Yes, you heard right people. Ireland has opened the doors of one of the oldest and most infamous prisons on our Emerald Isle. Despite tourism delights such as Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin City and Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, racking up hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, there has been one historical prison that remained in the shadows during these time. But not anymore? The gates to Spike Island Fortress and Prison are now open to the public, for all tourists and enthusiasts of the dark stories that surround such a place.
But many of you may be asking…what is Spike Island? Where is Spike Island? And…why have I never heard of Spike Island?
Spike Island is an island of the coast of Cork City, which dates right back to the 6th Century, where a monastery once stood upon its beautiful land; surrounded by the waters of Cork Harbour.
In the late 18th Century, the British built several military barracks on the island and also a series of forts, after seeing all the potential this isle had to offer. But by the turn of the 19th Century, times were changing, intolerance brewing and the crime rates at a serious high. It was not long before a Victorian prison was to be built on the island, becoming the largest ever jail in the history of Ireland and Britain.
The jail itself could hold over 2300 prisoners at one time, and by “hold,” this does not mean by comfortable standards, in the slightest. With city and town jails housing individuals of petty crime, these numbers quickly started to rise with the arrival of the potato famine. Spike Island Prison was designed to hold those prisoners of more serious crimes, with thousands of them being transported to British colonies across seas, such as Tasmania, Bermuda and Australia. Here, these men, women and children were sold to prospective buyers, becoming servants and slaves for the early settlers.
Many of the prisoners were subjected to hard, intensive labour, whilst awaiting the approaching transportation ships. Many people died even before the sails were cast; severely malnourished, and there were a number of those who took their own lives to escape the fate that was to follow.
However, the range of crimes that brought about imprisonment in this fortress were extensive. According to the book, Too Beautiful For Thieves and Pickpockets by Barra Ó Donnabháin and Cal McCarthy, an orphan named John Power, who was so badly brutalized by the authorities down through the years, he ended up killing a prison warder in Waterford, and was subsequently imprisoned for this. On the other hand, an upper class artist from Dublin called William Burke Kirwan, also passed through Spike Island’s gates…this time for the crime of murdering his wife. He spent a great portion of his sentence at the prison, and it wasn’t until 30 years later that he returned to Ireland, after the shame of being transported to Bermuda.
The prison closed in 1883, but still remained under British rule, where troops still positioned themselves. But the history did not even stop there. A claim to fame that the Island is happy to boast about, is its connection to famous explorer Percy Fawcett; who was an employee at the War Office on the island from 1903-1906. He spent his whole life searching for the lost cities and kingdoms of South America. However, by 1914, he had whittled down the search for an ancient kingdom hidden deep within the Amazon, which he called Z. It was not until 1925, when his expedition set off after becoming convinced of its location. But Percy never returned. What could have happened to Spike Island’s explorer? Did he find the City? Did he die looking for it? Did cannibals murder him, or did he join a tribe like many suggest? Others even believe that he may have been killed by nature itself, as he was always fascinated by the myths of giant anacondas. The story of such an expedition still makes people curious, and this month the movie adaption, Lost City of Z, starring Robert Pattinson and Charlie Hunnam was released, telling the story of the ill-fated explorer.
Despite this intriguing connection, Spike Island was finally given back to the Irish people in 1938, which may surprise some who would have thought the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 would have sealed this deal…but it did not. Since then, the island became home to several settlers and businesses, but still it lay in the shadow of the abandoned prison.
However, in 2015, Cork City Council, in conjunction with Failte Ireland, opened its doors to visitors and tourists, allowing people to see, for the first time, what “Ireland’s Answer To Alcatraz” was really like. In fact, many may not know this, but Alcatraz is small in comparison to Spike Island Prison; for the San Francisco attraction sits on a small 22 acre island, whereas Spike Island spans an enormous 104 acres. Pretty impressive, huh?
In 2015, the prison welcomed 32,000 curious tourists and the numbered continued to rise. And thanks to a €6 Million investment in June 2016, the entire prison and surrounding buildings were able to be transformed into the fantastic tourist attraction, which we have all been waiting for. With tourist numbers expected to increase to well over 100,000, I know where I will be heading to once I come home from Toronto.
The opening season for 2017 is from March to October. For only €18 or less, you can purchase a ticket to take you from Kennedy Pier in Cobh, County Cork across the harbour to Spike Fortress, which actually covers the entry and tour itself. Tickets can be purchased at the kiosk at the Pier, but to save time, can be pre-purchased online, by clicking HERE. Coffee shops are located on the island, to make you trip with family and friends even more enjoyable. They offer School Tours which would prove to be an enjoyable and educational experience for end of Primary school tours, or history class outings at high school. HINT HINT TEACHERS!!!
And for the more curious and brave individual, who likes things that go bump in the night, they also offer the choice to attend the Spike Island After Dark Tour, where you will hear of the scary tales of gruesome crimes and punishment, as well as taking a step along the abandoned cell blocks, where the chill of its former inhabitants still linger.
For more information on Spike Fortress, its history, tour information and how to get there, you can do so by visiting the official website, http://www.spikeislandcork.ie/.
Ireland is such a fantastic little island to live and visit, and with tourist spots like this NOW OPEN FOR BUSINESS, it won’t be long until this popular prison attraction will be competition for all others worldwide.
Embrace the Irish Spirit, our history and spread the word. This is a MUST-DO on your next road-trip to County Cork.