Northern Ireland: Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

The Belfast Visitor’s Center advised us to take the tour of Crumlin Road Jail (called Crumlin Road Gaol), so this was the first place we visited when we came to town. The jail was built in 1846 during the Victorian era and was home to more than 25,000 prisoners before it closed in the 1996.

The Victorian design was intended to house about 500 prisoners (one to a cell in isolation) , but during the turbulent years of “The Troubles”, prison population grew to about 1500. We saw all the basic elements of prison life. First we saw where the prisoners were received and how they were washed, photographed, and processed. They gave up all their personal effects and lived in isolation, the method then favored by the British to best ensure rehabilitation. Our guide showed us the rooms and procedures used to control prisoners at all times when they were outside their cells. There were women guards for women prisoners and male guards for male prisoners. The prison design was meant to convince prisoners that someone was watching them at all times. We marched into the tunnel that led under the road to the courthouse (now burned down), where the prisoners were taken to stand trial. The Warden’s office was the only room with carpet, so going to see the warden was being “called on the carpet”.

At first the policy for political prisoners was to segregate Republican and Unionist prisoners in different prison wings. In later years the policy was changed to integrate them. After this policy change, political prisoners avoided potentially volatile confrontations by voluntarily segregating themselves to maintain order. Over its history the prison witnessed riots, escapes, births, deaths, hunger strikes, and marriages.

We saw the cell for condemned prisoners. There were 17 executions over the life of the prison, the last of which was in the ’60s. Condemned prisoners did not know that the hanging chamber was only a few feet from their cell, and they weren’t told the date of their execution until the night before it was to occur. They were guarded at all times to prevent suicide. Guards socialized with them and became friends. The English prison system had very scientific procedures to ensure the most humane death possible by hanging. For instance the length of the rope and fall from the scaffold were precisely calculated using the condemned’s height and weight. Executed prisoners were confirmed to be dead in the chamber beneath the scaffold and then placed in wooden coffins and buried in unmarked graves on the site of the prison.

We saw the execution chamber and the room where deaths were verified. It was also the room where other prisoners were punished by flogging.

Visiting the prison provided us with some interesting background about life in Belfast, grim as it might seem. We missed a further attraction – the paranormal tours at night, where ex-inmates show why the jail is one of the most haunted sites in Belfast.

See a photo tour of the Crumlin Road Jail.

Visit to Northern Ireland

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Between January 17th and 22nd we traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland. This might seem an odd choice for our first trip outside France considering there are so many other destinations to choose from. The reasoning went like this: In late October Brenda purchased 2 tickets to see Van Morrison on January 21st at the Hastings Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast. Van Morrison is from Belfast and now lives there. When we got married we had the band learn Van Morrison’s song “Someone Like You“. Our 25th anniversary is coming soon. We were going to visit Belfast.

Belfast became a city in 1888, but the site has been inhabited for 5,000 years. According to Wikipedia, its population is 286,000 and it has a metropolitan area population of about 500,000. It is the 14th largest city in Great Britain. Though there were castles in the area dating from the 13th century, Belfast became settled as a community in the 17th century by English and Scottish migrants. Thus the native Irish Catholic inhabitants became a minority as a large Protestant immigrant population arrived in the north of Ireland.

Ruins of the Norman's Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ruins of the Norman’s Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ireland was invaded by the Normans in the 12th century, and the English extended their rule to whole island in 1690, establishing Protestent English rule over a disadvantaged Irish Catholic community and some other Protestant dissenters. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801. Early in the 20th century, there was a war of independence, and the Irish Free State was formed in 1920.

When the Irish Free State was formed and Ireland was divided into a number of partitions, the partition of Northern Ireland, having a substantial Protestant migrant population loyal to the government of England, agreed by vote of its parliament not to join the Irish Free State but instead to remain part of Great Britain. A substantial minority, mainly of Catholics, had advocated for Northern Ireland to join the Irish Free State.

Tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Fortunately “The Troubles” have receded, replaced by a period of political negotiation instead of terrorist warfare. The city of Belfast is recovering and has a bustling downtown business district with numerous fine hotels and restaurants. We found our trip to be a fun filled getaway.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast became a hub of industrial activity. It was the world’s largest producer of linen and rope, and the world’s largest shipbuilder. It was also a center for cutting edge engineering and other manufacturing. It was the largest city in Ireland for a brief period late in the 19th Century. Among other notable accomplishments, in 1912 workers in Belfast built the world’s largest ship, the Titanic. An excellent museum in Belfast today commemorates that accomplishment as well as the details of Titanic’s ill fated maiden voyage.

Belfast is a pretty fascinating city even in the winter rain and cold. We decided to spend 4 days at the Ten Square Hotel located downtown across from City Hall and then spend the last night at the Culloden Estate where Van Morrison performed.  We did have a clear day when we took a 9 hour bus tour to the Causeway Coastal Route. There we walked across the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, ate lunch at Bushmill’s Distillery, and walked along the beach at The Giants Causeway, a UNESCO Heritage site of unusual basalt rock columns. I took a few distant photos of Dunluce Castle, a 14th century structure atop a steep cliffside.

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

The 10 Square Hotel right in Belfast was a great choice as the location is perfect for walking around the city. The room was very comfortable though all the decor is a dark wood and carpeting and heavy drapes make it a wee bit (yes they actually say that phrase there quite often) oppressive. The hotel restaurant had very good food so we ate there several times. The bar on the week end is a madhouse of heavy drinking young and old revelers. We were glad that we were on the 3rd floor with a conference room on one of the floors in between-the noise did not travel up to our room! The hotel staff left a very nice Happy Anniversary plate of chocolates for us. Thank you! They have work out facilities but not on the premises so we did not utilize them. We walked miles around the city with our umbrellas.

There is helpful signage all about the town. The people are friendly and very proud of their city. We were fascinated by the Crumlin Road jail tour. The City Hall is worth visiting. They have a great coffee/lunch shop and information boards with interviews of Belfast folks who lived through “The Troubles”. The Visitors Bureau very close to our hotel is newly remodeled and has beautiful display cases, friendly staff, tons of brochures, suggestions for things to do. Because of the Visitor Bureau recommendation we were able to go on a walking tour on Sunday with a Republican tour guide who shared not only his political views and knowledge but some excellent Guiness in a local pub.

Van Morrison at the Culloden Estate in Belfast

We took the train from Belfast out to the Culloden. That might have been fun had it not been pouring rain and so windy that our umbrellas turned inside out. Not only is it a bit of a walk from the 10 Square to the train station, there is a quite an uphill jaunt from the train to the Culloden. Better to have taken a taxi from the 10 Square! But hey we got to experience the train and it only cost 6 GBP.

The Culloden Estate and Spa is magnificent. Our room was divine! And the spa there is marvelous. Brenda swam in their fabulous round sky domed pool and ate breakfast poolside the last morning. Van Morrison’s performance was excellent. For 30 years Brenda had wanted to see him live. He did not disappoint-performed non stop song after song. The dinner prior to the performance was delicious, smoked salmon entree, a specially roasted beef in wine sauce with vegetables and a pudding with caramel sauce. We enjoyed talking to the other guests at our table, which was positioned right up front so we could really see Van, his daughter Shana (who did a few numbers on her own and sang back up for Van), and the band. The Culloden staff also gave us a beautiful chocolate plate with Happy Anniversary written on it. We walked about the manicured grounds the last day before taking a cab to the airport (only 10 minutes away.)

Here is a photo tour of the city, the Titanic Tour, and the Concert. We’ll separately post articles and photos about the Causeway Tour, Jail Tour, and “The Troubles”.