Spike Island was biggest prison in British Isles, new book reveals

A new book on Spike Island reveals, in the Victorian era, it was the biggest prison in the whole of Ireland and the British Isles.

It’s the culmination of a number of years’ research by Cal McCarthy and Barra Ó Donnabháin on the history of the convict prison in Cork harbour which constitutes a major addition to the body of knowledge about the institution and the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions of the period.

The pair compiled the book through informed official historical records and on-site archaeological excavations, and it provides a comprehensive overview of the lives and times of an infamous penal institution.

For almost four decades, the prison was home to Ireland’s most serious and notorious criminals.

Established in the midst of one of the worst famines in global history, this huge facility became the largest prison in what was then the UK, dwarfing institutions like Dartmoor, Pentonville, Mountjoy, and Kilmainham.

High death rates during its formative years meant many of its malnourished inmates were laid to rest beneath its sod.

Yet Spike Island was to become a beacon of penal reform, influencing modern correctional systems in countries as far apart as the USA and Germany.

The authors say although Spike Island’s position in Cork harbour made it ideal for use as a prison, this is not a Cork story but rather an Irish story based in Cork, and one with a significant international dimension.

The book, entitled Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets, shows Spike Island was the point where individual stories from all over Ireland were woven together.

Moreover, its ripples were felt far beyond the shores of Ireland, as it formed part of a penal system that sent convicts right around the world.

Even after transportation to Australia and other destinations ended, most prisoners were encouraged to emigrate to the US upon release.

The story told in this book is one that’s, in turn, dramatic, shocking, touching and humorous.

The life of the prison was vibrant, peopled by the unfortunate of society alongside those who committed serious, sometimes gruesome crimes.

Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets: a history of the Victorian Convict Prison on Spike Island, is published by Cork County Library and Arts Service.

It will be available to purchase from Liam Ruiséal, the Bantry Bookshop, O’Mahony’s Booksellers, Kenny’s of Galway and other good bookshops from this Wednesday.


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