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