The foreboding North Belfast edifices of Crumlin Road Gaol and Courthouse stand face-to-face and are connected by an underground tunnel once used to spirit prisoners from the Gaol to the Courthouse for trial - and back if convicted.
The Neo-Palladian Courthouse was opened in 1850 and is topped by a scales-free figure of Justice. Since its official closure in 1998, the building has been used as a makeshift theatre, film location and cinema. It is currently owned by a private developer and there are no plans for its future use. As a result, it is in an appalling state of disrepair having been targeted by arsonists, vandals and break-ins over recent years.
Opened in 1845, the black basalt and red sandstone Crumlin Road Gaol (pronounced jail) was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and inspired by the cutting-edge layout of London's Pentonville Prison. The Gaol's four Wings (A-D) radiate from a centre Circle and rise three storeys, with a fourth basement level. Each small prison cell was built for single occupancy, though many housed up to four cellmates during the 1970s.
In the early years, inmates included women, children and petty criminals - some bound for Australia's penal colonies. Suffragettes were also housed here before female emancipation following WW1. Throughout the Troubles, the Gaol witnessed many breakouts, bombings and rooftop protests.
And, over the decades, inmates and internees of note (and for various reasons and sentences) have included Ian Paisley, Eamon de Valera, loyalist murderer Michael Stone and Shankill Butcher Lenny Murphy.
Since its closure in 1996, the building stood derelict until restoration work and tours breathed new life back into 'The Crum. And, on 19 Nov 2012, the Gaol reopened as one of the city's best visitor attractions.
Conducted by trained guides, each c.1hr tour begins at the front entrance, taking visitors inside via the reception and Governor's Corridor. You then descend into the tunnel where cockroaches once roamed and ghosts are said to still haunt.
The Circle, with its ornate wrought iron railings and spiral staircase, is the next stop before continuing down a restored wing and into one of the 550 or so cells. At the end of the wing is the Condemned Man's Cell - larger than the others as it also housed two 24hr prison officers. Seventeen men were executed at Crumlin Road Gaol from 1854-1961, and all but two remain buried in unmarked graves at the back of the complex.
Your first glimpse of the original hangman's noose is guaranteed to leave even the hardiest of visitors slack-jawed. And the descent to the basement 'drop cell' - where the dead man was left to dangle until sure death - will send a shiver down the straightest of spines. A short walk outside reveals the large back yard, old hospital building - and those unmarked graves.
Paranormal tours and regular live music, including Johnny Cash and Elvis extravaganzas, animate the Gaol's nights. Conference and educational research facilities are also available. And a Cafe and Gift Shop complete your unique day out.
Crumlin Road Gaol Troubles Tour
This half day tour starts at the Gaol with a brief introduction to local history including pre-Troubles, the Troubles and the Peace Process.
An ex-loyalist prisoner then takes you to the Shankill Estate and Shankill Road, sharing what it was like growing up during the Troubles and giving an insight into the views of the loyalist community. You then head to the Shankill Memorial Park before making your way to the Lanark Way Peace Walls designed to keep peace between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Grab your free Troubles Tours pen and add your message of peace to the wall.
At the Peace Gate an Ex-Republican prisoner then continues the tour down the Falls Road while sharing personal stories from the Republican community. Bombay Street, Clonard Monastery, the Bobby Sands Mural, Divis Tower and the Republican Garden of Remembrance and The International Peace Wall are all visited.
Once back at Crumlin Road Gaol, re-fuel with a pint of Guinness and bowl of Stew at Cuffs Bar & Grill before taking a guided tour to gain an insight into the roles by the Prison Service, RUC, British Army and RAF at HMP Belfast aka the 'Crum'.
Tours dept. 10:00 and last approx. 3 miles and 4.5 hrs. Tours run in all weather conditions. Wear comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing. Not recommend for U15s. £35pp (online price)
To get there by car: From city centre, drive up Crumlin Road, pass the Mater Hospital, Crumlin Road Gaol and petrol station on your right, turn right at traffic lights onto Cliftonpark Ave, then take first right and follow signs to free car park.