IN July 2010, Cork County Council took over Spike Island from the Department of Justice and set up Spike Island Development Company to run it.
Then county manager, Martin Riordan, had a vision to turn it into Ireland’s Alcatraz, as it was dripping in history dating back 1,300 years.
Little did he think back then that just seven years later it would be voted ‘Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction.’
It made it a hat trick of wins for Ireland as last year the award went to Titanic Belfast and in 2015 to the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin.
The signs were good for increased tourism on Spike Island even before the win.
Earlier this year the island became the number one thing to do on Tripadvisor for Cork, overtaking the long-term number one for the area, Fota Wildlife Park.
Several leading British, US, French and German tourist agents have agreed contracts with the council to send their visitors there next year.
Nearly 50 full-time and part-time jobs have been created at the attraction, including 28 tour guides who can provide commentary in Spanish and Italian.
Audioguides are also available in French, German, Irish and English.
Spike Island currently boasts a 100-seater café with outdoor seating.
It also has a gift shop selling Spike Island-branded products and Irish memorabilia.
Visitors can avail of free, island-wide wifi and are provided with a free app and island history. A minibus is available on the island for people with mobility issues and transports them to the fort and back to the ferry.
Over the last few years, Fortress Spike Island has become a tourist mecca in Cork Harbour with visitor numbers increasing year on year.
More than 45,000 visitors were welcomed there this year and the county council has set a target of 100,000 visitors per annum by 2020.
Spike Island general manager, John Crotty, who accepted the award at the ceremony in St Petersburg, attributed the success to its extensive history and hard working staff.
“A recurring feature of our feedback is the performance of our staff and guides whose enthusiasm really infects our visitors with its rich history. Our story is really only just beginning.
“We are already looking forward to the coming season to continue to enhance our offering with the support of Cork County Council and welcoming visitors from Cork and the world. Come and visit, you will not be disappointed,” Mr Crotty said.
Mayor of the County of Cork, Cllr Declan Hurley, who also attended the awards ceremony, said it was recognition of the incredible dedication by a great number of people who foresaw the potential of Spike Island.
“I would like to pay particular reference to the roles played by the Spike Steering Group, chaired by Brendan Tuohy, who helped guide the recent site investment and also to the retired county manager Martin Riordan, whose initiative in taking ownership of the island has yielded such vast rewards,” Cllr Hurley said.
County council chief executive Tim Lucey said Cobh had recently been named one of Europe’s best cruise destinations and he’s confident that Fortress Spike Island will be a go-to attraction for cruise visitors, as well as national and international tourists.
The island’s documented history starts from an early monastic settlement which was attacked by marauding Vikings. It later became home to smugglers, before Crowellian soldiers founded the first prison there.
Work on developing the first fort was begun in 1779 during the American War of Independence, but this was massively enlarged during the Napoleonic Wars when one was built to house a garrison of up to 3,000 soldiers.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, activity on the island receded until the Famine when it became the largest prison in the world and the staging-post for transportation to Australia.
It’s believed that more than 1,300 inmates are buried in mass, unmarked graves on the island.
After the prison closed in 1883 the island reverted back to a military installation.
Winston Churchill, then head of the British Admiralty, visited the island in 1911, highlighting its strategic importance.
The island became a prison for the third time in its history when up to 1,000 Republican prisoners were held there during the War of Independence and it was finally handed over by the British in 1938.
The Irish Army then took control of the island until 1979, and the Naval Service for a subsequent six years before it became a prison again, mainly housing young offenders involved in a joyriding craze which broke out in Cork.
The prison was badly damaged following a riot by inmates in 1985, barely six months after it opened.