Andrea and I continued our occasional tour around the tourist attractions of Northern Ireland yesterday when we paid a visit to the Crumlin Road Gaol. Thankfully, we were there for a tour and not to serve out a sentence for the so far undetected crime spree that we went on a few months ago (in case this is being read by GCHQ/NSA, that is a joke and haven’t you got anything better to do?).
We had decided upon the gaol as our destination over our regular Wednesday evening coffee last week. Andrea then booked tour tickets for us online when she got home. As a brief digression, Wednesday was very enjoyable with another supermarket shop followed by coffee with Andrea, followed by clothes shopping with Michelle, followed by an enjoyable hour and a half in an unusually busy support group. Michelle has already documented most of the evening on her blog, so since she’s beaten me to it I’ll not go into details. However I did manage to get a nice pair of low heel (but not flat) black suede wedges in Primark. Or to give it the name used by many of my female colleagues, Pradamark. Add one more shop to the list of size 9 ladies’ shoes stockists. We had a new person back at the support group, and very unusually for us she is a cis woman. A student in fact, who is going to be doing some voluntary work on our behalf. She seems really nice and friendly and I look forward to getting to know her better.
Valentine’s Day came and went on Saturday and while Mrs K and I did sort of mark the occasion with cards and I cooked her favourite meal, baked a cake, drank some bubbly etc, it still feels like going through the motions because that’s what you do when you’re married to someone. Although she claims to have no moral objection to me being the way I am, I can feel the resentment there pretty much all the time, and I feel it most of all when there’s just the two of us together. I am constantly afraid that one wrong word or glance from me and she’ll start again telling me at length (up to two hours at a stretch) and very emotionally how she’s barely keeping it together and how she’s the one that’s suffering due to my selfishness and self-indulgence. These rather one-sided conversations happen all the time and when they do, I don’t know what to say. The problem is that I agree with most of it. But I can’t change it. The genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back. Doesn’t stop the guilt though. And I’m pretty sure that in her head I have already decided to go full time and it’s just a question of me waiting to pick my moment. Nothing I can do or say will sway her from that point of view. And in her mind, once it happens then everyone will ridicule her and laugh at her for not being able to get a real man and being taken in for years by a latent transsexual, she’ll lose the house and she and the kids will live out their lives in a bedsit in poverty and misery. Ever the optimist, Mrs K. So my fear with Mrs K is not that she’s going to leave or throw me out, since her biggest fears are that I will leave of my own volition (which I have no plans to do) or that it will become common knowledge among neighbours, colleagues and wider family that I am TS. No, my fear with Mrs K is that she’ll have some sort of a breakdown caused by me. And that’s quite a fear to carry round with me, when every time I act authentically as my true self at the same time I know I’m pushing her towards breaking point.
So with that in mind, it was somehow ironic that shortly before 3pm on Sunday I found myself walking into a prison. Situated unsurprisingly on Belfast’s Crumlin Road, the Crumlin Road Gaol opened in 1846, a few years prior to the opening of the Crumlin Road Courthouse on the other side of the road in 1850.
“The Crum” was designed by renowned Victorian architect Charles Lanyon, who is probably best known for the building which bears his name at Queen’s University, Belfast, the Lanyon Building. Crumlin Road Gaol remained a functioning prison up until 1996, when the final governor locked the doors for the last time. A decade later, it was reopened as a tourist attraction and despite living less than 10 miles from it, up until yesterday I had never visited it. Apart from that three-year stretch for armed robbery in the early 90s obviously.
Andrea had pre-booked our tour tickets online, so we knew that we needed to arrive in good time for the 3pm start. We made our way into the waiting area to find rather a large crowd waiting. After a few short minutes browsing the timelines on the wall display, a young woman called forward everyone who had booked for the 3pm tour. She brought us out into the courtyard where our guide introduced herself as Orla, did a few housekeeping announcements and gave us a short introduction to the gaol. While our guide was perfectly fine, she fell a little short of the expert guides who took the Queen around the gaol in 2014. Liz Windsor was shown round by two former inmates of the gaol, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson (four short stints during the 1980s in connection with unpaid fines related to unlawful protests) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (6 weeks on remand in 1976 on charges of IRA membership). Only in our wee province!
We moved rapidly indoors, as it was, as we say in Northern Ireland, “absolutely Baltic” outside. It wasn’t much warmer inside. We had a quick visit to the reception first of all. Not a reception like you would normally think of it, reception for new prisoners was an austere and spartan room more akin to a stable than normal human habitation, where prisoners removed their own clothes and belongings, placed them in bags to be held for their release, and then bathed / showered / were sprayed with DDT before being taken to their cells. Not somewhere particularly pleasant, but I suppose that’s kind of the point of a prison isn’t it?
We moved along to the governor’s office, which right beside the holding cells where remand prisoners were held immediately before their case came up in the courthouse across there road. Now I have driven up and down the Crumlin Road many times, and I never before realised that there was a tunnel underneath that road. We were brought down some rather dank and murky stone steps from the holding cells into the tunnel, which was long and silent. Unbelievably, a busy city street full of traffic was 1.5 metres above our heads and we couldn’t hear a thing. Obviously when the gaol and courthouse were built in the mid-19th century, they realised that transporting prisoners across the road was a huge security risk, and so the tunnel was constructed to move prisoners between the two without exposing them and the prison officers to any additional risk. Good move. Still, not somewhere I would want to spend any time.
We were then taken into the main cell blocks, divided into wings A-D. This was all very prison-ey. Up until the 1920s the prison had housed male and female prisoners, but they were kept in separate blocks, and D-wing was used as the maternity wing. Female prisoners were finally removed from the prison in the 1920s. Later, during the troubles, D-wing was used to house informants, who would have been attacked had they been exposed to the other prisoners. A and C wings separately held Republican and Loyalist prisoners, and keeping them apart in B-wing were what the prison officers referred to as ODC’s. Not paramilitaries or terrorists, just Ordinary Decent Criminals.
We were allowed to walk up C-wing, looking into cells, some of which had been laid out in the style of different eras of the prison’s working life. Astonishingly, in the early part of the gaol’s existence, child prisoners as young as 8 years old were held here for a “short sharp shock”, although this was phased out around the same time as the female prisoners departed. There was even a padded cell for prisoners deemed in danger of causing themselves harm, as well as more predictable sections like the mess, sick bay, dispensary, laundry and the like.
Things then took a turn for the macabre. Until I had entered the building, I had been unaware that executions had taken place here, 17 in total with the last ones in 1961. As we headed toward the end of C-Wing, Orla lead us in to the condemned man’s cell. A bare cell where the condemned man would spend the final 18 hours of his life, with the final few hours in the company of a clergyman of his own faith. Finally, the executioner would arrive and the prisoner would be shown in to a little antechamber with a toilet and washbasin, where he would be fitted into a type of belt with handcuffs to await transportation to the execution chamber. Except in a shocking twist, he was already in it. With a flourish, our guide pushed what looked like some shelving to reveal that it was on castors and formed a secret doorway to the gallows. Seeing the noose hanging from the beams above an open trap-door was genuinely one of the most spine-chilling things I have ever seen. For the condemned man, the time taken from the gallows being revealed to the drop was less than 10 seconds. Chilling.
We were lead downstairs to the room beneath the gallows, where the deceased prisoner’s body was removed from the rope after an hour’s hanging, then put in a simple coffin in the next room to be buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of the gaol. Only two of the 17 graves have ever been found.
In the same room as the coffin was the rack upon which prisoners who were to be subjected to corporal punishment were restrained while being subjected to multiple lashes with the birch (under-21’s) or the cat o’ nine tails (adult prisoners). I’m not going to go into the detail of what went on because it was so gruesome.
We finished off our tour with a walk round the exercise yard and the prison walls, which was mostly cold. Although there was a coffee shop and gift shop available for perusing and purchasing, Andrea and I agreed that we would get straight back into the car and head into Belfast City Centre for a bit of Sunday afternoon shopping. So we did that. In fact, what really happened was Andrea was after some more shoes for work, so I followed her round shoe shops offering style advice. Well, more happened than that, a lot of it in my head, but I’ll save that for a post of its own. It’s not about shoes, but shoes brought it on.
One of the shops we went into was Next, where Andrea bought a beautiful pair of dark blue suede ankle boots. I almost bought a similar pair in black leather myself – they were really nice and fitted me so snugly, it was like my foot was being hugged. But self-imposed budgetary constraints got the better of me. However something else happened in Next. Just after we had walked in, there was a rather boisterous group of about 4 or 5 boys aged no older than 12 or 13 coming in the opposite direction. As they approached us, I could hear them sniggering, muttering something among themselves, and I braced myself for some sort of “ha ha bloke in a dress” type of jibe. But that’s not what I got. What I got was both annoying and gratifying. They weren’t sniggering because they thought I was a cross-dresser, they just found it highly entertaining that I was such a tall woman. I heard them saying “Look at the height of her” and then one of the braver ones shouted out in a squeaky pubescent boy voice “What size are you missus?”. Now if you have read just about any of these blogs before you will know that I have quite a hang-up about my height. So to be called out on it so vocally was rather disturbing. However, these little shits were calling me out for being an extremely tall woman and nothing more. In other words, they didn’t read me! I was passing! Hurrah! But still, boo! And hurrah! As you can see, I’m rather conflicted about this.
Andrea bought yet more shoes in M&S (utterly gorgeous shoes incidentally, I wish they had them in my size. Except even if they did, I couldn’t buy them because Andrea already has a pair now – I know she’s my best friend but that would just be creepy). After a quick visit to the loo there post-purchase, six o’clock closing time was rapidly approaching so we walked back to the car park to retrieve the car. I changed my knee boots for the rather more elegant low suede wedges that I had bought the previous Wednesday, and we drove up to Il Pirata restaurant where we were to meet Michelle – the Lisburn Ladies Fine Dining Club was in session yet again!
We had been to Il Pirata back in early October and I can honestly say that judging purely by the food it is my favourite restaurant we have been in so far. So when Andrea suggested going out for dinner to round off our day on Sunday I thought it was about time we went back there. Michelle was duly invited and gladly accepted the invitation, and by happy coincidence we all arrived at exactly the same time. As usual, the company was excellent and yet again the food did not disappoint. The only slight annoyance was that the background music was rather too much to the foreground, meaning that it was difficult to have any sort of a three-way conversation. Since we occupied three sides of a four-sided table and Michelle was in the middle, a lot of conversations were “Michelle plus one”, although there wasn’t a lot we could do about that.
The food really was great. For starter I had mussels in a creamy garlic sauce, the only disappointment being that I couldn’t get one of the mussels opened. It came with a nice slice of toasted ciabatta with which to soak up some of the sauce, but since that wasn’t enough I had to resort to a soup spoon to finish off the rest. I wasn’t missing out on anything that tasty. Although I was reluctant to revisit the same main course I had last time, in the end I just couldn’t resist and plumped for the duck ragu once again. It was ridiculously delicious, duck, tomato, garlic, gnocchi, parmesan, just mmm mmm MMM. It was, in fact, the nicest thing I have eaten since the last time I ate it. Dessert required some assistance from our waitress (who incidentally earned her tip by consistently addressing us as “ladies” all night) as there was an item called “Bombolini” with orange and chocolate sauce, and none of the three of us had any idea what it was. “Sort of little Italian doughnut balls” was the response. I was the one brave enough to try them, and they were very good. A good serving of whipped cream, warm orange and chocolate sauce, and five large bite-sized balls of frosted doughnut. If you can imagine profiteroles made from doughnut dough rather than choux pastry you’ll not be too far wide of the mark.
After a quick coffee it was time to head home. Another successful day, another day of not hiding away, of being out in the world with real people and, height-obsessed schoolboys aside, with no trouble at all. I wish it could be like this all the time.