Spike Island dig uncovers First World War training trench

By Sean O’Riordan

Archaeologists working on Spike Island have discovered a First World War trench used to train troops heading to France and Gallipoli, foundations of long-gone buildings, and chess and gaming pieces carved from stone by convicts.

Spike Island in Cork Harbour, once a prison, has been transformed into a tourist attraction. Picture: Tom Coakley

A team led by Barra O’Donnabhain of the Department of Archaeology in UCC also discovered graffiti daubed on walls by Famine-era prisoners, which was not dissimilar to that produced by more modern-day prisoners, mainly joyriders, who were incarcerated on the island up until 2004.

After an initial trial excavation in 2012, the Spike Island Archaeological Project has dug there for four weeks each summer.

While the island has a rich and varied past, the focus of the excavations was on its conversion in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, to the world’s largest prison, which was closed in 1883.

Convict-related finds from the excavations included carved gaming pieces and burials from the prison cemetery.

Dr O’Donnabhain said the gaming pieces give some insight into how convicts coped with long sentences and a harsh prison regime.

The team has discovered artefacts in areas where prisoners were housed and in the backfill of some of the graves in the cemetery, including a collection of hand-carved stone and bone objects.

Part of the reason for the high death rate on Spike Island in the early 1850s was the inadequate accommodation for prisoners. Some of the pieces of carved stone look like chess pieces, while a hand-made domino has also been found.

They say that life often imitates art and it seems to be the case here as these artefacts remind me of the rock-carved chess pieces in the movie The Shawshank Redemption,” said Spike Island manager John Crotty.

While excavating the convict cemetery, the team found evidence of a trench that had been dug during the First World War to give soldiers the experience of trench warfare before they were sent to the front.

An unexpected find at the base of the chest-deep trench were two lumps of corroded metal that turned out to be grenades.

After the convict depot was closed in 1883, Spike Island was returned to the British military who held it until 1938 when the island was handed over to the Irish state.

During the First World War, troops are known to have trained on the island before being sent to the Western Front and Gallipoli.

The fort would have looked very different in 1847 compared to what we see now,” said Mr Crotty.

“You could not see from one end of the parade ground to the other as the rock of the original hill was still in place. This was all removed by convicts who spent the first 15 years effectively building their own prison.”

Archaeologists have been working on the island in cooperation with its owners, Cork County Council.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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