Long Kesh could be a ‘must see’ attraction

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

There is a portrait of Tom Williams hanging in the Roddy’s Social Club in west Belfast. It was painted by a former political prisoner Frank Quigley - a Falls Road republican.

The portrait shows Tom Williams in the summer of his youth - a mop of brown curly hair sitting atop a broad, attractive, smiling boyish face. He is slightly hunched over leaning into the portrait; he is wearing braces and an open-neck collarless cream coloured shirt, what today is fashionably called a granddad’s shirt.

The engaging portrait puts a face to a legend which has been around republican politics since the hangman, Pierrepoint, put a noose around Tom Williams’s 19-year-old neck in September 1942.

A fortnight ago I spent a few minutes in the condemned cell where Tom Williams spent the last days of his life and experienced the spine-chilling sound of the trap door through which the young man fell when he was hanged, as a mock execution was enacted by our prison guide.

I was accompanied on the tour of Crumlin Road prison by a friend, Chris Simpson. His grandfather Pat was part of the IRA unit who were sentenced with Tom Williams to be hanged for the killing of an RUC constable Patrick Murphy. Chris stood in the cell where his grandfather, as a teenager, was held awaiting execution before the sentence was commuted.

Also in the tour group was Paul Butler. A Sinn Féin MLA, Paul was in the Crum, as it is known, for eight months in 1974 as a 17-year-old. He later served 15 years of a life sentence.

Also with us was my brother Damian who knew the Crum from the outside through visiting me, his daughter Sinead who as a child also visited me and her boyfriend Neil and a lawyer from the US, John Kennedy, a relative of the famous Kennedy clan.

Belfast’s Crumlin Road Prison is not only an impressive, indeed, imposing, example of Victorian prison architecture it is also a museum, an artefact, in its own right.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the North Belfast Community Action Unit collaborated to ensure that the prison -now closed after 150 years as a penal institution - and the nearby former British military base, Girdwood Barracks, are the centre piece of a plan to rejuvenate north Belfast.

The prison has been re-opened as a tourist attraction and in the first few months after it was opened last year attracted 5,000 visitors - a clear sign that the decision to list and open the prison to the public is popular.

Built long before partition the history of the prison reflects the social, political and economic history of this island over a century and a half.

Victims of the famine were held there as were children; suffragettes campaigning for votes for women; thousands of political prisoners and 17 men were executed and buried in its grounds.

The 10 hunger strikers who died in 1981 were held there on remand as was Eamon de Valera, Ian Paisley snr, David Ervine, Gusty Spence, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly and Belfast’s mayor Tom Hartley among others.

Dozens of daring republican, successful and not so successful, escapes took place.

Tours of the prison can be booked online or by phoning the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau. The prison is promoted as a ‘must see’ destination by those involved in tourism and rightly so.

What I find incredible is that a similar project with similar appeal and potential a few miles outside Belfast at Long Kesh has been dogged by unionist opposition yet the rightly ambitious project centred on the Crum has been advanced practically without a whimper of protest from unionists.

The plan to build at Long Kesh a multi-sports stadium for Gaelic games, soccer and rugby alongside the preserved prison buildings, including the prison hospital where the hunger strikers died, and a conflict transformation centre, could have become a national and international symbol of peace and reconciliation on this island.

But it was scuppered by power struggles, petty-mindedness and personal intrigue inside the DUP.

But just like the Crum the prison buildings at Long Kesh are listed and will be developed.

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© 2009 Irish Republican News