Ireland’s Alcatraz: new book on Co Cork penal colony Spike Island reveals all about historic prison, once the largest of its kind in the world

Former Spike Island CEO John Crotty writes about the defunct penal colony in Cork harbour, which once hosted famous inmates including Martin ‘The General’ Cahill and Bubbles the chimpanzee

Spike Island, the former penal colony in Cork harbour
Spike Island, the former penal colony in Cork harbour

A MONASTIC outpost in the Celtic Sea, a fortress built to defend an Empire, a prison established to intern a nation: Spike Island’s remarkable 1,300 year history far exceeds its modest acreage.

First home to a monastery in 635AD and frequented by pirates and smugglers, the arrival of the British military in 1779 started a 206-year military occupation that forever changed the island’s destiny.

An enormous fortress constructed in 1804 was built to defend the empire from a rampaging Napoleon, a fort that still stands tall today. Soldiers arrived from all over Ireland to construct and man its walls. The completed 24-acre fortress is so large it could fit six Windsor Parks or four Roman Colosseum side by side within its walls.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended, the fort saw a near-century of peace until the First World War erupted, which again brought northern soldiers within its walls as they made their way towards the fronts of France and Belgium.

The island is more famously known as Ireland’s Alcatraz having hosted four prisons across four centuries from the 1640s to 2004. This includes terms for Young Irelanders, Fenians, republicans and all other variations of Irish opposition to British rule.

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An aerial view of the former prison at Spike Island
An aerial view of the former prison at Spike Island

The Victorian Prison opened in 1847 became the largest in the world as the Irish famine raged. Prisoners arrived from every county in Ireland to swell its numbers and make it the largest ever prison in Ireland or Britain.

Convicts from the north were not spared because of their distance from its shores – over 60 per cent of Ireland’s convict population were held on the island at any one time, making it an almost unavoidable circumstance.

Michael Corrigan of Armagh was just 15 when he was arrested for theft in 1845. He found himself on Spike Island which became the main holding depot prior to transportation overseas. Boys as young as 12 occupied the island prison at a time when no distinction was made between children and men.

Spike Island: The Rebels, Residents and Crafty Criminals of Ireland's Historic Island by John Crotty
Spike Island: The Rebels, Residents and Crafty Criminals of Ireland's Historic Island by John Crotty

James Lavery of Derry was an incredible nine-years-old when sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing eggs, the youngest age recorded. He was at least spared the horrors of Spike Island, serving his time elsewhere.

John McVeigh of Armagh was 28 when arrested for burglary in 1849, a common crime in famine ravaged Ireland. He arrived to Spike Island in 1850 and at least survived the location. This was not the matter of fact it should have been as overcrowding led to annual death rates of 12 per cent: James Caddlety of Co Down died on the island in 1853, having almost completed his seven years’ sentence.

A Block on Spike Island.
A block on Spike Island (David Keane)

The closure of the prison in 1883 saw the military take full ownership again but a third prison followed in 1921, holding Irish Republicans engaged in the Irish War of Independence.

Having held Cromwell’s defeated foes in the 1650s, Young Irelanders in 1848 and Fenians in the 1860s, this cemented the island’s links to Irish independence efforts; 1,200 would see the inside of the fortress in a year marked by prison riots, hunger strikes, escapes and a prisoner murder.

Éamon de Valera arrives on Spike Island in 1938
Éamon de Valera arrives on Spike Island in 1938 (Examiner Staff )

The island became a political football in 1922 as Britain fought to retain the strategic location. Winston Churchill had visited in 1912 and knew Cork harbour’s vital importance. He was successful and Spike Island was retained until 1938, but when discussions arose on how to resolve the Anglo-Irish trade war of the 1930s, Éamon de Valera secured the return of the island, to the ire of Churchill.

This was just in time, considering the Second World War erupted within a year and the island was a poorly defended base far from Britain’s air cover.

The handover day was a momentous occasion in Irish history, celebrated up and down the country. The Derry Journal reported bonfires on the Falls Road in Belfast, stating “to celebrate the taking over of Spike Island by Irish troops, the national flag was flown from the Garda barracks and private homes of Glenties”.

The paper summarised the event: “Another fortress of British power has been quietly surrendered to the Irish nation. Another, and vitally important, piece of Irish history has been regained for Ireland”.

Inside one of the cell blocks on Spike Island
Inside one of the cell blocks on Spike Island (John Crotty)

Soldiers and their families soon arrived from Donegal as the Irish took control of the fort, the other Treaty Ports being Berehaven and Lough Swilly.

A thriving Irish island community which had been in existence since at least 1700s continued until 1985, when an enormous riot in a hastily opened prison that year led to their permanent removal.

The prison limped on for another 19 years, closing its doors in 2004. Its most famous inmates were Dublin crime boss, Martin ‘The General’ Cahill, and Bubbles the chimpanzee, Michael Jackson’s pet who was denied entry to Ireland when the star performed here.

Aerial view of Spike Island.
Aerial view of Spike Island (Skytec)

This book is the first to share the complete long history of an island long known to be a penal legend, but now revealed to be a monastic outpost, home to a fierce fortress and a quaint island home.

Visitors today are of the willing kind, those keen to dive into the history of an island more closely associated with the Irish story than anywhere else.

Spike Island – the rebels, residents and crafty criminals of Ireland’s historic island by John Crotty is out now, published by Merrion Press.
John Crotty hails from Co Waterford and spent 11 years living in the UK, where he graduated from Swansea University. On his return, John managed Spike Island Cork as CEO for six years, leading the island to international awards. Under John’s stewardship, the island launched its popular After Dark tours and the first Spike Island Literary Festival. John has been featured in multiple publications and TV shows sharing the island’s story. This is his first book.
John Crotty, former CEO of Spike Island
John Crotty, former CEO of Spike Island (Thorsten Merz)