Ireland’s Bucket List: Spike Island

Written by Linda Rafferty on 07/07/2023

Ireland's Bucket List: Spike Island

Known affectionately as ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’, Spike Island is a former fort and notorious prison in Cork Harbour, which has become an award-winning tourist attraction and a must-see on your next venture to the Rebel County. Major financial investment and refurbishment in recent years has transformed the 24-acre fort into one of Ireland’s most unique and unforgettable experiences. Situated just off the seaport town of Cobh (pronounced Cove), Spike Island is steeped in history, and invites every visitor to relish equally in its enchanting beauty and harrowing stories!

Aerial Shot - Spike Island

Spike Island - History

Originally the site of a monastic settlement, Spike Island was put on the map following the completion of an 18th-century bastion fort now named Fort Mitchel. The shape and structure of the island is as staggering as it is practical, with a long pier leading arrivals to the star-shaped fort along a steep and twisted path. It’s worth noting that this harsh incline up to the entrance of the prison was created by design, and is seen as a feat of military engineering that exposed attackers and made defending the island a much easier task over the years. The vast banks surrounding the fort were built in the 1850s by the inmates themselves. These Irish convicts, many of whom were awaiting transportation to Australia, were often tied together by ball and chain as they worked on the island with shovels and pickaxes.

main square - Spike Island - Aerial Shot

Life inside the prison was not much better, as Spike Island hosted hundreds of dangerous offenders, murderers, rapists, violent thieves, and political prisoners. These inmates were held in solitary confinement within a purpose-built punishment block. They were heavily chained to the walls of their cell, forcing them to sleep on cold and damp stone floors. The isolating nature of the island coupled with the arguably barbaric treatment of the inmates are just some of the reasons why Spike Island is so often compared to Alcatraz, despite it being ten times the size of its American counterpart.

Jail - Spike Island

What is Spike Island famous for?

In 2017, Spike Island was named Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards, beating stiff competition including the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and Buckingham Palace. Upon arrival it’s not hard to see why. There is plenty to see on this island, from six-inch guns secreted away at the end of deep bastion tunnels, to the imposing central parade ground, to the modern cells that echo and clank in distress. In the mid-19th century, Spike Island stood as the largest prison in the world, with over 2,300 inmates. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the fort and its growing reputation for severe punishment and hard labour earned it the nickname ‘Ireland’s Hell’. With up to twelve men often crammed to a single cell, malnutrition, fatal diseases, and mental health illness were rampant. It’s believed that at least 1,200 men died on the island.

Believe it or not a children’s prison was established on the island as well, which held up to one hundred offenders aged between twelve and sixteen. In the mid-18th century, many were sent to Spike Island as a direct result of the Great Famine (1845-49), for crimes such as stealing bread and vagrancy (homelessness). The early 20th-century saw Spike brimming with nationalists, rebels, and revolutionaries, as Ireland’s War of Independence raged on.

Spike Island - Aerial Shot

Spike Island’s rich and vivid history is told through multiple exhibitions, videos, and museum displays. Breathtaking walking trails surround the island itself, which offer unparalleled views of Cork harbour and the heritage town of Cobh. It is in Cobh that the boats to and from Spike Island travel. Crucially, the island stands as a symbol and a reminder of 1500 years of Irish history. Visitors will be transported through time, learning about 6th-century monastic settlements, 18th-century thieves and smugglers, British military fortification, and the incarceration of Irish rebels in the fight for sovereignty and independence. Recent years have seen over €5.5 million invested in exhibitions and visitor spaces. However, as with all great historic landmarks, the devil is in the details. Spike Island offers a disturbing and palpable presence, with graffiti on the mattresses, and prisoner artwork adorning the walls.

New initiatives and visitor experiences in the past five years have seen Spike Island grow and grow in popularity. The Spike Island After Dark tour, a larger second ferry to escort extra visitors to the island, group overnight stays, and new and improved walking trails are just some of the amenities now on offer. With visitor numbers improving year-on-year, it’s clear that Cork’s Spike Island has become the unmissable Irish hotspot it always had the potential to be.

Aerial Shot - spike island - pear

Images source: SPIKE_ISLAND_AERIAL_-_photo_Ryan_O'Neill_-_Owned_by_Spike_Island_Development_Company

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