Commemoration of Spike Island handover set for next week

A major military commemoration is planned next week to mark the 80th anniversary of the British handover of Spike Island and other coastal forts in Cork.

The commemoration on Wednesday afternoon will involve a fly-past by the Air Corps, a 21-gun salute from the island’s artillery, and the donation to its museum of the original Tricolour raised over the installation when it was occupied by the Irish Army.

More than 100 military personnel are expected to take part in the event, which will be attended by a number of dignitaries, including members of the Government and representatives from local authorities and the tourism industry.

The 1938 handover ceremony was attended by then taoiseach Éamon de Valera and was watched across the harbour in Cobh by an estimated 40,000 people who cheered the raising of the Tricolour over Cork Harbour for the first ever time.

Local women at Cobh celebrate the evacuation of British troops from Spike Island, Co Cork, in 1938.

Mr de Valera was accompanied by ministers James Ryan (agriculture), Frank Aitken (defence), PJ Ruttledge (justice), Oscar Traynor (posts and telegraphs), Sean McEntee (finance), and Gerald Boland (lands).

The actual ceremony on the day was short but historic.

The Tricolour was raised, saluted, and the National Anthem played and a 21-gun salute fired from the fort’s batteries. There were no speeches.

While the main event took place on Spike Island, then known as Fort Westmoreland, simultaneously the Tricolour was raised on the other British-controlled forts in the harbour at Camden (Crosshaven), Carlisle (Whitegate), and Templebreedy, near Crosshaven.

The official transfer of Spike Island got under way at 6.10pm. British troops marched down to the pier and boarded the tender An Saorstat.

The Irish contingent was brought out to the island by the Innisfallen.

Eyewitnesses said that British officers shook hands “cordially” with officers of what was then called the National Irish Army.

The British national anthem was played by the Irish out of courtesy to the departing troops.

The British had occupied Fort Westmoreland since it was built as a coastal defence fortification in 1743.

It replaced a number of temporary coastal artillery batteries which defended Cork Harbour.

In the 1800s the British expanded coastal defences at Forts Carlisle and Camden.

During the Famine, Fort Westmoreland became the largest prison in the world and thousands of its inmates were transported to Australia.

The handover of the coastal forts came 18 years after Ireland gained its independence from Britain. It began 40 years of Irish military use of Fort Westmoreland which was renamed Fort Mitchel. For a time it was also used as a military hospital.

The fort was later turned into a prison for young offenders. It was the scene of a major riot in 1985 when prisoners burnt one of the accommodation blocks.

The prison was closed in 2004.

Cork County Council took over the island from the Department of Justice in 2009 and immediately set about turning it into a tourist attraction, known as Ireland’s version of Alcatraz.

Spike Island was last year declared Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards.

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