Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
More background info:
The prison was originally built in the mid 19th century to the then new "separation" design, i.e. prisoners were held in single cells without being able to communicate with each other (see also Kilmainham Gaol
; and cf. Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
). Its architectural design features a typical shape of wings of cell blocks fanning out from a central "core" known here as "The Circle". The cell blocks are up to four storeys high, and were intended originally to hold up to 500-600 prisoners in total.
During the Troubles between 1969 up to the prison's closure in 1996, it served mainly as a remand prison for suspected terrorists/paramilitaries from both the Republican and the Loyalist sides, but also for long-term imprisonment. The Unionist and Republican prisoners
were, naturally, kept segregated. During the 1970s the prison was often overcrowded with up to three prisoners per cell. Informally the prison is known as "The Crum".
The list of prisoners who have gone through this prison includes many a prominent name, such as Eamon de Valera, the early 20th century rebellion activist and later president of the Republic of Ireland
(see Kilmainham Gaol
), Ian Paisley, the formerly uncompromising Unionist firebrand and later briefly First Minister of Northern Ireland (in 2007-2008), as well as Michael Stone, the Loyalist terrorist and perpetrator of the Milltown Massacre (see Belfast
and Milltown Cemetery
), and many more.
Up until 1961, executions were also carried out at Crumlin Road Gaol, 17 in total. An underground passage connected the prison directly with the Courthouse across the road (see below), so those on trial or sentenced could be directly transferred to the prison (or back) without them even seeing the light of day in the world of freedom outside.
The prison also became a target during the “Troubles”, namely in 1992 for a rocket attack. In 1994, Unionist prisoners staged a protest on the roof of one of the prison’s wings. Later that year, all remaining Unionist and Republican prisoners in “the Crum” were transferred to the Maze Prison H-Blocks near Lisburn (see below).
After the prison's closure in 1996 it stood derelict for years until it was decided to turn it into a visitor attraction in 2010. It was opened to the general public as a tourist attraction in late 2012 and was an instant hit. Originally you had to go on pre-booked guided tours but this is no longer the case, self-guided visits are now the norm (while some tours occasionally are still an option too – see below). And it’s popular and highly regarded. When I last looked on TripAdvisor, for instance, it was ranked second (to only the Titanic Belfast) amongst the top attractions in Belfast!
What there is to see: Quite a lot. After collecting or purchasing your ticket from the booth in the Gatehouse, you first have to enter the next building from the side.
Here you come to an exhibition room, with detailed text panels about the different phases of the prison when it was in operation, the executions carried out here, noteworthy prisoners, including a number of significant suffragettes in 1914, the years of overcrowding during the earlier phases of the “Troubles”, and so on. Artefacts on display include locks and keys, handcuffs, prisoners’ personal belongings, documents, objects for corporal punishment and even a death mask. The latter is not, as you may have expected, that of an executed prisoner, but the death mask of the executioner Henry Pierrepoint, who did his job here in 1933 and 1942. There are also a couple of screens here as well as an interactive video station with extra material about the building and also the Courthouse across the road (see below) with some cool drone shots of that impressive ruin.
You then move on past the museum bar (called “The Last Drop”, which was not yet open that early in the day) and towards the steps down to the entrance of the tunnel that connects the prison with the Courthouse. En route is the first of a series of animated projections, in this case of a warder, played by a rather overacting grim man, who comes to “life” (by motion sensor) as you approach. The tunnel is accessible for only part of the way, the rest of which is blocked by a metal gate with a “no entry” sign on it.
Then you move towards the “Circle”, the central part of the prison itself, from where the four cell block wings branch off. En route you pass the display of an old cell door (they were replaced with more practical ones in the 1970s) and a flogging rack. In the “Circle” there are more projections and coloured lights come on and off. It distracts a bit from the beautiful architecture of this centrepiece of the whole complex, with its black wrought-iron balconies and spiral staircase.
Three of the four cell blocks remain closed, but ‘C’ Wing has been commodified for visitors, though only on the ground floor (on the upper levels some restoration work was ongoing at the time of my visit, but I don’t know whether this work will result in those floors also becoming accessible, probably not).
In the cell block you can see various prisoners’ cells, some sparsely furnished (and with a desolate-looking prisoner dummy), some with two-tier bunk beds and some furniture (from the times of the “Troubles”). Again there are projections with animated figures narrating prisoners’ stories, including a young woman in the section about women and child prisoners. Other topics covered include escapes, significant inmates, prison routine, and so on. There’s also a special subsection focusing on the “Troubles”. Again there are also a few interactive stations.
In addition there are also prison staff rooms, from the Principle’s Office to the medical room, and from the letter censor’s office to a kitchen/canteen. Furthermore there’s a “punishment” cell and a padded cell, as well as one whose walls are covered with wall mural art made by prisoners.
Then towards the end of the cell wing comes the “Condemned Mans [sic!) Cell and Execution Chamber”. Here you have to wait in batches until the narration/projection for the previous batch of visitors has finished and you get the green light to enter.
The cell for those condemned to the gallows was larger than the normal cells and had its own adjacent bathroom and toilet (otherwise such facilities were communal). In the bathroom is a sparsely filled bookcase which is in actual fact a disguised sliding door. When the narration has finished this opens automatically and you move through to the actual execution chamber. One noose hangs above a hatch, which is now covered by a glass plate. Stairs (not useable by visitors) lead down to the chamber below where the corpses of those hanged would have been retrieved. Visitors are instructed to wait at the hatch while another projection runs, this time listing all the executions that took place here.
You then leave the building through a back door and come out into the main open area surrounded by a high prison wall. Two armoured military vehicles from the “Troubles” era are on open-air display. A marked path leads to the main gravesite of the prison, where those executed were laid to rest in unmarked graves. Further to the east is another grave, partially marked with the initials of the executed man’s name and the year of his hanging.
Then you proceed along the eastern wall, past another open-air display of a vehicle, this time an army truck, until you come to the Matron’s house in the far south-eastern corner of the prison. The interior has been restored with period furniture and features a dummy matron in period clothing.
Nearby stands an old RAF Wessex helicopter
on open-air display. The side door is open to reveal a screen with yet another animated projection inside. Finally there’s another armoured police car
from the “Troubles”, then you exit the open-air part of the complex through the gift shop
(as per usual). The wares on offer inside include items crafted by (ex-)prisoners!
There’s also “The Yard” cafeteria, but my wife and I decided to instead go for lunch in the prison museum’s proper restaurant, called “Cuffs”, located in the basement right beneath the “Circle”.
All in all, I found the visit to Crumlin Road Gaol more rewarding than I had expected, to be honest. There’s a lot to take in and learn, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Some of the infotainment elements (those projections especially) felt a little for the sake of it, but never mind. I was also glad that you can now visit self-guided. I’m not sure how much a tour with a live guide could add to the experience, but I fear it may involve some theatrical elements also seen in those projections. And that wouldn’t be for me, really.
Note that apart from their regular historical tours they also offer special "paranormal tours" – based on the claim that the building is allegedly one of the most haunted in the country … if you believe in such things (see paranormal tourism
). Since I don’t, this sort of tour would most definitely not be the thing for me. But everyone to their own …
on Crumlin Road at Nos. 53-55, in West Belfast
just a couple of hundred yards north of the Lower Shankill Road
, and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) from the city centre.
Access and costs: a bit outside the city centre, but not difficult to reach; not cheap, but still halfway reasonably priced.
Details: To get to the site you can walk it from the city centre; head to the north of the inner city and then take Clifton Street to cross the A12 Westlink motorway. At the Carlisle Circus roundabout cross straight (i.e. second exit) to get on to Crumlin Road. Carry on past the Mater Hospital on your right and the next block is already the prison. The entrance is at the central Gatehouse. You can also take a bus to the site (Translink lines 57 and 12B – except on Sundays, when the closest you can get on public transport is Carlisle Circus on line 12A and walk the rest).
If coming by car, you can park at the prison’s own car park. To reach that from Crumlin Road you have to first go past the prison in a westerly direction and turn into Cliftonpark Avenue heading north, then turn right into Summer Street to get to the car entrance security post (where you have to stop). From there turn right and follow the signs.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Last admission at 4 p.m.!
Admission: 14.50 GBP when the ticket is bought at the site; only 14 GBP when pre-purchased online. Some concessions apply. Regular guided tours cost 19.50 GBP. The special “paranormal” tours that last a full four hours (in the evening) cost 49.50 GBP. Tours must be pre-booked in advance and they are not available every day, so some pre-planning is required. Tickets for regular self-guided visits do not have to be pre-booked but it’s recommended. You will have to pick a time slot for the start of your visit, though (but can stay as long as you like).
Audio guides are available in French, German, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. An English version is also available but not really necessary for English speakers so I did not use one.
The buildings, or parts thereof, are sometimes also used for special events, photo/film shootings, conferences, even weddings, so at certain times access may be restricted/impossible.
Time required: the official website suggests 60-90 minutes, but I find that too tight an estimate. I spent a good two and half hours in there (plus time for lunch in the downstairs restaurant). Regular guided tours last 90 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Belfast
, especially West Belfast
. The area with the largest number of political murals of the Unionist Shankill
district is just south of Crumlin Road Gaol.
Right opposite the prison on the other side of Crumlin Road stands the sad ruin of the former Courthouse
that the prison was connected to by that tunnel mentioned above. The Courthouse was closed in 1998 (the year of the Good Friday Agreement) and has been abandoned ever since. There have been plans to convert this once grand building, possibly into a hotel, but nothing has so far come of it. There’s still a “for sale” sign outside it. After a lot of vandalism and repeated fires (arson suspected) the structure may by now be beyond repair. I would have very much liked to have a look inside, but couldn’t find anywhere to get through or over the fence that surrounds the site. It must at some point have been possible somehow, though, as this urbexer video
proves (external link, opens in a new window).
Another jail in Northern Ireland
, namely HM Prison Maze
(formerly the Long Kesh
Detention Centre) was at one point said to possibly become a memorial/museum too. Most cell blocks have since been demolished but parts of the outer wall, a couple of watchtowers as well as the former prison hospital and one H-block are still there and I've read years ago that these have even been designated listed historical monuments. There was talk of possibly turning the site into a kind of peace and reconciliation centre of some form or other. there were, however, objects to the plan for fear of the site becoming some kind of shrine to the IRA
and a thus a pilgrimage site for diehard Republicans. Given the prison's iconic role in their struggle, especially for the remembrance of the hunger strikers of 1981 (see under Northern Ireland
and Milltown Cemetery
and also Derry/Londonderry
), such fears were probably not without some justification. As far as I can tell, such plans for a conversion into a memorial have meanwhile been laid to rest, but you could still drive up to the site for a quick look from the outside. For an impression of what the prison looked like after it was closed (including the interior) you can check out this urbex photo gallery
published in 2016 (external link, opens in a new tab).
The former Maze prison is located just west of the small town of Lisburn (hence it's sometimes also called Lisburn prison) ca. 9 miles (14 km) south-west of Belfast
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing much in the immediate vicinity – but see under Belfast
- Crumlin Road Gaol 01 - entrance
- Crumlin Road Gaol 02a - exhibition inside
- Crumlin Road Gaol 02b - exhibits in the museum part
- Crumlin Road Gaol 03a - animated guard projection
- Crumlin Road Gaol 03b - tunnel leading to the courthouse
- Crumlin Road Gaol 03c - stairs to the bar
- Crumlin Road Gaol 04 - flogging rack
- Crumlin Road Gaol 05 - central part of the cell blocks
- Crumlin Road Gaol 06a - with projections
- Crumlin Road Gaol 06b - colourful
- Crumlin Road Gaol 07 - accessible cell tract
- Crumlin Road Gaol 08 - grim
- Crumlin Road Gaol 09 - dummy prisoner in a largely bare cell
- Crumlin Road Gaol 10 - prisoner dummies and projection
- Crumlin Road Gaol 11 - female prisoner projection
- Crumlin Road Gaol 12 - dummy guard sorting mail
- Crumlin Road Gaol 13 - medical room
- Crumlin Road Gaol 14 - kitchen
- Crumlin Road Gaol 15 - other side, collection point
- Crumlin Road Gaol 16a - Troubles exhibition section
- Crumlin Road Gaol 16b - padded cell
- Crumlin Road Gaol 16c - flamboyant wall paintings
- Crumlin Road Gaol 17 - executee anteroom
- Crumlin Road Gaol 18 - for a final dump
- Crumlin Road Gaol 19 - sliding door half disguised as a book case
- Crumlin Road Gaol 20 - execution chamber
- Crumlin Road Gaol 21 - under the gallows
- Crumlin Road Gaol 22 - original rope
- Crumlin Road Gaol 23 - projected executions
- Crumlin Road Gaol 24 - outside
- Crumlin Road Gaol 25 - armoured vehicles on open-air display
- Crumlin Road Gaol 26 - truck
- Crumlin Road Gaol 27 - in the house of the matron for female and child prisoners
- Crumlin Road Gaol 28 - helicopter
- Crumlin Road Gaol 29 - helicopter animation inside the helicopter
- Crumlin Road Gaol 30a - another armoured police car
- Crumlin Road Gaol 30b - restaurant in the ex-prison
- Crumlin Road Gaol 31 - abandoned courthouse across the road