Friday, November 1, 2013

Spirits in the Night: Halloween 2013 in Crumlin Road Gaol

“If there are any spirits here, make yourselves known.”
Preternatural confidence deepens the tone of my voice in the darkness of the hanging cell in C wing of Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast. I’m confident because of the 29 people standing around me and none of them are spirits, as far as I am aware. We are all participants in the “Paranormal Tour” of the prison, which first opened its gates back in 1846.
 The ancient Celtic festival of Halloween or Samhain, as it was known in the past, is approaching. The Celts believed that at this time of the year the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead is lifted and spirits are free to wander among us. Last year, in honour of the occasion I went to one of the most ancient graveyards in Ireland, Friar’s Bush in Belfast. This year my quest for ghosts has taken me to one of the oldest prisons in the land, to Crumlin Road Gaol.
Unexplained sightings and eerie sounds have been reported within the walls of this prison over its 150 -year history. An American psychic medium and a small party of other ghost hunters have conducted an investigation into these happenings. The video of their findings is being played in the gate lodge of the Gaol, where we are waiting to start our tour and it “primes” us for what lies ahead.
The psychic gets up close to the camera, close enough for me to be mesmerised by the eerie light in his eyes, and urges us to listen carefully to an audio recording for “a distant scream” in C wing, where the hanging cell is.” Another recording has captured the sound of a chain being thrown or dragged, and in B wing a child’s voice is heard. Children, the psychic points out, were incarcerated here in the early years of the prison’s history.
I shift my attention from the screen and scan “ghost hunters” in the gate lodge. Many of those here are couples, but there are also a few families with teenage children. Apparently there’s a lower age limit, which is encouraging because I haven’t come here in search of family fun. I’m in the mood for the macabre; after all, it is Halloween.
Our guide is Neil and he projects his voice much as a town crier might have done in the 18th century. We follow his command to stay close and quickly rally round him when he pauses in the exercise yard. If anyone is going to faint, throw up or suffer a heart attack he requests that they make themselves known to him immediately. Neil also warns that this tour is not for epileptics, pregnant women or people of a “nervous disposition.” The latter probably rules me out, but I say nothing.
Whether we are “believers”, sceptics or “in-betweens” we are urged to set aside all of these mindsets and embark on the paranormal tour with an open attitude. Having given us something to reflect on, our guide leads us onward and downward, into the darkness of the tunnel connecting the prison with the courthouse across the road.
Somewhere in the tunnel we come to a halt. The light from Neil’s torch shimmers in the blackness and our group of thirty appears more compact down here; we are huddled together and there are no stragglers. All of us listen intently as Neil tells us the first of a number of highly convincing stories indicating that the gaol is indeed haunted. Names, dates and places add to the historical credibility of the tale, creating atmosphere in a way that hyperbole might not have. When he is finished we take photos of the blackness, confident that our cameras will capture the spectres that human eyes are incapable of detecting.
It is in the boiler room while Neil is relating another of his stories that some of the group insist there is a distant wailing. Others think it is crying and still others hear sighs and thuds. The mood of the group tenses. My hearing has let me down once again and I feel cheated by the silence. But just then the hair on the back of my skull bristles. Unsettled, I smooth it down while checking to see who is behind me; nobody is there in the dark. I shuffle closer to the group and yet again the same patch of hair stands on end.

From that moment onward I stay very close to a sturdy farmer from Ballymena who is on the tour with his wife and two equally sturdy sons.
Our next stop is outside the padded cell. The door is ajar; Neil doesn’t enter and neither does anyone else. One night the big brawny inmate of the adjacent cell  – this door is closed - was woken from his slumbers by “something” pressing down on him. What happened after that is conjecture as no sense could be made of the man’s ravings about that night. He ended his days in a psychiatric hospital.  
Our group files into the hanging cell. Neil explains that Crumlin Road Gaol has witnessed 17 state-sanctioned executions (although doesn’t say how many non-state-sanctioned executions took place here). After another story he asks for a volunteer to summon the spirits. Emboldened by the proximity of the Ballymena family I raise my voice, projecting it into the darkness. Silence. Maybe the spirit doesn’t like women. One of the Ballymena teenagers barks in a thick country accent, “If there are any spirits here, show yourselves.” It sounds like a command, tempting fate, I fear. An icy current of air enters the cell. A number of the others feel it and suggest that it’s time to be moving on. I’m not convinced. The air is chilly tonight, although it could just be that little bit chillier around head height...
Before Neil leaves to collect his next group I ask him how many people will have participated in the tours by the time the final one takes place on Halloween night. No less than 25,000, he tells me, roughly the same number of prisoners who were incarcerated here before the gaol was closed down in 1996. The Halloween Crumlin Road Gaol tours have been an unprecedented success.
          Ten minutes later, now in the queue for the Gaol of Horrors tour, I find myself back in the bosom of the Ballymena farming family, which allays my fears about small groups only being allowed in. No safety in numbers on this tour, but at least my group is formidable in size if not in number. At the last minute a couple join us, just as a two metre tall ghoul in a cape steps out of the shadows and, with a sly smile, ushers us through a door and slams it behind us. In the darkness we’re disorientated; we shuffle forward, led by the Ballymena farmer.
          The next twenty minutes are a blur of blackness filled with sparks, flashing lights, deafening screams, roars, mirthless laughter, bloodied figures, ghosts, toothless hags, a headless man and other apparitions. We navigate the horrors as a unit, ranks tightly closed. Never have I bonded so rapidly with strangers. All of us clutch on to someone, irrespective of whether we know them or not, and as our fear intensifies, so does our grip. “Yer pullin’ the shirt off my back.” I release my grasp.  Ordinarily, I would have been embarrassed, but not tonight. Tonight I am grateful to the Ballymena farmer for ... being there.
          We pause, spellbound by the site of a coffin containing a shrunken corpse. Strobe lights give the scene a nightmarish quality. A woman dressed in white robes with long grey hair emerges from a side door and croons to the corpse while caressing it. Suddenly, as if becoming aware of our presence for the first time, she turns and advances on our little group, “GOOOOOOOOOO” she shrieks into our faces. Her teeth are yellow and her eyes gleam in their sockets. A small voice quivers, “I think she wants us to go”. It’s the Ballymena farmer. Now I’m caught in the grip of terror while exploding with laughter; it feels bizarre and yet beautifully liberating. We close ranks again and hastily shuffle off into the gloom.
Outside in the fresh night air I’m still chortling as I walk down the Crumlin Road past the Mater Hospital. A few passersby glance at me but I don’t care because it’s been a long long time since I’ve laughed this hard and I’m savouring it.

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