It’s easy to see why Spike Island won awards

COLM O'REGAN: It’s easy to see why Spike Island won awards

It’s a cliche, but it’s true. You really start to find out how much there is to do in your country when you stop making eyes at other countries.

We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by opting to not wrestle with toddlers in front of disapproving continentals in cramped European airports and we are very happy with doing our bit. Because there are some truly remarkable places to visit here.

One of the remarkable places is Spike Island. It was once a defensive fort and then became a prison. When the British handed it over, the fort was called Fort Mitchel and named after John Mitchel, possibly one of Ireland’s HUGEST historical racists. Seriously, look him up. And he used to be a lovely young man. Spike was once the largest-sized prison in the world and now it’s the best museum in Europe (well in 2017 but they should have just ended it then). There was a riot there in September 1985. In an exhibition room on the island, the front page of the September 2, 1985, Cork Examiner records the riot. It’s interesting but also interesting is a story on the front page about a man who won £20,000 on a sweepstake and was notified by telegram. That’s like one of those sentences in a bad historical novel that wants to really let you know that you are in the past.

The ferry for Spike Island leaves from Cobh. I hadn’t been in Cobh since 1994 when, as a cub reporter, I got the train down and interviewed Sonia O’Sullivan’s mother for the Transition Year magazine. We parked up K2 and let gravity bring us to the water.

You forget how riveria-ey Cobh feels on the waterfront. You half expect some leathery faced retired French industrialist with big grey hair, the type who might wear scarves when it’s not cold, to zip by in a convertible with his fifth wife. In keeping with the mood, we went into Supermacs to get yellow food that children would eat in prison.

We passed a cruise ship and waved at the retirees on board. Those that noticed waved back briefly and resumed their crosswords. The navy ship the LE Whatever One They Have The Petrol For zoomed past as well.

It’s easy to see why Spike Island won awards. It’s picturesque, historic, moving, impressive and also probably the only Victorian prison that is very child-friendly, possessing one of the best slopes for rolling down. It has excellent guided tours which we couldn’t participate in because of hill rolling but we got the gist. Apparently, it was a prison once upon a time. Not all of it is developed but even the made-safe derelict buildings have their own sense of history. The place hasn’t been overly-spoiled with interpretative centres.

The entrance has a display with a mannequin of a typical 1990’s prisoner. He has floppy hair and is wearing a Happy Mondays T-shirt while being berated by a female visitor wearing a shell-suit. It’s clear he’s in there for possession of yokes.

The cells are sobering. The darkness and the isolation and the piffling crimes for which children were imprisoned. You tousle your own children’s heads appreciating that things really are better now despite what someone just shared on Facebook.

You’re also supposed to be struck by the crampedness. But, rather like visiting the Tenement Museum in New York or recreations of crannógs, historical crampedness doesn’t impress me much. We now dine on horror stories from the Wild West, north and south of Dublin’s rental market so you can’t help but remark that “it’s actually surprisingly spacious and you could do a lot here once you opened it up to the light.

The huge internal yard where soldiers once drilled and prisoners once laboured is now a big open space for childish galumphing but if you climb the slope to the ramparts you can look out upon Cork Harbour in 360 degrees. With places like this on the doorstep, we won’t be going anywhere else for a while.

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