THERE can be few islands in this country that have had their form as radically changed as Rocky Island, Co Cork.
One of around 13 islands, or former islands in Cork harbour, its minute size meant its shape could be easily changed by its owner for other purposes.
All the other islands in the harbour bar Spike Island are now connected to the shore by causeway, bridge or sand bar: Great, Little, Fota, Haulbowline, Corkbeg, Hare, Harper’s, Weir, Brick, and Brown.
There are others, too, such as Ring Island at Ringaskiddy, but these have effectively merged with the coastline by now. Also, Rat or Coney Island, which was subsumed by an expanded Haulbowline Island.
During the Napoleonic Wars in the early years of the 19th century, Cork supplied a huge amount of military ordnance to the English navy.
The Gunpowder Mills in Ballincollig manufactured thousands of barrels of gunpowder. Cork Harbour came into use as a major military base with a dockyard built on Haulbowline Island opposite Cobh. Rocky Island is a tiny islet between Haulbowline and the mainland at Ringaskiddy.
Today, the island has one of five crematoriums in the country and occupies the former limestone naval storage facility which was built in 1808. The building had a capacity for storing 25,000 barrels of gunpowder.
When the island was designated as a storage depot by the British, the Board of Ordnance instructed its engineers to flatten the island and to construct two magazine buildings only one of which remains.
In 1839, a John Windele wrote: “Rocky Island contains two extensive tunnels, or powder magazines, excavated in the solid rock, and communicating with each other by apertures in the sides.
The Islet, a mere barren rock, may be distinguished by its small turret, perforated with loopholes, which forms lookout for a sentinel.”
Its ‘islandness’ was lost in 1966 when the Haulbowline Steel Syndicate constructed a bridge to link Rocky Island to Haulbowline and the mainland at Ring Point.
Because of the military ordnance stored there, Rocky Island became subject to several attacks and a continuous guard had to be placed there. Nevertheless, there were several incidents over the years involving gunfire.
In 1891, the Cork Examiner reported that a private in the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, Thomas Swayne, was shot in the face by fellow private, John Porter. He was taken to hospital, “where he lies in a precarious condition”.
In 1902, the Kerry Sentinel reported that, following a shooting, “consternation reigned for some time on Rocky Island yesterday”. On this occasion, guards rushed to the source of shots were they observed to see a Mrs Fitzgerald in possession of a Lee Enfield rifle.
The paper reported: “She was the wife of Sgt Fitzgerald of the Munster Fusiliers who was absent but she got possession of his rifle. The guard disarmed the woman. Motives unclear. His wife is a fine type hailing from Co Kerry. The facts of the occurrence were very difficult to obtain owing to the reluctance of the military men on duty.”
The risks of a massive explosion were highlighted by the paper and how essential it was to maintain security.
“There is as much explosive matter stored in it as would, if exploded, leave ugly traces over a wide area and the Government Dockyard and Government ships in the vicinity stand a poor chance if ever such a calamity occurred,” said the Kerry Sentinal.
In 1905, the Cork Examiner again reported that “Rocky Island is beginning to get rather an unenviable reputation for wild shooting associate with it. “In this instance a bullet was fired from Rocky Island towards painters engaged in refurbishment at Haulbowline and that “a bullet that whizzed dangerously close, so near that they had a remarkable escape”.
Rocky Island, the military area on Haulbowline, Spike Island, and the forts at the mouth of the harbour remained under British control until 1938.
The crematorium was set up in 2005.
How to get there: Drive 1km east from Ringaskiddy, Co Cork.