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The interior of the renovated Crumlin Road Gaol. Photo courtesy of Bill Abernethy for Crumlin Road Gaol.

Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol Experience

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The infamous Crumlin Road Gaol, known as Europe’s Alcatraz, has reopened in Belfast and is now offering a new Covid-compliant visitor experience.

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The Victorian-prison-turned-tourist-attraction is among the more than 1,800 businesses in Northern Ireland that are re-opening under the “We’re Good to Go” initiative, which provides reassurance that safe Covid practices have been adopted.

The renovated prison building also houses a conference center and is even used for weddings, concerts, and other special events.

Known to be haunted, there are also Halloween-themed tours available in October. No tours have been scheduled for 2021 at this time.

Visitors who sign up for the “Crumlin Road Gaol Experience,” a self-guided tour, will learn about the history of the jail, the only remaining Victorian-era prison in Northern Ireland that housed women, men, and children, including Republican and Loyalist prisoners during The Troubles.

The Early History of the Gaol

The building was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Sir Charles Lanyon, who was famous for designing many public buildings in Northern Ireland, including Queen’s University in Belfast and the Palm House in the city’s Botanic Gardens, among others.

architectural drawings Belfast's Crumlin Road gaol
Architectural drawings of the prison's windows and central buildings by Sir Charles Lanyon. Photo courtesy of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

The jail’s construction began in 1843 and was completed two years later at a cost of £60,000.

The imposing Crumlin Road Gaol would come to be known as “The Crum,” replacing the County Gaol on Antrim Street in Carrickfergus.

The new one was known at the time as one of the most advanced prisons of its day.

It was also the first prison on the island of Ireland to be built using “The Separate System,” with the intention of separating prisoners from each other with no communication between them.

a large building with a tower in the center Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol
Photo of Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol courtesy of Bill Abernethy for Crumlin Road Gaol.

It was built to hold between 500 and 550 prisoners in cells that measured 12 by 7 feet (365 cm by 213 cm).

The first 106 prisoners who arrived at the new jail in 1846 had walked from the other jail in Carrickfergus, completing the 12-mile (19 km) journey shackled in chains.

Inmates were often sentenced for petty crimes like stealing food or clothing.

One young boy, who was given a three-month sentence for similar crimes, hanged himself in his cell in 1858.

Executions at Crumlin Road Gaol

When Lanyon first designed the building, he did not make allowances for interior gallows and so executions were done outside, with crowds of up to 20,000 watching.

The last public hanging took place in 1901, at which time an execution chamber was constructed within the prison walls and used until as late as 1961.

a staircase in a prison Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol
Another look at the interior of the Crumlin Road Gaol. Photo: GrimsbyT – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Part of the self-guided tour includes the opportunity to visit what is known as the Condemned Man’s Cell, the place where prisoners were held before going to the execution area.

a wax figure sitting in a jail cell with a dish on the floor Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol
The Punishment Cell at the Crumlin Road Gaol. Photo:

A total of 17 prisoners were executed at Crumlin Road Gaol. The bodies of 15 of them were buried on the prison grounds.

an underground tunnel from Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol to the courthouse
The tunnel connecting the prison to the courthouse across the street. Photo:

The experience also includes the opportunity to visit the underground tunnel that connected the gaol to the Crumlin Road Courthouse, also designed by Lanyon and opened in 1850.

Notable Prisoners at Crumlin Road Gaol

While the gaol held its fair share of suffragettes, it is also known for housing well-known prisoners.

They included the former president of Ireland Éamon de Valera, who was held in solitary confinement for one month after violating an order that had prevented him from entering Northern Ireland.

De Valera, who also served as Ireland's prime minister, was caught entering the Six Counties at Newry, Co. Down.

a man sitting at a desk with prison bunk beds behind him in Northern Ireland Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol
A recreated 1980s cell at the Crumlin Road Gaol. Photo:

Other notable prisoners over the years included the late Martin McGuinness, who served as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister but was also an IRA commander during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Hunger striker Bobby Sands also served time in the prison (he later died in the notorious Maze Prison in Co. Down), loyalist Michael Stone, as well as the late Ian Paisley, the former DUP leader who served three months at the jail for unlawful assembly.

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a plaque on a wall of the building that was a jail known as Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol
Former prisoner Martin McGuinness was one of the people who officially opened Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol as a tourist attraction in 2012. Photo: Allen Leonard,

The Crumlin Road Gaol Experience takes about an hour to complete.

Tickets are £10.50 for adults, £5 for children, £9 for seniors and students, and £27 for a family of 4.

The museum is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets can be booked on the day of your visit, but it is better to book in advance.

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