(Belfast) Paramilitaries from the Northern Irish conflict were once locked up here, but now whiskey is made here: Belfast’s former prison has been converted into a distillery that now welcomes an influx of tourists and amateurs.

Built 178 years ago, Crumlin Road Gaol, with its enclosure protecting four thick wings of grey granite, represents an “iconic part of Belfast’s history”, Master Distiller Graham Miller emphasises.

After showing a group of tourists the repurposed rooms and whisky-making process, the 53-year-old told AFP he wanted to bring whisky production back to the Northern Irish capital and “do it justice” by reviving it “in a very significant building”.

The “tranquility” and “silence” he experiences upon his arrival each morning is a stark contrast to the atmosphere that once reigned in these places.

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The Northern Ireland conflict left 3,500 people dead during three decades of violence until the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.

For many Irish people, Crumlin Road Prison, in the northwest of the city, the epicentre of the conflict, brings back memories of riots, bombings and escapes.

“When I was a little boy, I would drive past here with my mum and dad and look at the fence and the high barbed wire out front,” said Graham Miller, who grew up near the Northern Ireland capital.

After it closed in 1996, the prison’s Wing A was left abandoned.

Backed by an American fund and the British government, it has undergone a transformation following a £30 million (€35 million) investment from the Belfast Distilleries Company.

He stresses that the thick stone walls and arrangement of cells represent the “challenge” of locating a distillery in the space.

“It’s a small room for things like air compressors, and it works well, but sometimes we have had to bring equipment inside some of the cells on three floors to handle grain that would otherwise be outside,” he says.

More than 30 people currently work at the site, including distillery and visitor reception staff.

He also revived both McConnell’s Irish Whiskey, a long-dormant brand dating back to 1776, and Belfast whiskey production, which declined in the 1930s when US Prohibition ended exports.

“We are bringing jobs and know-how that hasn’t been used in Belfast for many years,” Graham Miller proudly emphasises.

Prison fucking

“But we’re not the first people to distill whisky in the prison,” guide Ross Wade told a group of British tourists from Nottingham.

“The inmates made their own concoctions using fermented fruit, biscuits and yeast, but their speciality wasn’t as good as our whiskey,” the 27-year-old jokes.

Opened in 1846, the prison has held more than 25,000 people over the years, including suffragettes, Irish republican and pro-British paramilitaries, murderers and even small-time criminals.

High-profile detainees include former president Eamon de Valera and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who became Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister after the Troubles.

The prison opened in 2012 as a tourist attraction, but hopes to attract even more visitors.

Graham Wade says it will complement others such as a dedicated Titanic museum in Belfast.

“It is expected to welcome around 100,000 visitors each year, particularly during peak season when cruise ships and tourist buses arrive in Belfast,” he points out.

“It was an amazing experience,” tourist Simon Simons said after visiting the distillery.

“Being from the UK, I’d definitely heard about the Troubles in Northern Ireland,” explains the 54-year-old IT manager.

“We hadn’t necessarily heard about this prison, but we knew what was going on from childhood,” he emphasizes. “It’s good to be able to build something on this story.”