Well, seeing as it is summer time, my parents are off work and my sister is home for a brief holiday before heading back to Scotland where she teaches, we decided to have a little family day out. As you do. Then my father had a brain wave, and enquired whether we would be interested in visiting Crumlin Road Gaol (it’s pronounced ‘jail’; when I was in primary school I was convinced it was pronounced ‘goal’. Leave me be now) and we all jumped upon the idea.
And so it was that we went to Crumlin Road in Belfast at the start of the week. It is a fascinating place full of history – it is a Victorian-era prison, having opened in 1846 – of crime, punishment and the law. It has special significance here in Northern Ireland due to its role during The Troubles, where both Loyalists and Republicans were imprisoned. As Northern Ireland is rather a special snowflake in terms of politics as a consequence of The Troubles, we can boast here that many of our politicians, from both sides of the divide, have been visitors at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. As our tour guide quibbed, when mentioning that the late Ian Paisley Senior (former leader of the DUP and former First Minister), Peter Robinson (current leader of the DUP and current First Minister), Gerry Adams (President of Sinn Fein, currently TD for Louth and past MP for Belfast West) and Martin McGuinness (current deputy First Minster and a past MP for Mid-Ulster) had all spent time incarcerated within the walls of the Gaol – “get this on your CV and you have a bright future ahead of you in politics.”
Eamon De Valera, Michael Stone and Bobby Sands had also spent time within the walls of the Gaol.
It was interesting to see the stark, cold environment which resulted in an almost tense atmosphere within. The cells were small and cold, and the windows only permitted a tiny slot of sunlight to enter. The Gaol used to be for both male and female prisoners, but in the mid-1900s it became a male-only prison.
Hearing about how young child from impoverished families were imprisoned for offences such as stealing food or clothing and had to work like adults and live in harsh conditions was saddening. It reminded me of how far the law has come in recognising children deserve different treatment under the law and should be given the opportunity to learn and grow, not be stigmatised and punished. We can thank the ECHR and the subsequent HRA 1998 to enshrine it within the UK for this.
The ECHR was also triggered in my thoughts as we were led into the execution room, where men who had received the death penalty were hanged. That was eerie. (I had refused to take photographs, either in the room which the condemned man lived for his final few days, or the actual execution room complete with noose. There is something not quite right with indulging in modern complusive smartphone photography in a room where men were executed.)
Public executions started in 1901, when the execution chamber was constructed and used right up until the last of the hangings in 1961. A total of seventeen prisoners were executed inside Crumlin Road Gaol; two men were reprieved following the abolition of capital punishment in 1973. Even though I knew the passing of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Powers) Act ended capital punishment in 1973, I think I was amazed that it took so long to end executions in NI; the full realisation of this probably did not strike me until I saw the trapdoor, the noose… The drop.
It was fascinating to hear that whilst the Gaol was often regarded as ‘Europe’s Alcatraz’, there were actual a number of successful escape attempts, notably by Republican prisoners.
I also found it rather humorous (we Northern Irish have a very wry black humour when it comes to The Troubles) to discover that during the conflict, prisoners imprisoned for ‘normal’ crimes such as theft and murder and not political crimes stemming from The Troubles, such prisoners were referred as ‘ODC’s – Ordinary Decent Criminals. (I kid you not.)
It was a fantastic day and a wonderful historical/legal experience which I really enjoyed.