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Lucy Hutchinson: 'I heard a clanking noise, like an iron bed being banged'

The 32-year-old is a guide at the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, conducting historical and paranormal tours of the former prison, built in 1845, where 17 men were hanged. She lives in the city

by Una Brankin

Before I started working here I was a complete sceptic about the paranormal, I didn't believe in it at all. But within two weeks I'd changed my mind, both from my own experience and from seeing how other people were affected by what goes on here.

While I was training and learning the history of the gaol, I was down in the flogging room with some other trainees and heard this strange woman's giggle from nowhere. Women and children, including suffragettes, were held here in Victorian times.

I didn't say anything at the time but when we were on our break someone else mentioned it and it turned out we all heard it. That happens quite often – not long afterwards a cleaner came running up the stairs after she heard it. It's well known here that a couple of former prisoners woke up to find the apparition of a woman in Victorian clothes leaning over them in their suddenly ice cold cells; one of them refused to go back into his cell.

I wouldn't choose to walk through the gaol on my own at night – at least on the tours there's safety in numbers! There's always a strange atmosphere. Often the tours are quiet and nothing happens but one time during the summer we were downstairs at the C wing cells at night and my colleague Harry called out for any spirits to come forward.

Nothing happened for a few minutes, then this almighty clanking noise came from a cell, like an iron bed frame being banged against the ground.

I nearly jumped out of my skin – there was definitely no-one else there. The security guards who patrol at night won't even come inside. It happened again before we moved upstairs and then it got really interesting in the flogging room. It is said to be haunted by the spirits of two young boys who took their lives there rather than face another flogging. They gravitate toward women and they've been known to stroke someone's hair, a face or a hand, to draw comfort, although they're not aggressive or angry.

On more than one occasion certain visitors have reported their hands going ice cold in one localised spot, while everyone else is unaffected. This particular night an inexplicable string of light appeared in mid-air near the ceiling and flickered down to the ground. One woman fainted and another said she was freezing. Harry has seen this more than once.

Paranormal investigators attribute something like that to a spiritual manifestation of pure energy. There certainly was nothing electrical down there to cause it. We have lots of ghost-hunters come here. Some of them have felt the presence of a young female in her early 20s from the Victorian era. Others, along with former prisoners and guards and visitors nowadays, have seen silhouettes and dark shadows on the landings and outside the execution chamber.

They all say the holding chamber, where the condemned were restrained before execution, has an overwhelming energy. Eddie Cullens, a prisoner who was executed in 1932, has been seen there by prison officers and one American psychic saw him behind me on one tour.

People ask me how I do the paranormal tours. The fact is it scares me just as much as the visitors!

We get a good mix of local people and tourists. On some days you'll have people who grew up three streets away walking along with tourists from Kazakhstan. There's always a bit of nervous laughter at the start of the tours in the tunnel. It's dark and a bit claustrophobic down there.

I've been with the tours since they began last November, after being out of work for nine months.

I lost my job as a communications officer for a charity due to cuts in the voluntary sector and it was really hard to find work.

The gaol has a dark history but it's an exciting place to work and it's great to have been here since the start.

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For details on the Paranormal Tours at Crumlin Road gaol, visit www.crumlinroadgaol.com or telephone 028 90 741500

A deadly past

Crumlin Road Gaol dates back to 1845 and was a working prison until closing in 1996. After renovations it reopened as a visitor and conference centre

The first execution was in 1854 of soldier Robert Henry O'Neill. His body and 14 others are buried in unmarked graves in the grounds.

In 1914, the gaol was used to hold Suffragettes

Ten years later, Eamon de Valera – later President of Ireland – was held in solitary confinement for a month after illegally entering Northern Ireland.

1961 saw the last execution at the gaol. Robert McGladdery was found guilty of the murder of Pearl Gamble near Newry.

In 1971 nine republican prisoners (the 'Crumlin Kangaroos') escaped, as did three more republicans less than a month later

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