A Global Research Institute of Queen's University Belfast


Armagh Gaol & Crumlin Road Gaol


written by Christy Ibrahim, University of South Florida

Today we received a lecture from Dr. Lorraine Dennis, who taught us about the Prisons Memory Archive. She showed us a film created by the archive entitled “Armagh Stories: Voices from the Gaol” which was released in December of 2015. The documentary followed a few woman as they toured the prison years after they were freed, telling stories and recalling memories about their time of incarceration and describing the way of life in prison during the Troubles.

Some of the most touching parts of the documentary were the stories the women recounted about the protests and strikes that went on inside of the prison walls. There was a no wash protest that was struck after the inmates had a small revolt which the guards reacted to by locking the women out of the bathroom for days. After that, the women decided they would continue to only utilize the chamberpots in their cells and dump the contents down the stairwells onto the ground floor. When some women broke their windows in order to get fresh air into their cells, the guards boarded up the windows of the cells, creating a very dark, smelly, sickening atmosphere for the women protesting. A second strike that the women of the Armagh Goal participated in was a hunger strike. The women were on strike for two weeks in their cells before being transferred to the hospital wing for the remainder of their strike. Being able to hear about the strike from a woman who actually participated in it was a great way to learn about the history of Northern Ireland and the life of a political prisoner during the Troubles.

After class we were taken to the Crulmin Road Gaol, also known as Her Majesty's Prison Belfast. This prison was designed by Charles Lanyon, the same architect who designed Queens University! The prison was opened in 1846 and ran for 150 years before being closed in 1996 due to violations of health standards as well as no longer being able to function for the purpose for which it was created. In the 150 years that the prison stood it housed around 43,000 convicts each with a story different than the next. The prison was originally meant to house men, women, and children, and each of the groups were given their own wing of the prison. In 1924 the Crumlin became an all male institution, and they were separated based on whether their allegiance was to the loyalists or republicans, or if they were a neutral “ordinary decent criminal”.

After a few years of the guards and governors implementing segregation, the wings were integrated and the inmates were left to self segregate. This lead to a number of attacks including bombings from both inside and outside the prison from warring paramilitaries during the Troubles. The Crumlin Road Gaol was also affected by nonviolent protests during the Troubles. Bobby Sands and 11 other republican men starved to death while imprisoned in a movement against the Loyalist government. Although that is a large number of deaths, the Crumlin Gaol was very familiar with deaths as it carried out numerous executions of capital punishment.

It was a very interesting prison to tour, as there were very clear elements of the Separate System, or Pennsylvania System, in the design of the cells. Each cell was meant to house one prisoner at a time, with only a small window to let light in, and a peephole in the door that could only be uncovered by the guards in the hallway. The idea of this system is to promote the prisoner to think about their actions and live in penance while incarcerated. This system ultimately failed the Crumlin Road Gaol due to the fact that the guards were only able to manage the hallways rather than each individual cell. This was a problem because the prisoners were able to dig into their neighbor's cells which caused a brutal attack between loyalists and republicans in neighboring cells. After that attack, the prison was re-evaluated and forced to close, now it stands as a tourist attraction for the city of Belfast.

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