Crummy Weather But We Held Belfast

Day: 153

Cities / Towns Visited: 80

Countries Visited: 20

Steps Taken Today: 20,928

Steps Taken Around the World: 2,636, 514

It was a brisk, and somewhat damp, early morning as we rose, and shuffled to the bus stop to attempt to make our way to the tour we had booked for the morning’s activity. Alighting in the central hub, out from which all of Belfast’s buses radiate, we headed towards the stop from which we would travel out to our first sight for the day. As fate would have it though, the bus never came, and we eventually came to the juncture where we had to admit defeat and head off on foot if we hoped to arrive on time.

With sweat making the inside our jackets damp, and rain doing the same to the exterior, we managed to tumble, heaving, through the door. Where were we this fine Sunday morning, you ask? Crumlin Road Gaol, of course. Meeting up with our group, our enthusiastic guide began the tour. This Victorian era prison (the only one left in Northern Ireland) was built in 1846, and ran for exactly 150 years, closing its doors in 1996. We began our time in the prison, just as many of the prisoners did, in the change rooms. Here they were made to change into their prison uniforms and place their personal effects in numbers bags for storage. The grim part of course being that many of these belongings we never reinstated as their owner was either sentenced to death, or simply died in the poor prison conditions. From here, we were shown the rather dank and dreary tunnel which runs under the road outside to the basement of the old, now dilapidated, courthouse across the street. It was through this passage that the prisoners were transported, both to help prevent escape during transportation, and to keep the identities of noteworthy prisoners from the ogling eyes of the public. It is a rather draughty place now, but back when it was in use the huge pipes which run down it, transferring hot water from the boilers to heat the prison and the courthouse, made it an unbearably hot and steamy gauntlet to walk.

Onto more pleasant lodgings, we headed into the administration area of the prison, and stopped briefly in the old office of the governor of the gaol, complete with a rather realistic Victorian menswear clad dummy sitting at the large leather topped wooden desk. At this point it was time to enter the heart of the prison itself; the circle. Just like many old Victorian prisons, this one consists of a central hub from which the multi-storey cell blocks radiated out. Beneath this spot lays the old kitchens, and out in front of us is the only wing which is open for visitation, C Wing. We were strangely not really surprised to be told that a number of people choose this somewhat morbid, but impressive space, to hold events, including the odd wedding, in which the circle is used as the dance floor, and the overlooking wrought iron walkway becomes the perch of the DJ. It would be memorable at least, I guess.

Finally it was time to wander the cell block itself. Many of the cells are open, and are reconstructed to show their uses and how they would have looked in the different eras of their use, including a few more dummies for good measure. From cells who’s beds were naught but sad looking hammocks, back in the beginning when the prison was designed for the new separation method of penitention, an idea which meant prisoners were one to a cell and were not allowed to interact with each other at all; to the more communal, but obviously more squished, cells sporting bunk beds to contain two prisoners. There was the mail room, and the censor room next door, as obviously all letters in and out were reviewed by staff and destroyed if deemed inappropriate; as well as the sick bay, and the more modern kitchen from the later years. On top of this there were a couple of cells set up to show more macabre scenes which did not originally reside in this cell block, from an isolation cell with nothing more than a thin mattress on the floor, a chamber pot, and a stool; as well as a punishment room which contained a rack for stringing prisoners up and whipping them.

Finally we reached the end of the corridor and were warned by our guide that in the following room he would be discussing the death penalty and if anyone was uncomfortable with the topic they could wait outside the room. Obviously we followed in, curious as to what we would see. We found ourselves in a cell which had been knocked through to the next, allowing a larger space. This cell used to hold prisoners condemned to death on their final night, so that they could receive their final rights from the priest, be under constant guard, and be prepared for their execution. In the morning they would be taken through a door to another cell which could only be reached from inside the condemned holding cell and which was lined on the back wall with bookshelves. It is here that they would have their hair cut to prevent it interfering with the rope during their hanging. From here they were led to believe that they would be marched out of the cell, through the cell block, and to an outdoor gallows. Until 1901 all hangings were carried out outside in full view of the public, however after that date they were carried out in private, and to our shock, our guide suddenly slid aside the bookshelf to reveal the last cell of the block, which is four cells away from the closest occupied cell. From its roof, hanging menacingly above a trapdoor in the floor swings a solitary noose; this was the place of those private hangings. You see the bookshelf was not there to hold important knowledge, but instead to muffle the knowledge of the capital punishment carried out behind it. If you think about it it’s kind of twisted that they make the condemned person sleep unknowingly but steps away from their imminent place of death.

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On the back wall are projected the names of the seventeen men who were hanged both publicly and in this very room. There was something deeply unsettling about being in a space of such violent deliverance of justice. This was made doubly so when the guide told us that the body would be left hanging for around 45 minutes after the trap door was released, in order to ensure the condemned was dead, as sometimes an unfortunate twist of fate meant that they were not blessed with a swift and merciful snap of the neck, and instead strangled to death slowly.

As was customary at the time, these seventeen men were buried within the unconsecrated grounds of the prison, along the back wall, in unmarked graves. It is unknown where the majority of them are buried at all, although two have since been dug up, identified, and re-interred in proper graves at the expense of their families. The rest lay somewhere under the concreted yard, but as we quickstepped outside, through the rain, and to the wall, the guide pointed at a single place where one of the men is thought to be buried. How is that known? Well some brave soul, most probably a guard risking his job and his freedom to do so, carved the initials of one of the men in the stone wall, which can still be vaguely seen today. Who did it and why is unknown, but obviously they believed this man to be innocent, or at least innocent enough to deserve a marked resting place.

After being returned to our starting point, we took a few minutes to look at the glass cabinets which display a collection of artifacts from the prison, including: a death mask, shackles, locks, keys, and even a cat-o-nine-tails and a birch rod.

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With our visit complete we made our way back into the centre of the city and caught a different bus out to our second location for the day. After a short walk through the continuing drizzle we came upon Belfast castle. We took a moment to wander around and admire the beautiful garden which skirts this old stone building. Despite the damp, there was something magical about the raindrop covered flowers, the whimsical topiary animals, and the fairytale-esque double staircase winding down from the back of the building to overlook the town below.

It may not be the biggest castle you’ve ever seen, but there is an understated majesty to it. It was built in the 17th century after the original 11th century Belfast Castle, which once stood in the heart of the city, burnt down. The aristocratic family of the Chichesters, originally titled as Barons of Chichester, then later the Marquess of Donegal, were the ones who called this place home. It is now owned by Belfast city council and is used for private functions and weddings. By this point we were getting peckish and decided to pop into the restaurant in the castle for a spot of lunch. Despite the laid back feel, the pork belly and chicken breast dishes we ordered came out looking almost fine dining, and tasted about as good.

From the restaurant we explored the basement level, with its display of the history of the area, including a memorial to the ten American Airforce crew-members who died during WW2 when their bomber flew into Cavehill, the large hill which juts up from behind the castle, in heavy fog. There is also a series of photographs showing some of the weddings which have been held here over the decades; an interesting throwback if only because the fashions regarding wedding attire have gone through some fascinating, and, retrospectively, amusing phases. Speaking of weddings however, we were disappointed to discover that we would not be able to look around the main floors of the castle as there was to be a wedding to be held later this very afternoon. Although this was disappointing, we were not too upset, as we headed outside to make our way through the castle grounds, and up the very hill that proved so deadly to those ten brave men.

As we meandered through the landscaped grounds, we soon found ourselves entering the wilder world of the woods which surround the gardens. Like seemingly ever woods in this country, the lush green foliage, and the towering trunks of the trees, leaves you feeling almost insubstantial in comparison. Unsurprisingly, given the dreary weather, we saw but a few people as we ascended the hill. Before long we were being spat out of the woods into the slightly bleaker brushland as the altitude rose. Over the sea of purple heather, we were treated to a stunning view of the sprawling city and suburbs below; behind us, the dark basalt peak which was to be out destination. This jutting rocky outcrop is fondly known as Napoleon’s Nose, as when it is viewed from afar it resembles the horizontal profile of the famous French Emperor. To the right, the path edges a plant filled crater, thought to have been used by ancient Celtic farmers to gather their cattle, and known somewhat ominously as ‘The Devil’s Punchbowl’.

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As we continued along the path, we finally stumbled upon one of the caves which gives this hill its name. The caves, although natural in appearance are, in fact, man-made, and are thought to have been dug for iron mining in years gone by. With the rock slick with precipitation, and with the entrance standing a good eight feet or so in the air, we reasoned that attempting to clamber inside for a look was a little more death-defying than we were prepared to wager, thus we simply snapped our pictures and carried on.

The ascent quickened, and we soon found ourselves out of the protection of the brush. As we reached the plateau of the summit, we pulled our jackets closer and our hoods up as the wind whipped icily across at an uncomfortably quick pace. The mist gave the entire scene a truly eerie appearance, and looking across at McArt’s fort, where we were heading, stood the solitary silhouette of a man. If this was a movie, I would swear that a dragon was about to swoop down from the sky to rejoin is master. Trekking headlong into the gale, we passed the singular figure we had seen from afar, and made our way out onto the protruding cliff which once held an ancient ring fort. Although nothing remains of the original structure, it is easy to see why this vantage point was selected, with its sheer drop on three sides, and a steep staircase up from a ditch on the one side which connects it to the main plateau. The wind seemed even stronger here, and it was a quick stop to take a few photos through watering eyes, of the city below, before we scurried off to descend back down to the comparative warmth of the foot of the hill.

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The day was waning, and we were pleased to climb into the warmth and dry of the bus home. The evening was uneventful, and with another full day planned for tomorrow we were in bed soon enough. As I reflected on the day I thought once more of that noose, hanging hauntingly still, screaming wordlessly of lives stolen as punishment for lives stolen. As I have said before, I am not a believer in capital punishment; you cannot expect people to act humanely when the punishments we threaten with are not human in and of themselves. Besides, if considered, death would have been a mercy compared to having to spend the remainder of their lives in the harsh conditions of the Victorian era prison. That’s not to say that punishments should not be enforced and cause discomfort, but aside from repeat offenders of major crimes, and those who commit premeditated murder, or sexual offences, who should undoubtedly spend their lives in uncomfortable confinement having to live with their guilt, I believe that we should be focusing more on rehabilitation than punishment if we want to fix the system.

Telling a bad person that they’re bad will not make them good, but getting to the bottom of why they did bad things and removing the cause might just fix it. We cannot expect people to aspire to be better, and come out as a functioning member of society, when we simply reinforce the idea daily that they are a waste of space and less worthy of life, especially when they have committed minor and/or non-violent offences. Punishment for their actions should certainly be a part of their rehabilitation, but it should involve getting the prisoners to create and build saleable products; this would have many benefits, from helping to make prisons more financially self-sufficient, to giving the inmates viable life skills and increase their job options upon their release, as well as showing them the benefits of creating things instead of destroying them.

If we expect them to act positively when released, we must work with them to change their situation, otherwise we are simply releasing them in the same damaged state that induced their initial misdemeanour. Almost all murders and rapes are crimes of passion, or are inflicted by people who are known to their victims, therefore it is generally uncommon for their actions to be purely down to psychopathic tendencies and complete untreatable insanity, but instead due to untreated mental illnesses, or unaddressed domestic arguments, disagreements, or perceived betrayals. If we could give people better access to mental health and domestic counselling services throughout their lives, and educate children about emotion and anger management, we could prevent most of these tragic crimes before they ever occur. There are many branches of society that need to be actively change in order to begin removing the causes of crime instead of just treating the symptoms, from our attitudes towards women, the homeless, and social minorities; to our attitudes towards reformed criminals; from mental illness and domestic violence, to treatment options and education. Prevention is always better than a cure, and there is no point continuing to simply put a band-aid on this clearly infected issue.

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On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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