When we started planning our visit to Belfast, we had a list of places we wanted to visit.
Crumlin Road Gaol wasn’t on it – who wants to visit a grim prison? However, a chance meeting with our AirBnB host and his recommendation for it as a brilliant day out, saw it added to our visit list.
HMP Belfast, also known as Crumlin Road Gaol, is a former prison situated on the Crumlin Road in North Belfast and is the only Victorian era prison remaining in Northern Ireland since 1996.
We booked on a daily guided tour which runs every hour, however they do run ghost tours, paranormal tours and even after hours tours.
The fun starts outside with some stocks to pose in, before you head into the small museum area to wait for your guide and the tour to start.
The museum area displays prison artefacts and information, including prison officers equipment, prisoners artwork and even a book written by Reverend Ian Paisley whilst he was held in prison.
The tour starts in the holding area, where prisoners would be checked in, searched and given their uniforms. The guide, Aaron, was fun and informative and told us that prisoners would be known by a number rather than a name for the duration of the stay and that the prison was home to men, women and children as young as 10 years old.
It was then on to the tunnel, which links the prison to the courthouse on the other side of the Crumlin Road.
Aaron told us that the old tunnel looks as it would have when it was built at the entrance, but has been updated over the years as times have changed, including having its cobbled floor replaced, thanks to a few prisoners loosening stones and throwing at the judge, and its walls reinforced during the troubles, thanks to the threat of car bombs overhead. Of course, it was the ghost story of a girl called Isobel that really excited the kids.
We were led back out through the tunnel, which is guarded by mannequin in uniform holding some keys and headed to the wardens office to see how the prison would be run.
It was here we discovered the full layout of the prison and what roles all the staff would have had during the 150 year history of the gaol.
The prison has held over 25,000 prisoners in its time, including historic figures, from Éamon de Valera to the Reverend Ian Paisley, and from suffragette Dorothy Evans to the ‘Shankill Butcher’ murderer Lenny Murphy.
From here we headed into the circle, where you can see all the wings of the prison, which is eerily beautiful.
It was here we got the tales of prison life, from escape attempts to rioting on the roof, before being allowed to explore “C” wing and all the cells.
Some of the cells were set up for you to explore, whilst others were set up with mannequins depicting how the warders would have worked or the prisoners held.
We got to see what the daily lives and routines of both prisoners and prison officers would have been and some of the punishments they may have used.
The final piece of the tour was the condemned mans cell, which you can opt out of if you choose, but is well worth visiting. This cell leads onto the execution cell where the majority of the 17 men were hanged.
Although the guide talked about the process of hanging, it was done in way so as not to scare the kids and he was happy to answer any other questions out of the way, should you want to ask any.
The tour finished back in the museum, with one last fun tale and the chance to ask any questions.
A tour lasts around 75 minutes and I would advise booking online, in advance, for the best deals. A family ticket (2 x adults and 2 x children) costs from £25.
Is it a family friendly place to visit?
Yes, the stories were watered down for the benefit of little ears and there were plenty of things for the kids to see and do. Sebby (5), did get a little bored at times, during the talks, so I would recommend for age 7+.