In late 2021, the movie Belfast from writer/director Kenneth Branagh—and starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, and Judi Dench—hit theaters nationwide. The film is a coming-of-age drama set in Northern Ireland during a period known as, “The Troubles,” which lasted from the late 1960s until the late 1990s.
“The Troubles” was a violent conflict between nationalists (mainly self-identified as Irish or Roman Catholic) and unionists (mainly self-identified as British or Protestant). This period ended with the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
Until Belfast, I didn’t know much about “The Troubles” aside from the fact that the conflict included Bloody Sunday—which I first learned about from the U2 song Sunday Bloody Sunday.
The reason I bring it up, though, is that “The Troubles” also included a famous prison break in the early 1980s that occurred at Maze Prison (aka Long Kesh Detention Center) in Northern Ireland.
Maze Prison is one of the most famous prisons in UK history, and it was a big part of “The Troubles” for many reasons. In today’s blog post, we are going to dive into some of that history. We are also going to answer the question: can you visit Maze Prison today?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- A brief history of Maze Prison
- How was Maze Prison used during The Troubles?
- The Maze Prison Escape (aka The Great Escape)
- Maze Prison and Peace
- Can you visit Maze Prison?
A brief history of Maze Prison
Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (previously known as Long Kesh Detention Center, and known colloquially as The Maze or H-Blocks) was situated at the former Royal Air Force station, Long Kesh, on the outskirts of Lisburn in Northern Ireland, in the townland of Maze (a Belfast suburb).
The facility became operational in 1971 following the introduction of internment. At that time, the British Army implemented Operation Demetrius and raided 452 suspects, with more than 300 arrests of Irish nationalists. But, those involved were accused of bungling the operation and arresting the wrong people by using outdated information.
How was Maze Prison used during The Troubles?
The Nissen Huts (steel structured-barracks) at the Royal Air Force Base were used to intern those who were arrested during Operation Demetrius. These buildings became the Long Kesh Detention Center.
For the most part, the prison was used to house special category political prisoners. But eventually, individuals convicted of crimes were sent to the facility, and this really caused some problems.
In the late 1970s, eight new “H-Blocks” were built at the former air force base, and the facility was officially named Her Majesty’s Prison Maze. These blocks were supposed to be used to house inmates convicted of criminal activity (not political prisoners with special category status, like those involved in “The Troubles”).
“The eight H-Blocks – so named because of their uniform ‘H’ shaped plan – collectively formed a purpose-built maximum security prison for political prisoners. Unlike the compounds/ cages of Long Kesh, which housed prisoners collectively in Nissen huts, the H-Blocks separated prisoners into individual cells.
Each H-Block was surrounded by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and gates within the complex were constructed of solid steel. The entire site was also encircled by watch towers and a perimeter wall. The large complex also included a separate hospital building, a visiting building, multi-denominational chapel and two large football pitches, alongside multiple administrative buildings.”
The status of political prisoners was constantly changing based on who was in charge. But the political prisoners did not consider themselves to be, “common criminals.” However, the inmate populations were constantly being mixed.
This led to protests that included inmates refusing to wear uniforms and wrapping themselves in bedsheets. This protest was known as, “on the blanket.”
After years of protesting, “on the blanket,” more than 300 men had joined the cause. But the British government refused to back down. This led to inmates refusing to leave their cells to shower or use the bathroom, because if they did, they would be beaten.
Inmates who were, “on the blanket,” were given wash-hand basins to use in their cells. But, they were also repeatedly beaten and defenseless. The prison guards were almost exclusively Protestant with a “desire for revenge” against the Irish Catholic inmates.
For five years, this conflict between the political prisoners at Maze and the government continued. The “on the blanket” protest eventually turned into the “Dirty Protest.” Which meant the prisoners refused to leave their cells to “slop out,” or empty their chamber pots. Instead, they would smear their excrement on the cell walls to “mitigate the spread of maggots.”
This eventually led to the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike at Maze. The leader of the Provisional IRA, inmate Bobby Sands, led the hunger strike inside the prison. And on the outside, Sands was nominated for Parliament and won.
The government and new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, continued to resist, however, and after a 66-day hunger strike Sands died. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. Nine more strikers died in the following months. The hunger strike was officially called off in October 1981.
The Maze Prison Escape
On September 25, 1983, the largest prison break in Europe took place when 38 inmates hijacked a prison meals truck and smashed their way out of Maze. To Irish Republicans, this is known as the “Great Escape.”
During the incident, four prison officers were stabbed, including one who ended up dying of a heart attack. Another officer was shot in the head, and several others were injured. Known as one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe, the break from Maze came as a shock.
Nineteen of the escapees were eventually recaptured and sent back. But, the other 19 escaped. This incredible true story was dramatized in the 2017 movie Maze.
Maze Prison and Peace
The prisoners at Maze Prison played a significant role in the Northern Ireland peace process during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Talks between the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the inmates in the Ulster Defense Association led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
After peace was made and a ceasefire was agreed upon, Maze Prison released all parliamentary political prisoners—428 in total. The remaining four inmates at the prison were transferred to another facility, and Maze Prison was closed in September 2000.
Since its closing, many buildings have been torn down. However, a few do remain to this day.
Many ideas and proposals have been submitted for the property, including a museum, a multi-purpose sports stadium, offices, hotels, a leisure village, and a peace center. So far, none of these projects have been developed.
In 2020, the site of the former prison was considered for conversion into a temporary COVID hospital.
Can You Visit Maze Prison?
The first public tours of Maze Prison took place in 2011, and they are still available if you’ve got connections. The site is officially closed to the public. So, the answer to today’s blog post question is technically, “no.” However, if you know the right people in the British government, you might be able to get a strict, guided tour of the property.
One H-Block is still standing, as is the prison hospital, where the purported last bed of Bobby Sands resides.
Did you know that Maze Prison was created because of political prisoners during The Troubles? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: How 38 IRA Members Pulled Off the UK’s Biggest Prison Escape https://www.history.com/news/maze-prison-break-ira-1983 Maze Prison https://www.britannica.com/topic/Maze-prison Inside the Maze Prison -- The First Public Tour https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-14871213 Bobby Sands’ bed and Long Kesh/Maze’s afterlife https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/bobby-sands-bed-and-long-kesh-maze-s-afterlife-1.2814608#:~:text=Due%20to%20its%20associations%20with,closed%20to%20the%20general%20public). The H-Blocks https://www.prisonsmemoryarchive.com/pma-for-education/the-h-blocks/ Maze Prison https://www.guide-ireland.com/tourist-attractions/maze-long-kesh/ Maze https://www.imdb.com/video/vi19773721/?ref_=tt_vi_i_1