Northern Ireland: Selling the new Armagh: an inside story

The city jail once held Bernadette Devlin. Now it is a film set and tourist attraction - but it's still grim, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Online
Pat Brannigan's chains clinked quietly as he perched on the flimsy bed in the dank, dark cell. Then he started to tell me how pleased he was to be inside Armagh jail. "Look at the crowds outside. This is a great day for the city and, hopefully, it'll bring a lot more people here."

The city's lord mayor, wearing the regalia of his office, was speaking earlier this month at the opening of Ireland's latest tourist attraction. Armagh jail - whose catchment area included the region that I hope need no longer be termed Northern Ireland's "bandit country" - closed in 1988. But walking into the bleak hall of A-wing, an inhumane cage for humans, you feel that the last inmate could have been moved out just last week.

Armagh jail triggers all kinds of responses you don't expect from a tourist attraction.

From outside, it is one of the grandest Georgian buildings in the fine city of Armagh; only the bars on the windows reveal its purpose. The prison opened as County Armagh's jail in 1780 and, in the intervening two centuries, thousands of prisoners have lived and died here. The last to be hanged in the yard was a Monaghan butcher named John Fee, who was buried, so legend has it, beneath the rhubarb patch in the governor's garden.

If you've not been in prison before, you will be surprised to see how much the reality resembles the image you've seen on screen. That's because many of the jail scenes on TV and film in the past decade were shot right here. The opening scene of Daniel Day-Lewis's latest, The Boxer, takes place in A-wing.

Even on a warm spring day, when sunlight splashes through between the bars on the low, mean window, this cell-block is more chilling than the celluloid. What might, in more hospitable circumstances, be termed an atrium, stretches out for 50 yards and upwards for perhaps 50 feet. Every surface is painted a merciless grubby gloss that seems to reflect the hopelessness of incarceration.

A clanking staircase lifts you to the balcony, a sullen rib of steel that runs around the void. Visitors can wander into each cell in turn, close the door behind them and imagine the hell of solitude where the only light is from a sliver of window and the only human contact is through a slot in the door.

The exercise yard is hardly cheerier. Through a series of hulking great gates, you emerge blinking into the outside/inside world. Everything from the Tarmac to the walls to the slates is a uniform shade of grey. The bleak horizon is a high, austere wall decked with wire and broken glass. You are in the middle of one of Ireland's most historic cities, yet you could be a million miles from humanity.

The lord mayor assured me that it was pure coincidence that Armagh jail was opening in the same month that saw a majority voting for the peace agreement in Ireland's historic referendum. But the prison has a hell of a history. Many prominent figures, including the then Bernadette Devlin, were held here.

Perhaps, as well as a tourist attraction, it will become a sombre shrine to the lives lost in the past 30 years of the Troubles.

By the time you break out, you too may be mightily muddled: with excitement at such an extraordinary new development, horror at the conditions of a prison that was still functioning in the late 20th century, and a new- found respect for freedom.

I just had to tell the driver who gave me a lift to the coast about the day's experience. He smiled. "Yes, I worked as an extra in one of the films they made there.

"I didn't have to do much - every so often they'd say `we need another warder' and I'd walk on."

He paused. "It felt quite strange, really. After all, I'd spent 14 years as a Republican prisoner inside the Maze."

Armagh jail is open at weekends until 28 June; call the tourist office (01861 521800) for times and plans thereafter. Admission is pounds 1. Simon Calder paid pounds 95 for a Heathrow-Belfast return on British Midland, and pounds 10.50 for a night at Armagh youth hostel. At bank holidays, buses to and from Armagh are minimal, so he hitched.