We took a boat trip to Spike Island in the centre of Cork Harbour last Sunday. This small, unprepossessing island has a remarkable history. It was a monastic settlement in early Christian times. A military fort was built there in the 18th Century and in the 19th Century it became a holding centre for convicts on their way to Australia. The island was occupied by British forces until 1938 and in the 1980’s it was re-opened as a prison, earning it the monicker “Ireland’s Alcatraz”. The prison has now closed, and the site is currently under the control of Cork Co. Council.

The main building on the island is a star fort, that, with Fort Carlisle and Fort Camden at the entrance to Cork Harbour, provided a strong line of defence from any possible attack from the seas. An impressive 6 inch gun is still in place there, silently directed towards the mouth of the harbour. It has never been used in anger, but plans are afoot to fire it during the Titanic centenary commemorations next year.

In 1985, the fort was used to house juvenile offenders. It was not fit for purpose and later that year, the inmates rioted. Most of the buildings within the fort were burned down. The prison was subsequently modernised but following a dispute with prison wardens, the minister for Justice summarily shut the prison down. In 2006, plans were announced to build a modern prison on the island, replacing the existing prison in Cork. These plans were abandoned after Ireland’s economic collapse. The facility is now deserted apart from the occasional guided tour.

Prisoner cell, in use up to 2004.

During the summer, visitors can go to the island by boat from Cobh. The tour itself is quite fascinating given its strategic location in the harbour and its historical significance. There are still a few issues however. It’s a pity visitors can’t stay longer on the island. There is almost no opportunity to explore it for yourself before you are called back to the boat. Most of the buildings outside the fort are in a perilous state and even some of the more recently occupied rooms could benefit from a spring-clean. Much work needs to be done to bring the history of the site more to life: signs, displays, audio-visuals etc. The narrative from the tour guide was uncritical and failed to take into account many of the complexities of our country’s past. Despite these quibbles, it’s a must see by anyone with an interest in the history of Ireland.

A map of the island is below.