Spike Island

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Spike Island, site of the Escape from Spike Island swim
Spike Island is near Cobh in the county of Munster in Ireland and site of the Escape from Spike Island 1.8 km open water sea swim. It is an island of 104 acres in Lower Cork Harbour. It is one of the swims of the Triple Break or Triple Crown of Prison Island Swims together with Robben Island in South Africa and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in California, United States of America.

Shortly after Christianity was introduced to Ireland, Saint Mochuda started a church here. He left twenty brothers on the island while he continued his mission around Ireland.

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.

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.

The Fort itself was an amazing place, with gun emplacements, tunnels and even a gallows in the shower block. As young men we were always curious about the island and spent many an hour exploring it. On the east side of the island is a cemetery which we believe was used to bury Irish man and women who were bound for Van Demons Land (Australia) as this was the set off point for these poor unfortunate people. Each grave is marked with a simple slate and a surname etched on it, nothing else.” (Alan Finan, 2003)

Much investment was made in the prison at Fort Mitchell, particularly in the areas of catering and in-cell sanitation. Housing mainly adolescent offenders, the prison had built up a very good reputation in education and rehabilitation programmes. In January 2004, it was closed by the Department of Justice.

In May 2006, the Minister for Justice announced plans to build a new prison on Spike Island to accommodate 450 prisoners and replace the existing Cork Prison. However, there are many who wish to see the unique location and history of Spike Island acclaimed by the establishment of a world class heritage centre in Fort Westmoreland.

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