Shivs and Shanks: Exhibition of improvised weapons goes on display on Spike Island

A number of improvised weapons seized by the Irish Prison Service have gone on display at a tourist attraction which was itself once the largest jail in the world.

A new exhibition, ‘Shivs and Shanks’ has opened up on Spike Island, in Cork harbour.

It features weapons fashioned from everyday items and shows the daily dangers faced by prison officers and prisoners themselves.

Hundreds of similar items are confiscated by the Irish Prison Service annually.

One of the artefacts on display. Pictures: David Keane
One of the artefacts on display. Pictures: David Keane

In the mid-1800s, Spike Island was the largest prisons in the world and many of its inmates were loaded onto convict ships bound for Australia.

Between 1985 and 2004 the former fort on the island was used to hold young offenders – mainly ‘joyriders’ convicted of stealing and driving cars recklessly.

A riot in August 1985 received international media coverage and led to the reorganisation of the prison and the conversion of the north-east and north-west casemates into secure cells that can still be seen today.

The exhibition features a number of weapons seized in the prison when it housed joyriders.

These include razor blades melted into toothbrush heads, butter knives sharpened and even ‘double blade’ weapons that caused wounds that could not be stitched and required glue to bind them.

It also includes makeshift tattoo guns which prisoners used to create body art, often associated with gang membership.

The confiscation of the weapons shows it was far from a safe environment with violence between Cork and Limerick gangs always a threat.

Speaking at the exhibition launch, Ger Manley, chief officer of Cork prison said the dangers are all too apparent for prison officers.

“People sometimes forget that prison officers are unarmed and they face a daily danger where the outcome of confrontation can be uncertain," Mr Manley said.

There are almost daily assaults in Irish prisons as the problem of gang violence has risen in frequency in recent years, increasing the risks for both prisoners and prison officers.

The issue was highlighted in a 2018 report that showed more than half of the prisoner population in Mountjoy were in ‘protective regimes’ to keep them safe from escalating gang violence.

Spike Island manager John Crotty said it was a prison in the 1850’s, the 1920’s and again from 1985 to 2004.

"In each of these eras we see records that show that violence was a daily threat for the men and women charged with housing the offenders," Mr Crotty said.

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