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.

Is US Treatment of Muslims Creating Another Troubles?

With the passing of IRA leader and later Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness this week, thoughts naturally turn to the man’s place in history. Should he be remembered as a statesman who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the Troubles? Or as a terrorist who, despite his protestations, is widely believed to have directed and participated in terrorist activities?

His status as a Catholic from the Bogside of Derry played a huge role in his decision to join the IRA. According to the Guardian, after attending technical college, McGuinness was turned down for a job as a mechanic because he was a Catholic. Three years later, in 1968, he joined the IRA after seeing bloody pictures of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for Belfast West, after he was hit by police batons.

McGuinness’s radicalization didn’t turn on a single incident, I’d imagine, but occurred gradually over time as mistreatment piled atop mistreatment until he reached the breaking point.

Marginalizing a class of people

It got me to thinking about what I feel is America’s mean-spirited (not to mention clumsy and likely illegal) recent efforts to ban Muslims from traveling to the US. The latest is the odd ban on electronic devices larger than a cellphone in the cabins of flights originating from most Middle Eastern countries. (Side note: what about those dangerous lithium batteries in laptops in checked baggage? I’m more afraid of exploding lithium batteries than I am of terrorists.)

Maybe there is a compelling security reason, but does taking your shoes off at airport security and leaving your big tube of toothpaste at home make you feel any safer? Logic does not favor the government in these issues. But I digress.

Have you ever been treated unfairly for what you think was no good reason? How did it make you feel? Now take those feelings and multiply it by the 4.3 million Muslims in the US, many of them naturalized citizens, then add in the 178.3 million Muslims in the six countries affected by the travel ban.

Even if I was the straightest-laced Muslim imaginable, I’d be pissed off. Now imagine those already disadvantaged by lack of education or high unemployment where they live, and you begin to see how the seeds of dissent are sown by those who truly want to do harm to Westerners.

Let me be clear: we’re talking about an infinitesimal number of radical idiots in a vast sea of people, nearly all of whom share the same dreams of building a better life for themselves and their children as we do. Americans don’t hold a patent on this idea.

I consider myself a Christian, yet I’m truly appalled at many of the things allegedly done in the Lord’s name in the US and around the world. Conservative Christianity no more reflects my values than radical Islam reflects the values of all but a handful of Muslims.

Martin McGuinness was radicalized after being put down for his religion and seeing people just like him being cast to the sidelines of society time and time again.

But through personal growth and empathy, McGuinness risked his life to negotiate peace and later served admirably in the resulting power-sharing government with former enemies, including rabid unionist Ian Paisley. How will he be remembered? He will be seen both as a terrorist and as a diplomat, I’m sure.

Life must go on, regardless

How many future terrorists is the US risking through its heavy-handed efforts to keep us “safe,” while at the same time decimating the State Department budget that funds outreach to the world and beefing up what’s already the world’s largest military?

These efforts don’t make me feel safe. They just make me embarrassed for the country my family has been a part of since before the Revolutionary War.

Earlier this week, there was a terrorist attack in London. Declan and I are visiting there next weekend, attending a football match with 60,000 other people, visiting the Tower of London, Harrod’s and the British Museum, all top tourist attractions.

And the whole family will be in Antwerp next month, the scene of another incident just yesterday. Oh yeah, and we’ll be in Paris and Berlin on that trip, too.

Like it or not, we all are citizens of the world, and what the US does in the name of “security” has impacts that likely will ripple for years. On this matter, I take my cue from ‘80s pop star Joe Jackson and the title track of his 1986 album, “Big World.”

“It’s a big world – so much to do / And plenty of room for me and you”

About the photo: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (left) and Martin McGuinness.