Spike Island prison riot exhibition opens 30 years after 'mob rule just took over'

“I was surprised at the ferocity of the attacks. There were no serious offenders in the prison, they were mainly joyriders. It was really sudden, out of the blue. Mob rule just took over.”

These are the recollections of retired Detective Garda Jack Hartnett of the Spike Island prison riot, which took place 30 years ago.

Cork County Council, which is turning the island into a tourism venue, has opened up a permanent exhibition there to commemorate the riot, which left the prison very badly damaged.

Retired Detective Garda Jack Hartnett with Co Cork Mayor John Paul O’Shea at the of-ficial opening of the Spike Island prison riot exhibition. 

On the night of Saturday, August 31, 1985, Hartnett was station orderly in the garda barracks in Cobh.

He recalls getting a phone call saying a riot had broken out. When he looked out of the station window, he could see flames leaping from the prison.

Security in the prison wasn’t up to much. There were no cells as such and inmates were accommodated in the dormitories in A Block, which had been used for Naval Service personnel only shortly before.

Spike Island

The old guard room was also used to house some of the inmates. There was on average 100 prisoners held on Spike during the summer of 1985.

The riot erupted just before midnight and the few prison officers on duty were quickly overpowered.

Some gardaí were dispatched from Cobh in a boat, but were met with overwhelming opposition and were forced to lie low as Hartnett frantically phoned for reinforcements.

“It was bedlam,” he says. “The first guards who went out couldn’t do anything. The prisoners were all over the island and the situation was potentially very serious.

An array of the weapons used during the Spike Island prison riot. Gardaí were initially unable to reinforce the prison guards due to a lack of riot gear.

“One crowd of reinforcements couldn’t land on the pier as it was controlled by prisoners armed with slash-hooks, knives etc. Our lads had no riot gear.”

Riot gear was only available in Cork City, says Hartnett, and when it eventually arrived gardaí were able to land on the island in force.

The rioting ended around 4am, but some diehard inmates climbed onto the roof of Mitchel Hall and remained there until about 5pm on Sunday when they surrendered.

During the riot, A Block was destroyed by fire, as was the eastern end of B Block.

“The prisoners also hot-wired a JCB and did a lot of damage to the buildings with it,” says Hartnett.

“There had been no hint that a riot would take place because up to then there was never a bad atmosphere. Despite the scale of the riot nobody was seriously hurt, thank God.”

Following the riot, the Department of Justice decided to put in secure cells in the building.

The prison was eventually closed in 2005 and, a couple of years ago, the Department of Justice handed the island over to Cork County Council.

The local authority has ambitions plans to turn it into a tourist mecca.

Tom O’Neill, who manages the Spike Island project, said the riot exhibition would be a permanent feature.

“It contains photographs, many taken by the then Cork Examiner, film footage and uniforms of the time which were worn by prison officers and gardaí,” he says.

It will form part of a wider exhibition which features other penal times on the island.

It was used to house convicts who were sent to Australia in the 19th century and Anti-Treaty prisoners who were detained during the Civil War.

Other exhibitions will include the island’s early life as a monastery and the part it played in coastal defence when occupied by the British military and later by the Irish military.

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