Dig reveals full extent of convicts' mass grave on Spike Island

Archaeologists have identified for the first time the full extent of a convicts’ mass grave on what was once a notorious concentration camp-style prison in Cork harbour.

The Spike Island Archaeological Project team, led by UCC archaeologist, Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin, has identified up to 250 previously unmarked burial plots, all dating from Famine times, within a walled cemetery area on Spike Island in Cork Harbour.

“We have always known that this area contained graves but we never knew how many,” Dr Ó Donnabháin said.

“There were about 11 headstones in this area, all dating from 1862, but which are not now in their original locations.

“Following geophysical analysis, we identified four or five rows with about 50 individual graves in each.”

Excavation of six graves confirmed what the geophysical investigations suggested. Dr Ó Donnabháin said: “We now know that there are between 200 and 250 individual burials plots in this area — all were in a regimented, regular layout.

“But our findings begs the bigger question — what happened to the others who died on Spike?”

Records indicate that some 1,100 convicts died on the island during its 36 years as a prison. Further archaeological work will be needed to outline the full extent of the other burial sites where an estimated 900 or so convicts are buried.

These areas are identified on historical maps, but today, the areas are overgrown and unprotected.

“This project aims to give a voice to the men and boys who were incarcerated and died in the prison during the Victorian era, broadening our understanding of the role of the convict prison as one of the mechanisms by which the empire was established and maintained,” Dr Ó Donnabháin said.

“I have no doubt that our work here will be of interest internationally and will attract many more international research projects and visitors to the region.”

It is hoped the work will result in the development of a fitting memorial to those who died on Spike before it is developed as a tourist and heritage attraction.

Spike Island, Ireland’s Alcatraz at the mouth of the harbour, was originally built as a Napoleonic-era fortress.

But following an upsurge in crime during the Great Famine (1845-1852), it was converted to a prison in 1847 as part of the British colonial government’s response to the rise in public disorder.

In its early years, it was an important holding centre for convicts transported to Australia and Bermuda.

Political prisoners such as the Young Irelander, John Mitchel (after whom the fort is now named) and Fenians were also incarcerated on Spike.

Originally devised as a temporary solution, it went to operate as a prison for 36 years, holding up to 2,300 people at any one time in appalling, overcrowded conditions.

By contrast, the modern Spike Island prison which held joyriders during the 1980s, accommodated 102 prisoners.

The Famine-era prisoners were put to work doing hard labour, building many of the extensive naval docks and basins on nearby Haulbowline Island.

Disease and malnutrition were rampant, with a mortality rate as high as 10%.

Dr Ó Donnabháin said while conditions were harsh, the prison regime was not designed to kill. Nevertheless, a convict was dying on Spike almost every day.

A royal commission appointed around 1853 recommended reducing prison numbers to 1,000, which resulted in a significant reduction in the death rate.

However, records show that more than 1,000 convicts died and were buried in mass graves on the island by 1883, with most dying in the first decade of its operation.

The archaeological project investigated the relationships between the 19th century convicts, their keepers and the institution.

A survey of modern-era graffiti in the remaining buildings was also carried out to assess convicts’ attitudes to their incarceration.

Cork County Council took over management of Spike Island in 2011 with a view to developing its tourism and heritage potential. The entire island is a national monument.

Rebel passports for honorary Corkonians

The Spike Island research team have been made honorary Corkonians.

County Mayor Noel O’Connor presented all 30 team members, who lived in the former prison buildings for the duration of the four-week project, with personalised ‘Rebel passports’ to thank them for their work shedding light on the former prison’s past.

Some of the students travelled from the US, Canada, France and Poland to be part of the research project.

Several even volunteered to sample the Famine-era prison diet for a day — a breakfast of porridge made from oatmeal and rice, three quarters of a pint of milk and a pound of bread at midday, and a dinner of half a pound of bread washed down by half a pint of milk.

“We hope that all of you will go home with very special memories of your time in Cork and that you will all spread the word about what a special part of the world the Cork region is,” Mr O’Connor said.

The rebel passport initiative is linked to the Cork Rebel Week festival in October — one of the flagship Gathering events.

Eoin English

Treasure hunters

Jimmy Deenihan: Metal detector crackdown

*A crackdown on metal detector use is to be launched by Jimmy Deenihan, the arts, heritage, and Gaeltacht minister.

New guidelines are to be posted on the department’s website following a rise in complaints about unauthorised or illegal use of the devices on important historic sites, the minister said.

Mr Deenihan said there was evidence from the web of a trade in “illegal treasure-hunting and export and sale of unlawfully retrieved archaeological objects”.

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