Spike Island opens to the public today and we look back at its darkest history


Spike Island opens to the public today and we look back at its darkest history

MURDERERS, bigamists, rapists, cattle-rustlers and escape artists; a real rogues’ gallery awaits the day-trippers who arrive at Spike Island’s €5.5 million visitor attraction when it reopens to the public today.

This famous prison hosted everyone from the likes of high-society artist Willam Burke Kirwan, convicted of the violent murder of his young wife, to a homeless teenager-turned-killer.

However, Spike Island had its heroes too — John Mitchel, a hero of the mid-19th-century nationalist movement, was held there, while Spike Island’s military garrison was home to a young soldier destined to become a renowned war hero and enter the annals of American history as one of its most famous generals.

Patrick Ronayne Cleburne from Ovens later earned the ‘nom de guerre’ of Stonewall of the West for his illustrious American Civil war career.

The spell-binding stories of the many inglorious thugs (and occasional real-life hero) who populated Spike Island in its heyday will form a crucial part of the visitor experience for those who join one of the five hourly ferry crossings from Cobh’s Kennedy from 11am today.

Archeologists excavate graves on the island where possibly up to a 1,000 prisoners were buried.
Archeologists excavate graves on the island where possibly up to a 1,000 prisoners were buried.

After disembarking at the brand-new pontoon on the north side of the island, visitors can enjoy a 500-metre stroll to Fort Mitchel and a guided tour of the colourful new attractions offered by its interpretative centre, which was three years in the planning and took eight months to construct.

The guided tour, plus time spent enjoying panoramic views from the sightseeing points at Bastions Three and Six, can take up to four hours, says David Keane, Cork County Council engineer and director of the Spike Island Development Company.

Starting from the complex’s newly-constructed café, formerly a church and later an indoor military drill grounds, visitors receive a guided tour through each element of the interpretive centre, which is spread across four different buildings — the Café, the Gaol, the Shell Store and the Gun Park, which offers a fascinating display of military artefacts from cannons and trucks dating from the early 1900s to equipment currently in use by the army.

At the Gaol itself, some of the Centre’s 16 ‘Monoliths’ or information points, provide an insight into the daily life of the severely malnourished prisoners, and its history of transportation of prisoners from Spike Island to places such as Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and Bermuda.

Here visitors can see first-hand the cells in which inmates were housed, while the Shell Store, formerly a storage area for military explosives, has now been developed into a lifelike reconstruction of the cramped ship compartments in which convicts were transported across the seas.

Living conditions on the island itself were little short of horrendous — by the early 1850s the prison had 2,300 inmates, according UCC lecturer Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin, co-author with Cal McCarthy of a new book on the island’s prison life, Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets.

Inmates were crammed in like sardines — in the case of adults, it was 40 men to a room while during the five years children were housed there, 50 juveniles inhabited each dormitory.

By about 1854, nearly 1,000 of those men — all of Spike Island’s prisoners were male — would die and be buried somewhere on the east side of the island.

Inmates existed on a bland diet of mostly milk, porridge and bread which left many suffering from Vitamin A deficiency and ‘snow blindness’, a condition which left patients unable to see in the glare of bright sunlight.

Heavy manual labour was the order of the day and punishment for any infringement was harsh — the all-male population endured a life of debilitating physical labour, solitary confinement, whippings — ‘25 lashes on the bare back’ to solitary confinement in a small cell without any bedding or pillows.

A particularly fearsome element of prison life was the Punishment Block, which housed Spike Island’s own ‘penal colony’.

The ‘Block’ was set aside for its most difficult prisoners. Heavily chained from wrist to ankle, these men were dressed in black frieze and wore a black hood with two eye-holes.

Some of those imprisoned in the ‘Block’ were reportedly driven insane by the inhumane conditions — it was in the Punishment Block where, even though he was securely handcuffed, 26-year-old burglar Thomas Morris successfully committed suicide on September 15, 1862, by hanging himself from the window bars.

Morris, later the subject of a poignant poem written by a fellow convict, had previously attempted suicide by jumping off the ramparts of the fort while tied to a stone — which was why he was placed in the Punishment Block in the first place.

Life expectancy at the prison was short — many inmates, whose deaths were recorded as due to “old age and debility,” had actually died in their mid-thirties or early forties.

Yet, as Dr O’Donnabhain points out, in 1850 and 1851 the authorities were routinely transporting convicts long distances overseas — and the death rate amongst those convicts was nothing near what it was on Spike Island at that time.

Between the years 1847 to 1852 the prison also housed children — in fact, in 1851 there are records of the death of one David Doran, nicknamed the “pint-sized burglar,” a 4’3” lad incarcerated in Spike Island at the age of 12, three years earlier.

Arrested for vagrancy in Waterford and dismissed as “a very bad character” when he failed to fit into a regimented prison routine, he died in Spike Island hospital in December.

There was little allowance made for teenagers’ anti-social behaviour in those days, as 18-year-old Edmond Power, who arrived on Spike Island in 1852 had already discovered to his cost.

His career as a criminal had started four years earlier, when at the age of 14, he was convicted of vagrancy, or homelessness.

The justice system imposed a ludicrous sentence — it required this homeless, and quite probably orphaned, child to raise a total of £10 during the height of the Great Famine, or face two months’ imprisonment.

Of course, Power could not raise any such sureties and served his two months in prison.

A second conviction, this time for the theft of some milk, a year later, saw the unfortunate teenager back in jail and enduring two bouts of whipping— although whipping had been largely discontinued as a punishment on convict ships, it was still considered an appropriate sentence for a 15-year-old boy in a county gaol.

It was the theft of a cow in 1851 which brought the lad to Spike Island, where, four years later he was convicted of the murder of a prison warder, William Reddy.

Sexual predator Denis Nelligan was a particularly notorious prisoner — he was sentenced to life for participating in the gang-rape of a young servant woman.

Nelligan and three other men had followed the woman from a pub, dragged her over the ditch, into a field and serially raped her at gunpoint.

However while the Punishment Block was the most feared of Spike’s residences, behind the black hoods also lay some of the island’s most colourful characters.

One of them was Denis Hourigan (also known as William Johnston, Denis Johnston or Denis O’Brien).

After escaping from Cork County Gaol while awaiting trial in January 1859, Johnston had been compared to the notorious English prison-breaker Jack Sheppard — his several audacious jail-breaks made him a folk hero.

By the time he arrived on Spike Island, however, warders were warned to use great caution when interacting with him.

However, in October 1860 the prison authorities discovered that Hourigan, and another convict called James Dyer, were missing — the pair had removed the bars from their cellwindows and climbed through using ropes they had fashioned from sheets.

Carrying their sheet ropes with them, they had scaled the walls of the fort, crossed the ramparts and descended into the moat.

However, they were caught and Hourigan was returned to the fort where he was most likely stripped naked and confined in an unfurnished cell in the Punishment Block.

He eventually left Spike Island on 13 March 1866 and was returned to Cork County Gaol to serve two years’ hard labour for his previous escape, but was released in December.

He returned to his native Limerick, where he was soon imprisoned again for the theft of a coat and boots.

However, in February 1869 he escaped again, and, after his third and final successful escape from an Irish prison, he vanished.

Spike Island offers some great stories, says David Keane:

“It’s a great day out. This will be an exceptional tourist attraction in Cork, attracting, local, national and international visitors.”

“We had about 30,000 visitors per year up to now and we expect that number to increase to some 70,000 annually by June of 2017.”

Tickets for ferry-trip and guided tour cost €18 for adults and €10 for children. Family ticket for four €45.

Ferries from Kennedy Pier in Cobh on the hour from 11am to 3pm.

For more information visit www.spikeislandcork.ie

Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets — a History of the Victorian Convict Prison on Spike Island by Cal McCarthy and Barra Ó Donnabháin is published by Cork Country Library €13.99.

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