No Place to Poop: Crumlin Road Gaol

For how many years did the Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail) have working toilets in its cells during 150 years of operation? Would you believe none? There was running water in the cells in its early years, but the facilities were taken out because inmates were clogging the lines.

It is unfathomable that inmates in a prison that didn’t close until 1996 were still using slop buckets. It might be OK if you were the only person in a cell designed for one person. But, for much of its history, the 550-cell prison was overcrowded, with nearly 1,400 prisoners being housed in the facility at times.

While I could possibly serve a prison sentence for some criminal offense, I’m not sure I could poop into a bucket while my cellmates watched. That would likely be difficult for even the most hardened criminal.

In later years, there were a few working toilets in each wing for the guards, and prisoners could put their names on a waiting list to use them.

We learned about much more than the scatological details of prison life during our tour yesterday of the Crumlin Road Gaol, listed on TripAdvisor as the most popular tourist destination in Belfast. Although certainly interesting, we remain unsure how the gaol tour earned the top ranking.

Famous ‘guests’

Over its history, men, women and children were housed at the facility. Suffragettes were particularly troublesome for the prison guards because they took turns screaming, which upset everyone. They also were the first hunger-strikers, according to our tour guide. The women were sent home when they became too weak, with directions to come back once they were better. Needless to say, few women returned.

The gaol opened in 1846, a replacement facility for a medieval prison in Carrickfergus, nine miles away. Inmates were marched between facilities at the opening. During the potato famine, people committed crimes so that they would be imprisoned and thus get a roof over their heads and a meal a day. But they also were put to work, in harsh conditions designed to make life outside prison walls more attractive than staying inside.

We learned that sayings we use all the time originated in punishments given to prisoners. “Cat got your tongue” refers to whipping prisoners with a cat o’ nine tails, nine pieces of cotton cord with knots on the end to inflict pain. This was often used on insolent prisoners. “Turning the screw” refers to a hand-cranked device that does absolutely nothing at all. An unruly prisoner would be told to turn the crank of this device 12,000 times a day, and, if the job seemed too easy, a screw on the device would be turned to make it harder. This practice also explains why prison guards are called “screws.”

During the Troubles, the facility housed both republican and loyalist prisoners. The factions generally self-segregated, which caused problems later when bombs were smuggled into the facility that were designed to go off when one group was in a particular place. Famous “guests” included the Rev. Ian Paisley, unionist leader Peter Robinson and republican leader and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. The latter two helped open the gaol attraction in 2012 as first minister and deputy first minister, respectively. In 2014, they returned to give Queen Elizabeth a tour of the facility.

Meeting one’s maker

The tour of C Wing ended in the execution chambers. Seventeen prisoners were executed at the goal, but the first several were hanged outside, in public spectacles. People often got drunk at public hangings and missed work the next day, the genesis of the word “hangover.”

For executions inside the prison, the inmate was brought to a special double-sized cell two weeks prior and watched 24/7 by two guards there to ensure he did not cheat the hangman’s noose. It was common for guards to talk and play checkers, chess or cards with the condemned man while they bonded. The night before, the inmate was given a last meal, which often included a half-bottle of whiskey.

The morning of the execution, the inmate was offered breakfast but usually decided to spend more time with the clergyman who heard confessions or took final notes to loved ones.

Unknown to the inmate, the death chamber was right beside where he had been living. A bookcase on rails pulls back to reveal the gallows, the noose swinging slightly in the breeze generated by the moving of the bookcase. The noose and support structure are the actual ones used at the gaol.

And that’s where I’ll leave you, looking at the noose and contemplating the last seconds of your life.

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