BELFAST (Reuters) - A notorious Belfast prison that held Irish Republican Army inmates during the worst of the city's sectarian strife is to be transformed into a Whiskey distillery as Northern Ireland tries to reinvent itself and its struggling economy.
A wing of the Victorian-era Crumlin Road prison, which closed in 1996, will house the first whiskey production in 75 years in a city that was once Ireland's largest producer and will offer exhibitions and tasting facilities for visitors.
It aims to reinvent a building synonymous with Northern Ireland's so-called "Troubles", which held a young Gerry Adams before he became Sinn Fein President and the Rev Ian Paisley who went on to become First Minister of Northern Ireland.
After 14 years of relative calm since a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of tit-for-tat killings between pro-British and Irish nationalist insurgents, Belfast is bidding to break its dependence on handouts from London by boosting tourism.
In recent months the city opened a 97-million pound ($155 million) museum at the shipyard that built the Titanic and a large new arts centre.
The government has awarded a lease to lottery millionaire Peter Lavery to establish a boutique distillery in a wing of the Victorian prison, a Grade A listed building built in 1845.
The former bus driver won 10.2 million pounds ($16 million)in 1996 and now heads the Belfast Distillery Company (BDC), a consortium of local businessmen who are pumping 5 million pounds into the project.
Lavery last year launched two whiskeys - under the Titanic and Danny Boy brands - which are currently produced for him across the Irish border in Co Louth at the Cooley Distillery.
"I'm delighted that we will be able to bring production of the whiskeys home to Belfast," Lavery said at the project's launch.
Irish whiskey, whose 19th century domination of global production collapsed in the early 20th century, has seen a revival in recent years. Exports from the Republic of Ireland increased by 60 percent since 2000, according to the government, although they remain a fraction of whisky exports from Scotland.
Jim Beam, the U.S. bourbon giant which recently bought the Cooley distillery [ID:nL1E7NG1TA], is to provide all the technical support for the new project, which will produce five and ten year old malt whiskey.
The Crumlin road prison once held Eamon de Valera, who later went on to become Ireland's leader, after he was accused of entering Northern Ireland illegally shortly after the partition of Ireland in 1921.
In 1943 the IRA chief of staff and three of his men escaped over the walls and made it across the border to the Irish Republic before his absence was noticed.
There were numerous escapes and escape attempts by IRA members during the 1970s.
In the most audacious, nine inmates playing football in the prison yard kicked the ball over the perimeter wall, went after it and escaped in waiting cars - still in their football kit. ($1 = 0.6324 British pounds)
Editing by Conor Humphries