Back in December we were asked to review the self-guided (due to Covid) tour of the now closed Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.
In my teenage years we can recall the name Crumlin Road jail regularly on the news for this remand prison.
We had been busy around the city earlier, so decided to take a taxi there from near Royal Avenue.
Our taxi driver was a great character. We told him our plan to go there, he offered to also do the ‘big wall’, bigger now than the Berlin one, meaning the peace wall. He told us how his family were burned out when he was young from the Shankill area and the family moved to the Ballymurphy estate. We passed the Belfast Telegraph offices. He worked there as a packer and seller as a youth. As he dropped us off, he told us to see the tunnel he was in it as a youth, and explained as a youth of 15 he was brought there and served other remand times there on a few occasions. This was life in Belfast back in those troubled seventies and eighties.
Interior of prison.
He was just one of 25,000 to be in the legal process during these times. He certainly added spice to our visit, which was rather sad but interesting and well worth going there if you like Irish history.
The size is awesome, as are the walls. The cells are very Victorian in size and men in the heat of the troubles were 3 to a cell.
At high points there 1400 men there, some were on a revolving door in and out for various offences and crimes.
There were 3 different wings, one for republicans, another for loyalist and a third for ordinary criminals. All had to exercise and eat separately for fear of violence
There were points made by ex-prisoners but now politicians from both sides.
They were interesting in their stories. Many used the time to read and study their political beliefs. The more relaxed types even did comedy plays to reduce the boredom.
The worst part was the old condemned cells where men did their last night before execution, last ones in early sixties but laws did not change till early seventies.
This was grim. Prison officers stayed with them for their last night on earth. We also saw the exercise yard and some grave slabs where the executed were buried.
Now they have an old Westland helicopter from Aldergrove airport used by the RAF for patrols in the Troubles era. This would hold over 12 men plus 3 crew.
There were a few other visitors, young couples as it turned out, learning some old history, who did not live through the Troubles but heard about it.
The Crumlin Road is on the North side of the city centre and we took a bus back to the city near the Antrim Road roundabout, passing the Mater Hospital Belfast along the way.
This tunnel was used for moving remand prisoners to Crumlin Road court house.
Back in the city was a different story as people shopped for Christmas and went about their daily work. 15 minutes later we were back in the Castle court area and Royal Avenue.
Most things to see here are fairly close to the city centre including the Titanic centre, where we were before and this area has taken off with even new hotels down there.
The Black taxi tours to old trouble spots are also worth a look and the aforementioned peace walls. Now that we are past the Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary the curiosity about the North has risen and this prison visit has some very good interpretation of history of that period.
Costs are reasonable for entry and is easily accessible by bus from city centre.
Afterwards, it gave time for reflection. The big take away was how many people were caught up in the prison system.
Due to politics, and when that was out of the way, a more normal way of life has returned to the city and province, even if there are ripples of trouble from time to time, as differences still remain.
We found it interesting how young people are keen on learning as it is not yet in the history books in schools and is sensitive.
Foreign tourists will find it interesting as well as people from the south who have not lived through the Troubles in their lifetime.
The prison was very much overcrowded and its Victorian building was out of date as were the conditions with three to a cell, which made life difficult.
The Maze and other prisons were put to use as well as old army camps such were the numbers arrested.
It is interesting that the tourist board is promoting this story, but overseas people are finding it interesting.
Kids with bin lids protest at army searches and internment of prisoners.
John Hume is a photo in Crumlin Road Gaol museum.
Americans in particular would benefit and give them a rounded view. It must be hard for British visitors many of whom have little interest in this period as many say it is very negative.
It is located close to Belfast, a bus or taxi ride away close to interface areas. You can also walk from Cathedral Quarter and shopping centres like Castle Court. We stayed at the Ten Square Hotel, very close to City Hall and the Christmas Market.
Great shopping in the city and remember St. Georges market at weekends for good bargains.
Try the famous Crown Bar and Robinsons for a period bar and drink.
Belfast is just hours from Waterford city via M9, M50 and M1. The city centre is just the second exit going into Belfast and Castle Court car park is easy to find as well as other ones. Lots of good restaurants. We had a lovely meal at the Howard Restaurant on Howard St. Many good restaurants have re-opened in the city.
Try Laverys trad family bar, Duke of York or Fibber Magees for music options and the Arts Centre near Cathedral Quarter for plays and performances.