A tourist must-see: the prison where 17 people were hanged
An eerie gallows room greeted visitors to Crumlin Road Gaol yesterday as the prison opened its gates to visitors for the first time.
The jail has recently undergone a £1m refurbishment scheme which included weather-proofing and restoration work - such as getting rid of anti-terrorist bomb blast walls, razor wire and bulletproof glass, as well as repairing the hanging cell area.
Tourists at the imposing centre in north Belfast enjoyed a guided tour, including the cell where the condemned man waited for his punishment and the famous underground tunnel to the courthouse across the road where the sentence would have been handed out. A total of 17 people were killed at Crumlin Gaol.
But former principal prison officer Syd Wolf, a sprightly 89, worked there for 27 years from 1947. He was among those present at yesterday's opening.
" The food was terrible, terrible," the pensioner recalled.
" They were not allowed to smoke so they used flint and butts which they used to find in the courthouse when they cleaned it."
At one stage, prisoners survived on gruel and potatoes and had to break stones and unwind ropes to pass long days of incarceration.
Former inmates include UVF leader Gusty Spence, Ian Paisley, Gerry Kelly and IRA man Martin Meehan who escaped after hiding in a manhole for three days.
Mr Wolf said he and Mr Spence, convicted of killing Catholic barman Peter Ward (18) in Malvern Street in 1966, were on such good terms that he waved to him when he was transferred to the Maze Prison.
"Gusty Spence, he was a right fella, we got on all right," he reminisced.
Mr Paisley, imprisoned in 1968 for six weeks after anti-civil rights protests, was known for working in the prison garden.
"There was a chapel but Mr Paisley didn't worship in it," Mr Wolf noted.
The church has been daubed an incongruous pink, in stark contrast to the rest of the fairly austere but newly-painted surroundings.
Sightseers on twice-weekly tours can walk down the pitted concrete of the underground tunnel, through which an estimated 25,000 prisoners were brought to and from the courthouse during the conflict.
The most famous person executed at the jail was arguably west Belfast IRA man Tom Williams, in 1942, for shooting Constable Patrick Murphy.
Of those who were executed, the remains of 15 are still buried somewhere within the grounds of the jail.
Yesterday's tour also included the barren cell, where bodies fell after they had been hanged - it doubled as an air raid shelter during World War II. Apparently, a crew of officials stood ready to ensure prisoners had not died inhumanely. Still remaining is a solid-looking wooden beam from which the condemned man was suspended, as well as a sinister collection of ropes and weights.
Tickets are available from the Belfast Welcome Centre.