoners would be shuffled back and forth through the tunnel. This became problematic at the height of the troubles, because if ever a protestant and a catholic would cross paths, violent outbursts would occur.
This is one of the reasons this tunnel is a “hot spot,” according to supernatural experts. Our tour guide informed us that some tourists have taken pictures of their partner or friend with the tunnel in the background, only to discover when looking through their pictures that their loved one was somehow erased from said picture and all you could see was the image below. Roy also said that, on his morning rounds, he would sometimes hear footprints walking up and down the tunnel when no one was there. “I didn’t believe in any of that ghost stuff until I started working here,” Roy had said.
The building, since closing in 1996, had been transformed to reflect the way it looked in Victorian days. The second photo represents a Goal cell in 1846, while the fourth represents one in in the 1970s and 80s. The most interesting aspect of this part of the tour was learning about child prisoners (shown in the third photo). While children under the age of 14 were not allowed to serve their full sentence in an adult prison, often times children were sent here for a short period of time to “smarten them up,” until the early 1900s. Of course, this experience was often too much for many children to bare, and in the 1870s a 14-year-old boy took his life in his own cell in order to avoid a flogging near the end of his 3-month sentence here.
Further adding to the cell chambers, there were also padded cells for the insane (which one prisoner appears to have signed their name as shown in the second photo in 1971) as well as a classroom for the child prisoners. The last two pictures show an art mural created by some of these prisoners during class time.
My favourite aspect of the jail is the execution chamber. Inmates who were to be executed were taken to the cell shown in the first photograph below, and were awoken at 5:00 a.m. for their final breakfast (which most refused). After, they were taken through a door to the right of the cell to be cleaned up and to give their last confessionals before their execution at 8:00 a.m. Expecting to take the death walk out of the cell and down the corridor, a moving bookcase in this room slides open and shows the ropes hanging in the execution room (although I had read about this before taking the tour, I had forgotten about this detail when entering the cell, and my stomach completely dropped when our guide slide back the bookcase – I can only imagine the surprise from the inmates).
The famous executioner, William Harwood, had worked here in his time and was famous for perfecting execution methods. From opening the bookcase, it took Harwood only 7 seconds to slip the noose around a prisoner’s neck and have them drop through the trap door to hang until dead. Prisoners were hung for half an hour to ensure that the soul had left their body and then taken to the next room to prepare the body for the funeral. However, as supernatural experts have deduced, the room shown in the last photograph is another hot spot area of the jail, and so one can assume that perhaps this precaution did not accurately deduce how long it takes for a soul to leave it’s body.
As these were criminals, the bodies were denied to the families and were buried within the jail walls in an unmarked grave. To notify an inmate’s family of their death, the guards would stick a sign in front of the jail’s gate. The bodies were buried in front of the wall shown in the last picture, however, many prison guards scratched the initials of the inmates to show where each body was buried, technically marking their graves.
If you’re ever in Belfast, I urge your to take the tour for yourself. It is absolutely fascinating and chilling to walk along these corridors and learn so much about such a huge part of this city’s history. Ask for Roy and tell him I’ve sent you – you really will be in for a treat. This was absolutely one of the highlights of my time spent here, and is definitely worth having a guided tour in order to hear about all the little extra aspects of the jail (such as the hauntings). And hey, if you’re feeling really crazy, you can even book events here – they hold conferences and weddings too, believe it or not. Take a look around their website to learn more about bookings and other upcoming events. I promise you won’t be disappointed.