Spike Island was significant in the French intervention following the Glorious Revolution, and was later purchased by the British government in 1779 – becoming the site of Fort Westmoreland. (Named for John Fane, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.)
Spike Island - which was also known as Fort Mitchel - was first used as a staging point to transport Irish prisoners to the West Indies and Australia after the Cromwellian wars in the 17th century.
Smuggling was widely practiced in the 18th century and the dark ruggedness of the Spike Island shoreline was a favourite hiding place for smugglers. However, this stopped in 1779 when the island was purchased by the British government from a local landowner. The construction of Fort Westmoreland began in 1790. Called after the then Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Westmoreland, the first regular garrison moved in in 1806. In 1810, the Arsenal was moved from Kinsale to Spike.
In 1847, Spike first became a convict depot. By 1850, over 2,000 were detained there. It was here in 1848 that John Mitchell, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.
Prisoners on the island were employed in quarrying stone, building the Haulbowline Island docks and constructing Forts Westmoreland, Camden and Carlisle. Spike and Haulbowline Islands were connected by a wooden bridge for the duration of this work. Co-operative prisoners were permitted to go to Forts Camden and Carlisle. Prisoners were paid for their work, but first had to go through a probationary period of 8 months during which time no payment was made.
Fort Westmoreland was more or less complete by 1860 and the military finished the remaining work. Situated on the top of the Spike Island hill, it is a six-bastioned fort surrounded by a ditch with two entrances and two sets of casements on the northern side.
In 1883, the last of the prisoners was relocated and Spike Island became used purely as a military post. One British officer stationed there in the early 1900s became world famous. This was Captain P.H. Fawcett, the explorer, last heard of in the Brazilian jungle in 1925. Also born on the island to William Organ, an artillery man of the garrison, was a child called Ellen. Later known as Little Nellie of Holy God, the child’s perception of God was such that the Church authority permitted her to receive Holy Communion when she was only four years old.
Later a prison and convict depot, it was used to house "convicts" prior to penal transportation. It gained a reputation as "Ireland's Alcatraz". It remained in use as a garrison and prison through the Irish War of Independence, when IRA prisoners were held there. Richard Barrett was among those detained there, but escaped during the truce of 1921.
Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the island remained as one of the Treaty Ports, and was only handed back to the Free State in 1938. Upon its handover to the Irish state, the island's installations were renamed Fort Mitchel (after John Mitchel, nationalist activist and political journalist).
During the War of Independence, Spike was once again used as an prison for some hundreds of republicans and their sympathisers. The general conditions under which the men were confined were very poor and several hunger strikes broke out in protest.
Spike Island being a Treaty Port, it was held by the British until 1838. When the island was handed over to the Irish government, the name of Fort Westmoreland was changed to Fort Mitchell. It continued to be used as a prison. The casements were the cells, while other internal surviving buildings were also used by the prison service. Many of the other old blocks survive, although two of the barracks blocks on the western side of the island are shells. An Ex-Service man wrote of his experiences on the island:
As an Ex-Service man who was stationed on Spike Island in 1980, I was appalled at the conditions, but like all my comrades we made the most of it. We lived in billets about 60’ x 20’, and the only source of heat was one small fireplace. The toilets were installed sometime in the 1800’s c 1856. There was only one modern shower shared between c 200 servicemen, although there was a shower block heated by a coal burning boiler, this was also installed c 1856.
On 1 September 1985 inmates rioted and, as a subsequent Dáil committee reported, "civilians, prison officers and the Gardai on the Island were virtual prisoners of the criminals". During the riot, one of the accommodation blocks caught fire and is known as the Burnt Block . After the prison riot that year, all families (relatives of the Irish army and naval services) who lived on the island had to leave.
Below is an extract of news article from News Archive dated September 1st 1985.
About 70 inmates, some wielding pickaxes and pitchforks, seized control of the Spike Island prison compound off the Irish coast Sunday and set it afire, leaving three-fourths of the prison a smoldering ruin, police said.
Riot-equipped police, backed by Irish soldiers, moved in to restore order at the minimum-security prison. No terrorist convicts are housed in the compound.
About 40 inmates clambered onto the roof of a two-story recreation hall and held out for a time, but gave up and climbed down as dusk fell, police said.
Inmates had commandered a bulldozer and smashed across the compound as they torched buildings, witnesses said. They said three buildings were destroyed and two others heavily damaged.
One guard was slightly injured by a gasoline bomb, but no inmates were reported hurt, police said.
Justice Minister Michael Noonan had said the rooftop protesters could stay there until they come to their senses and realize that no prison system will tolerate activities of the type that they have been indulging in.
Noonan rejected their demands for transfers to mainland jails of their choice and assurances that they would not lose the normal time off for good behavior from their sentences as a result of the disturbances.
Noonan said prisoners involved in rioting would be subject to disciplinary measures and could face criminal proceedings.
Thirty other convicts scattered throughout the half-mile-wide island, in Cork Harbor about 1.5 miles from Cork in southwestern Ireland.
Authorities said 40 of the 110 inmates at Spike Island did not take part in riots that broke out shortly after midnight and kept up throughout the day.
Despite damage to the prison, Noonan said it would still be possible to keep about 50 inmates there. He said the government had no intention of closing down Spike Island, as the rioters wanted, and it would be rebuilt. The disturbance broke out shortly after midnight and quickly spread throughout the compound, which was converted from an old army fort into a prison five months ago.
Inmates ripped up floorboards and set fires in one of the prison's two dormitory buildings. Power said seven guards on duty at the time barricaded themselves in a room as the prisoners ran riot. The inmates scattered across the island arming themselves with pickaxes, pitchforks, bottles, bricks and other makeshift weapons. They briefly took over the island's jetty, and held back police reinforcements for 41/2 hours by stoning their boats. They retreated into the compound as police came ashore.
Later, 40 soldiers arrived by boat but remained on standby alert a short distance from the ruined compound. Eight families living on the island were unharmed.
Spike Island contains prisoners serving sentences of up to eight years, but many inmates are young men convicted of stealing cars for joy rides.
The prison has been the scene of frequent disturbances and escape attempts in the short time it has been opened.
About 50 years ago, the compound was used for housing convicted Irish Republican Army guerrillas and became known as Ireland's Alcatraz.
It is about 100 yards from land at its nearest point to the coastline.
The island also had a small civilian population, which was serviced by a small school, church and ferry (launch) service to Cobh. The island is known locally for having excellent earth for growing crops. The civilian population has since left the island however, and the island is now vacant, with many previous residents moving to nearby Cobh.
In May 2006 Minister for Justice Michael McDowell announced plans to build a new prison on the island; however on 25 January 2007, it was decided to explore an alternative site. In 2007 a local task group was set up to re-open Spike as a historical tourist site, and in 2009 is was announced that ownership of the island would be transferred (free of charge) to Cork County Council to enable its development as a tourist attraction. The Council formed a steering group to explore how Spike Island might be developed as a tourist site, and subsequently licensed operators to give guided tours of the island. Tours now depart from Cobh during the summer.
Handover to Cork City Council
In July 2010, Spike Island, located off the Cork coast, was handed over to Cork County Council on behalf of the Department of Justice by then minister for social protection Éamon Ó Cuív.
The local authority plans to transform Spike Island into a major tourism and heritage centre, highlighting the role the island has played in Irish history.As part of its drive to turn Spike Island into a tourist attraction, the council plans to build a floating pontoon, mooring systems and gangways at Spike Island.
Read more: Irish Examiner
A Daring Escape 1921
A daring escape of three IRA volunteers from Spike Island detention centre took place in April 1921.The three men whos escaped were Tomas Malone, Sean MacSwiney (brother of Terence, martyred Lord mayor of Cork) and Sean Twomey. Find out more about the escape at http://homepage.eircom.net/~corkcounty/Timeline/Spike.htm
Reg. No: 20908786 Date: 1840 - 1860 Townland:Spike Island County: East Cork Coordinates: 180623, 64577 Categories of Special Interest: ARCHITECTURAL SOCIAL Rating: Regional Original Use:battery
Detached gun room, built c. 1850, comprising ashlar walls to north elevation with external staircases to east and west. Oculi over camber-headed openings having limestone surrounds, keystones and recessed timber battened doors with metal gates. Half-barrel vaulted brick corridors and concrete corridors to interior leading to gun room having cannon dated 1918. Concrete cantilevered canopy to south elevation over firing range.
This gun room is a notable example of nineteenth century architecture converted to house twentieth century weaponry. The site remains substantially intact and serves as a reminder of Spike Island's strategic location.
See Buildings of Ireland for information.
Dr.Michael Martin offers walking tours of the island. Visit http://spikeislandwalkingtours.blogspot.com/ for details
See reviews for tour of Spike Island on Tripadvisor
Cork Triathlon Escape from Spike Island
See http://www.corktriathlon.com/escape-from-spike-island-course/ for details
- Irish Times - Hopes for Alcatraz-style tourism after handover of Cork's Spike Island - July 29, 2009
- History of Spike Island
- Irish Independent - Plan to unlock potential of 'Ireland's Alcatraz' - 29 July 2009
- Dáil Select Committee on Criminal Lawlessness and Vandalism (1986). "Report No. 11 - Disturbance at Fort Mitchel prison, Spike Island on the 1st September 1985". Oireachtas. http://18.104.22.168/test/R/1986/REPORT_13081986_1.html. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
- BreakingNews.ie - Spike Island to become tourist attraction - July 28, 2009
- Cork County Council - Press Release - "Spike Island, Cork Harbour - Unlocking the Potential"
- Spike Island - Walking Tours