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Spike Island. Home to smugglers, monks, soldiers and prisoners. As soon as one group pulled out another swam ashore. You will find it on the mouth of the estuary that eventually leads into Cork harbour, just off the coast of the fishing village of Cobh.
First on the island was St. Mochuda. A local Saint and miracle worker, set up a monastery on the Island in 635 AD. He obtained his claim after he no less than cured the King of Kerry of deafness and blindness. Some monks joined him but they where swiftly moved on when maps where invented and the little islands strategic military importance became plain to see.
During the Cromwellian wars in the 1640’s the island was a holding centre for the dispossessed Irish waiting to be sent to the West Indies and America. Transportation, effectively life time banishment, was a common punishment as we will later see. At this time they were sent to Barbados as servants or to work the English plantations in America. Its estimated 80 – 130,000 where sent away during this period but it’s hard to pin down accurate figures.
The British Government formally bought the island in 1779 to spite their great nemesis the French, who they been at loggerheads with since the reign of Henry II (1154 –1189). Both empires already had the ‘Hundred Years War’, ‘Anglo-French War’, ‘Second Anglo-Dutch War’ and ‘Seven Years War’ under their belts. There was activity around Spike Island by the French after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (where King James II was deposed by William of Orange) which may have encourged the crown to get the cheque book out.
None saw its potential clearer than General Charles Vallancey. Charlie was a British military surveyor sent to Ireland. He was based in Cork and hired the son of a prominent architect to design his fort. The British built an initial fort when they bought the island but Charlie had more ambitious plans. Michael Shanahan came on board at the ripe old age of 22. This wasn’t lost to Charlie either who reckoned (correctly) he could pay the young man less; A. Because of his age and B. because his Dad was loaded.
Fort Westmoreland was a serious project, started in 1804 it wasn’t completed until 1860 with six bastions; the spiky parts of the outer wall giving it the starfish appearance. A bastion is just an angular structure projecting outward from the curtain wall so the wall itself can be protected from attackers….particularly attackers with ladders.
The island was again used for transportation prisoners in the 19th Century. Prisoners where punished for minor offences by being sent to the latest penal colony, Australia. They set sail from Spike Island and Dublin. By the time the last prison ship, the Phoebe Dunbar, left Dublin in 1853, another 26,000 Irish people were transported out of the country.
The Great Famine (1845 and 1852) was around this period caused by potato crop failures. The population was further decimated by a losing a million to starvation and disease and another million to emigration. After the last prisoner ship (now out of fashion) left in 1853 Spike Island fort was now just used as a prison, particularly for political prisoners.
First in was John Mitchel. So who was John Mitchel you ask. He was a solicitor and member of Young Ireland, an Irish political, cultural and social movement in the mid-19th century. He started his own newspaper, the United Irishman 1848. Through his new paper John called for resistance against British rule in Ireland, through the non-payment of rents and criticised the handling of the Great Famine which didn’t exactly endear him to the British. Cue a trial. Tried and convicted he was soon on his way to Bermuda via Spike Island. John escapes servitude to America in 1853; settling in the South. He also sided with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. That war took two of his sons, and after crossing paths with both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln he eventually returned to Ireland in 1875.
Next came the 1916 Easter rising. In 1916 the Irish rebels were expecting a shipment of arms from the Germans. Quite a lot of arms in fact. When I say a lot I mean in the region of 20,000 rifles and 1 million rounds of ammunition. Very generous. The ship was called the SS Aud. But it was none other than the SS Libau, a German merchant steam ship disguised as an existing Norwegian vessel called the Aud.
Captain Karl Spindler avoided British patrols as he made for the South Coast of Ireland. The ship actually made it to Tralee Bay but a serious of unfortunate events (i.e. the wrong day) prevented a planned rendezvous with republicans ever happening, leading to the 22 man crews capture. The Aud was being escorted into Cork Harbour by the British when the Germans decided to scuttle the ship for the hell of it. Now homeless, they where interred on Spike Island before being transferred to a POW camp in England. In 2012 marine archaeologists discovered and recovered the anchor from the ship which is soon to be put on display.
And there is more. During the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921), which eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and creation of the Irish Free State, around 500 prisoners where held here. However unlike THE Alcatraz, three republicans escaped in 1921 by motor boat and horse & cart. Séan Hyde, Jerome Crowley and Frank Barry who had been building a golf course on the Island, overpowered their guards and got picked up on the beach by Duster Walsh. Duster enroute had actually hit a boat carrying British soldiers but charmed his way out of that little incident. Undeterred he picked up the lads on a beach and off to Ringaskiddy they raced where they ditched the boat and escaped in a waiting horse and cart….the quintessential 1921 escape car.
Moving on towards Ireland’s independence, the British kept a number of ports, including Spike Island as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. An Taoiseach (Prime minister) of the time, Éamonn de Valera kept going on and on and on and on about it to any British leader who would listen. For a bit of peace and quiet it was transferred to Irish control in 1938.
From 1938 until 1985 first the army and then the navy used it as a base. In 1985 the Department of Defence decided to open it as a civilian prison as the islands lack of roads made it a perfect location for housing joy riders, a serious social issue at the time. Due to running costs the old fort it closed again in 2004. Finishing on a positive note, the last inmates at that time undertook a number of restoration projects which still stand today.
Can you go and visit? Yes you can. Tours take you through the fort, prison cells, and gun emplacements and cannons.
See The Spike Island Webite here: Spike Island Website