Thursday, June 20, 2013

Spike Island, County Cork

Known as Ireland’s Alcatraz, Spike Island has a long and varied history. The island is quite large at around 103 acres, it lies off the lovely harbour town of Cobh in County Cork. The first recorded habitation of Spike Island comes from the Early Medieval period. Saint Mochuda (also known as Saint Carthage), is said to have founded a monastic site on Spike in 635 AD. Spike next appears in the records when King Henry II claimed the island for the Anglo-Normans in 1176, however no traces of this earlier activity has been discovered by archaeologists on the island.

View of Cobh through one of the machine gun slits in a pillbox
It is thought that after his campaign in Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell used Spike Island as a holding area for Irish Catholics who were being transported to work as indentured labourers on British plantations in the West Indies. This would not be the only time Spike Island served as a prison in its history. The island was also thought to be a popular spot for smugglers who were trying to evade the strict taxes of the time.

There is a wonderful variety of seabirds present on the island, including this Shag who seemed happy to pose for this picture
As the eighteenth century progressed, war between the increasingly ambitious European powers seemed inevitable. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, relations between Britain and France
had completely broken down following the French Revolution.
 Cork Harbour was of huge economic and strategic importance, so the British fortified Spike Island with batteries of cannons and a fort to deny entrance into the harbour to any hostile French shipping. A map of 1821 shows a large star-shaped fort, a hospital on the western side of the island, engineers yards, and a number of ancillary buildings, many of which are visible on the island today.
The fort is protected by a deep ditch covered by machine gun positions in the bunkers

In 1847 Spike Island again was used as a holding area for convicts before transportation to Australia and Tasmania. The convicts had a harsh life, and were used as forced labour to carry out numerous building programmes on the island, and by constructing the docks and forts on the neighbouring Haulbowline Island. Conditions on the island were said to have been very poor and arduous for the prisoners.

A number of political prisoners were held on Spike Island following the 1848 Rebellion. John Mitchell was probably the best known of these prisoners, Mitchell was an Irish nationalist and journalist was held on Spike Island before his transportation to Tasmania. Mitchell managed to escape the hellish life on Tasmania, and settled in America, where he became a prominent pro-slavery voice of the Confederate side during the American Civil War.

By 1883 all prisoners had been removed from the island and it reverted to being used as a military base.

One of the massive 6" guns on the island
During the First World War, Spike Island became an important base of operations against the German submarine fleet. During the War of Independence, hundreds of political prisoners and Republicans were interred at Spike Island. Under the Anglo-Irish agreement, Spike remained a British military base until 1938 when it was handed over to the Irish government. The Irish army and navy occupied the island, many living their with their families until 1985. The island served as a prison again, this time for young offenders, who remained on the island until 2004.

Block C Mitchell Hall
The island is an utterly fascinating place to visit and it really does have something for everyone to enjoy. History buffs like me, nature lovers and bird watchers, and people who just love a good walk in a beautiful and unique setting will all have a brilliant day out on this wonderfully atmospheric island. You can find out more about Spike Island, including how to get there and ferry times from Cobh from their website at

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All photographs © Neil Jackman /
Something for everyone on the island, nature lovers, birdwatchers, history buffs and ramblers will all enjoy a trip