You can lose your­self in this place and feel like you’re step­ping back in time

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - @john­meagher­muso @steveh­pix

A walk around here is to step back in time to the harsh pe­nal con­di­tions of the 19th cen­tury. The prison op­er­ated un­til 1883, when it was taken over by the Bri­tish army. But it would be used as a prison on cer­tain oc­ca­sions, not least when more than 1,000 were in­terned dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence.

Spike would re­main in Bri­tish hands un­til 1938, un­der the terms of the An­glo-Ir­ish Treaty of 1921. As part of Queen­stown [mod­ern Cobh], it was one of three so-called ‘Treaty Ports’ to be re­tained by the Crown. They were re­turned to the State and to Taoiseach Éa­mon de Valera as part of the set­tle­ment of the An­glo-Ir­ish Trade War of the 1930s.

Among the many ex­hi­bi­tions chart­ing the is­land’s his­tory is one com­mem­o­rat­ing the mo­men­tous changeover the year be­fore Ire­land for­mally be­came a Re­pub­lic.

Numerous rem­nants of Bri­tish rule re­main, in­clud­ing a pair of enor­mous early 20th cen­tury canons — guns ca­pa­ble of shoot­ing six-inch di­am­e­ter mis­siles up to 12 miles. The one that’s ac­ces­si­ble to tour groups is built into the thick fort walls and has been painstak­ingly re­stored.

Much of Spike Is­land is ex­actly as one would have found it more than 150 years ago, but there’s a lot, too, that re­calls more re­cent troubles, par­tic­u­larly the eerily va­cant shell of Block A. It was set alight by ram­pag­ing pris­on­ers in Au­gust 1985. They man­aged to climb on to the roof of a neigh­bour­ing build­ing, but sur­ren­dered the next day when armed po­lice and the army were mo­bilised. An RTÉ tele­vi­sion re­port from the time fea­tured aerial footage that showed the ex­tent of the dev­as­ta­tion.

It con­firmed what many se­cu­rity ex­perts had sus­pected: Spike had been hastily cho­sen ear­lier that year to house a new breed of crim­i­nal, many of whom were in­car­cer­ated for the then pop­u­lar men­ace of joyrid­ing. It wasn’t a pur­pose-built prison and the riot — which, mirac­u­lously, saw no loss of life — was some­thing of an in­evitable con­se­quence.

De­spite some talk in gov­ern­ment about turn­ing the Cur­ragh into a civil­ian prison, Spike Is­land re­mained in use for a fur­ther 19 years. And even af­ter the prob­lem faded and cars be­came more dif­fi­cult to hot-wire, Spike was still pop­u­larly known as the ‘Joyrid­ers’ prison’.

Martin ‘The Gen­eral’ Cahill spent time here and to­day vis­i­tors can see one of the cells that he him­self painted. The prison shut in 2004 and the is­land even­tu­ally moved to the con­trol of Cork County Coun­cil in 2010, when its po­ten­tial as a des­ti­na­tion for cul­tur­ally cu­ri­ous tourist was first se­ri­ously mooted.

Spike Is­land’s as­sis­tant man­ager, Tom O’Neill, worked here in the prison ser­vice be­tween 1989 and 2003 and says few could have con­ceived of the idea that it would one day be a tourist at­trac­tion — a global travel awards win­ner and the most pop­u­lar Cork des­ti­na­tion on Tri­pAd­vi­sor, dis­plac­ing Fota Wildlife Park. “It was a work­ing prison,” he says, “so you just couldn’t imag­ine it be­ing any­thing else. But the tourists that come love it and its great­est at­trac­tion is how many at­trac­tions are here. Peo­ple might think it was just a prison, but it’s so much more.” Its open­ing to tourists in June 2016 af­ter a num­ber of years of re­de­vel­op­ment and re­pair work co­in­cided with Fáilte Ire­land’s cre­ation of the Ire­land’s An­cient East brand, which in­cludes Cork Har­bour within its bound­aries. Much of the fo­cus has been on this his­tor­i­cal naval gate­way and the fact that more than 2.5 mil­lion Ir­ish peo­ple em­i­grated from Cobh, many of them on ‘cof­fin ships’ bound for Amer­ica, never to re­turn. The Ti­tanic con­nec­tion is also a cen­tral part of the mar­ket­ing of Cork Har­bour as a tourist des­ti­na­tion. The old ticket of­fice of the White Star Line has been con­verted into Ti­tanic Ex­pe­ri­ence Cobh — 112 peo­ple em­barked here, although the doomed liner it­self was moored at the far side of Spike, in deep wa­ter. Another naval tragedy is re­mem­bered in the area — just three years af­ter the sink­ing of the Ti­tanic, another great pas­sen­ger ship, the Lusi­ta­nia, was tor­pe­doed by a Ger­man sub­ma­rine and more than 1,000 peo­ple lost their lives.

In all, Spike Is­land has re­ceived more than €6m in fund­ing, with €2.5m sup­plied by Fáilte Ire­land, and the bal­ance from Cork County Coun­cil. But much more is needed to fully de­velop its po­ten­tial, and some politi­cians in the area are dis­mayed that more fund­ing hasn’t been ear­marked through Fáilte Ire­land’s Grants Scheme for Large Tourism Projects.

The chair­man of Cobh mu­nic­i­pal district coun­cil, Padraig O’Sul­li­van, has called on the tourism body to fi­nan­cially sup­port the next phase of the devel­op­ment to in­clude ad­di­tional restora­tion work and new ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tres.

Fáilte Ire­land spokesper­son Alex Con­nolly says: “The ap­pli­ca­tion from Cork County Coun­cil for fur­ther work at Spike Is­land was not deemed el­i­gi­ble as it did not meet the strin­gent cri­te­ria set down.

“These el­i­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria were ap­plied across all 115 ap­pli­ca­tions that were re­ceived and Fáilte Ire­land was eq­ui­table in its treat­ment of all ap­pli­ca­tions and ap­pli­cants. In the fu­ture, as the at­trac­tion on Spike Is­land grows and de­vel­ops, it may well meet the cri­te­ria and qual­ify for fur­ther fund­ing un­der sub­se­quent schemes.”

For now, such devel­op­ment hardly mat­ter to those cap­ti­vated by John Flynn’s tour and the tales of the para­nor­mal that have made Spike Is­land a des­ti­na­tion for spe­cial night-time ex­cur­sions.

“I love the fact that it’s not over­run with tourists,” says one vis­i­tor. “You can lose your­self in this place and feel like you’re step­ping back in time. In a world where so many tourists end up go­ing to ex­actly the same places, it’s re­ally good to have a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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