It was bitterly cold as we marched through the harshly-lit tunnel. Water dripped on us from above as we left the comparable comfort of Crumlin Road Gaol behind us. The brickwork gave way to concrete as we passed beneath the road, narrowing the tunnel and squeezing us closer together.
The concrete was added to reinforce the original Victorian tunnel. It helped to support the weight of the modern-day traffic above and protected the tunnel from car bombs. Every prisoner knew that the concrete also disrupted the signal from the prison guards' radios. When Crumlin Road Gaol was in use, fights frequently kicked off here. Thankfully our group was better behaved.
Reaching the end of the tunnel, we were confronted with a heavy steel door. Bolted, padlocked and pocked with rust, it blocked our way into the now derelict courthouse. Unable to go any further, we turned and made our way back to the prison.
The Heart of Crumlin Road Gaol
A brief stop in the governor's office gave us a chance to warm up while listening to stories of dramatic prison escapes. We were then led through to The Circle. Actually only a half-circle, the four wings of the prison extended from this central area like spokes from a wheel.
Passing through a sturdy metal gate, we arrived on C Wing. We looked into administrative offices, a room where mail was censored and another where medicines were dispensed. In one cell, everything including the door was covered in a thick padding, now stained and yellowed with age. In another, there was a flogging rack, a formidable wooden contraption where prisoners were whipped, receiving up to 36 lashes.
The Flogging Rack
We saw one of the prisoners' cells, sparsely furnished with a couple of beds and a table. When Crumlin Road Gaol opened in 1846, each prisoner had the luxury of his own cell complete with a toilet. The prisoners used the toilets as a novel way to send messages to each other. The solution? Remove the toilets.
By the time the gaol closed in 1996, the conditions were worse than in Victorian times. There could be up to three prisoners per cell and they relied on chamber pots because there was no proper sanitation. This was a major factor in the decision to close the prison.
Crumlin Road Gaol's Most Comfortable Cell
Having had some free time to explore the C Wing, we all gathered together in one particularly spacious cell. Despite being the largest cell in the prison, it only held one prisoner at a time. The inmate was privileged enough to have a bookcase full of games, books and other entertainment. They even had a prison guard personally assigned to stay with them around the clock.
We were thoroughly confused until we found out how these inmates left the prison. When given a hearty shove, the bookcase rolled aside to reveal a hidden doorway. In the adjoining room there was a knotted length of rope, the original hangman's noose, hanging over a trapdoor in the floor.
In all the months they spent on death row, the prisoners never knew what was in the next room. They didn't have much time to think about it either. The whole process, from revealing the hidden doorway to opening the trapdoor, took only seven seconds.
The Original Hangman's Noose
The Graves At Crumlin Road Gaol
After their death, these prisoners received their final punishment. Instead of the bodies being returned to their families, they were buried in unmarked graves within the prison grounds. Although now covered in tarmac, we took a walk around the carpark to see roughly were the graves were.
It turns out that some of the graves had been marked after all. We saw a tiny cross and even 'MP 1924' carved discreetly on stones near the bottom of a wall. The people responsible for the carvings remain a mystery.
Crumlin Road Gaol Travel Tips
We visited Crumlin Road Gaol in February and it was cold. There was no heating in the cell blocks or the tunnel and we spent part of our tour outside. If you visit in winter, dress warmly and bring your scarf and gloves with you.
There is a small, uninspired coffee shop in one of the outhouses at Crumlin Road Gaol. We thought the Cuffs restaurant, housed in the original prison kitchen, was a much better option, even if you only order a drink.
Crumlin Road Gaol is only accessible by guided tour. While you can buy a ticket at the door, to guarantee your place it's better to book online in advance.
On C Wing
How To Get To Crumlin Road Gaol
By Bus: Take a Translink bus, either #57 or #12B, to Crumlin Road Gaol. The hop-on hop-off city bus tours also stop here.
On Foot: It's an easy walk from Belfast city centre. It is around 2km from Great Victoria Street train station to Crumlin Road Gaol.
By Car: You can drive to Crumlin Road Gaol and there is a car park on site.