Documentary series to provide insight into history of Spike Island

A documentary series which gives a unique insight into the brutal regime on what was once one of Europe’s largest penal colonies will premiere on today.

Documentary series to provide insight into history of Spike Island

In the first collaboration of its kind between the Irish Examiner and University College Cork, the five-part series which is being hosted on our website, charts a major archaeological research project which was conducted on Spike Island in Cork Harbour earlier this year.

The Spike Island Archaeological Project focused on the brutal 36-year period in the late 19th century, from 1847 until 1883, when Spike was used as a prison for convicts bound for the penal colonies of Australia, Bermuda and beyond.

The entire project was filmed by UCC cameraman Stephen Bean. The episodes, which can be viewed exclusively on, reveal what life was like for convicts; what life was like for the archaeological students involved in the research; and shows for the first time the evidence of mass burial sites on the former penal colony.

Dolan O’Hagan, executive editor of the Irish Examiner News and Digital section, said he was delighted to work with UCC on the project. “Readers should see a lot more of this kind of multi-media collaboration as we develop and expand on our strategy of providing complementary cross platform print and digital campaigns and services.”

A spokeswoman for UCC said: “The university is delighted to team up with the Irish Examiner, one of Ireland’s leading newspapers, on this project and looks forward to future similar collaborations.”

Funded by the Los Angeles-based Institute for Field Research, with significant support from Cork County Council, a team of 23 student archaeologists, drawn from UCC and various universities in North America, began research on Spike Island last year, before moving on-site over the summer.

The project, led by UCC archaeologist, Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin, aimed to give a voice to the men and boys who were incarcerated and died in the prison during the Victorian era. Crucially, they identified for the first time the full extent of a convicts’ mass grave on the island, identifying up to 250 previously unmarked burial plots, all dating from Famine times, within a walled cemetery area on Spike.

Records indicate some 1,100 convicts died on the island during its 36 years as a prison.

Cork County Council took over management of Spike Island in 2011 with a view to developing its tourism and heritage potential. The entire island is a national monument.

Last week, Fáilte Ireland sanctioned a €2.5m grant to help develop three interpretive centres on Spike by summer 2015, as part of an overall €40m tourism masterplan for the site which aims to attract 70,000 visitors annually.

* Watch the documentary series at

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