Peter's Blog

Back to work...

Written by Peter Johnston on .

And so... the summer is nearly over. An in-service day for schools today so I still have the children all at home, but tomorrow school is back properly for the other five members of the Johnston household. I am trying to get some odds and sods done today before starting back properly tomorrow. That is looking like a pretty grim day with scheduled meetings morning, afternoon and evening. Ah, back to work indeed.

We did manage a lovely wee break in Northern Ireland visiting our friends, the McDowell family, in Ballyeaston. In our brief few days we managed to fit a lot in with a trip to the new Titanic Belfast exhibit at the harbour which was excellent (and you paid the price for that excellence!), a visit to Castle Ward where numerous scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed (good for the nerds amongst us) and Crumlin Road Gaol (but only visiting it, I hasten to add).

Amongst the huge Titanic Belfast exhibit, which does a superb job of setting the scene for industrial life around Belfast in the time leading up to the building of the Olympic class liners of which Titanic was the second. A ride around huge models that gave an idea of the sounds, heat and danger of fabricating such a huge boat was a highlight. However, the most poignant section of the exhibit was very low key. In a darkened section with minimal exhibits you followed the last hours of the Titanic's journey before and after having struck the iceberg through the various radio communications sent from and to the Titanic's radio room and the radio operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. This very simple exhibit along with the depictions of the situation the boat found itself in at the various stages of that night was heart breaking and very moving.

If you find yourself in Belfast then I would recommend a trip to the exhibit, it is as full an exploration of the ship that still haunts our imaginations and collective memory as one can find anywhere, and much more in depth than the exhibition at the Transport and Folk Museum in Belfast that we had previously visited a couple of times.

The Crumlin Road Gaol was fascinating. I had joked that our various visits had a distinctly dark side to them, wondering what that said about Northern Ireland's history, but there was no doubt that the visit to the Belfast prison was interesting and even captivated the children as the tour went on, particularly when we visited the condemned man's cell and the hanging room. Eeks! The prison had been in operation for around 150 years before closing in 1996 so there was plenty of history to draw on from earlier years right up until the troubles.

One of the things I found fascinating was how the loyalist and republican inmates were segregated. For a brief few months in the early 1970s on the request of the IRA who offered a ceasefire, segregation of loyalists and republicans into different wings was instituted (this was one of a number of demands that the UK government agreed to at the time). The ceasefire did not last more than a few months, however, and some time later it was decided to mix the inmates once more. The inmates themselves then decided to voluntarily segregate themselves. When it was time for exercise on one day all the republicans would go out, while the loyalists chose to stay in their cells; the next day this would be reversed. The same went for using the canteen to eat. I found that fascinating and rather tragic.

As far as the execution part of the tour, 17 inmates were hanged over the course of the prison's operation, and I suppose it was done in the most humane way possible in the later years when you walked through how it was enacted by Albert Pierrepoint's methods (the executioner par excellence in the UK from 1932 to 1956), but it was grim to see, make no mistake. Not something I would want to see us revisit as a country. There is a brilliant film about Pierrepoint's life, if you have not seen it, of the same name, where he is played by Timothy Spall. A particularly chilling afternote on Pierrepoint's role as a hangman was our guide's explanation of why the actual noose displayed was not the one that had been used for the executions but rather one of the two other spare sets: Pierrepoint had written to all the prisons in which he had carried out hangings asking for the ropes which had been used. Many prisons sent them to him. He put these up on display in the pub that he and his wife ran. The pub's name was "Help the Poor Struggler". Ouch.