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Inside the Crum

The Andersonstown News gains exclusive access to Crumlin Road Jail

(Allison Morris, Irelandclick.com)

Crumlin Road prison was first opened in 1841 to cope with the growing population of Belfast. It ceased to be a working prison over a century and a half later, in 1997.

The Victorian jail has a particularly gruesome past and the interior reflects that, with its steel bars and tiny cells built to 19th century proportions.

It is not difficult to imagine what the jail was like at the start of its controversial life, as little has changed. Structurally the jail remains much the same as it was when the first of Her Majesty's guests entered through the heavy steel doors.

Your feet still echo off the concrete floor as you walk along the main wings that once housed hundreds of prisoners, doubled up at times two to a tiny cell.

Built to the same blueprint as tens of other penal institutions all over Ireland and Britain, HMP Crumlin Road looks just like you imagine a prison should.

It's gloomy and dark with an impressive centre circle from which four wings – A, B, C and D – can be accessed.

The jail also contains what was known as 'the Basement', a place where prisoners were taken to be processed – it was later to be where the so-called 'Supergrass' prisoners were held.

The jail also has a unique tunnel leading from the prison to the Crumlin Road Courthouse, where prisoners were handcuffed and walked through to appear before the magistrate of the time.

The tunnel can still be accessed today. Grade A listed, it will be preserved along with the other Victorian parts of the prison.

Anyone who has ever walked along the gloomy brick tunnel talks of the overpowering heat from the pipes that run along the length of the tunnel to feed the jail above.

The heating and electricity are now off, the oppressive heat replaced by the smell of damp and decay.

Along with photographer Mal McCann and our three official escorts, I made my way along the gloomy Victorian tunnel with only the weak beam from a torch for light.

The eerie silence masks the fact you're walking below the midday traffic of the grid-locked Crumlin Road.

The tunnel seemed to go on forever until we came to the steel door that leads to the Crumlin Road Courthouse.

However, when we turned to make the long journey back through the gloom the batteries in the torch died, and in a horror film-style moment, we were left stranded in complete darkness.

We were forced to feel our way along the damp brick walls until we came to the steps that would bring us back into the daylight of the main prison.

In a place famous for escapes and escape attempts, seeing the chink of light from the hall above, I felt like I had also made a successful bid for freedom.

Part of the Crum's reputation comes from the fact that 17 people were executed within its walls.

Of those 17, the remains of 16 are still buried somewhere within the grounds of the jail.

Only one – IRA volunteer Tom Williams – was ever exhumed for a proper burial.

Tom Williams from Bombay Street was executed in August 1942 for the shooting of Constable Patrick Murphy.

Five others, Henry Cordner (19); William James Perry (21); John Terence Oliver (21); Patrick Simpson (18); and Joe Cahill (21), were sentenced to death alongside Tom Williams.

However, after a public outcry the other five were granted a last-minute reprieve and Tom Williams faced the hangman alone.

Fr Alexis of Holy Cross Monastery, Ardoyne, celebrated Mass in Williams' cell on the morning of the execution.

He later said: “Williams was praying all the time as he walked to the scaffold, a matter of a few yards. He seemed to be quite resigned to his fate.”

Joe Cahill, who shared a cell with Tom Williams, later recalled the conversation they had about their impending death: “We discussed the executions and the prospect of being buried in a prison grave. One day, we promised ourselves, the remains would be reinterred in the republican plot in Milltown Cemetery. Tom was very clear - he would die a republican, he wished to be buried as such.”

Tom Williams was hanged in the specially constructed hanging cell. However, in the past those sentenced to death were hanged from a scaffold built at the front of the prison in full view of the public.

The cell still exists and a record of where the executed men were buried is also kept, but is not available to the public.

The first person ever to be executed at the jail was an 18-year-old British soldier, Private Robert Henry O'Neill, for the murder of Corporal Robert Brown at Belfast Infantry Barracks in 1854.

Both men were stationed at the barracks at the time, being members of the 1st Battalion of the 12th East Worcestershire Regiment.

It was reported that Private O'Neill deliberately raised his musket and fired at his victim as he was writing at the table – after being reported earlier that day for misconduct.

It has also been said that when the Judge donned the black cap to pass the death sentence tears were streaming down his face and O'Neill's convulsive sobbing could be heard as warders in the dock supported him.

He was returned to the condemned cell – number 3 in 'D Wing – to await his fate.

On the day of the execution 20,000 people gathered on the Crumlin Road to witness the hanging.

No provision had been made at the newly built jail for a gallows and a temporary gallows had been erected at the front of the main prison building.

The hangman led the procession, next was O'Neill, his face and neck covered with the dreaded white hood, his arms pinioned behind his back.

It was noted that the actual hangman was himself a prisoner at what was then known as Belfast Prison.

When everything was ready the hangman withdrew the bolt and the drop fell. The fall was measured at eleven feet and death was judged to have been instantaneous. At the fatal moment a loud and general scream went up from the crowd.

The last execution at the prison was just over 40 years ago, when Robert Andrew McGladdery was found guilty of the murder of 19-year-old shop assistant Pearl Gamble, who was found strangled and stabbed at a place known as Weir's Rock in Damolly.

McGladdery denied having any part in the murder and was in the witness box for almost six and a half hours in an attempt to save himself from the hangman's noose.

However the all-male jury brought in their verdict of guilty after being out for just 40 minutes. Lord Justice Curran fixed the date of the execution for November 7.

An appeal was immediately entered on McGladdery's behalf and while back in prison the condemned man wrote a 16-page autobiography, which was submitted to the Cabinet as part of his appeal.

All his attempts at avoiding the hangman failed and his execution was re-scheduled to take place four days before Christmas, December 21.

Before eight o'clock came, McGladdery sat in the condemned cell and for the first time since his arrest – and after listening to the advice of his religious ministers – he confessed to the murder of Pearl Gamble.

Now Crumlin Road jail is to undergo a massive clear-out operation; all the newer additions to the building will be dismantled leaving behind the Victorian architectural shell that's preserved as a Grade A listed building.

What is to happen to the jail after that is not known.

It is expected that a period of public consultation will take place before a final decision is made.

Anyone who visits the site cannot fail to be moved by not only the architectural significance of the building but also the history permanently incarcerated in every brick and bar of the Belfast jail.

October 5, 2003
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This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on October 2, 2003.

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