Cork family makes surprising discovery at new War of Independence exhibition on Spike Island

Damien Coughlan, from Rathcormac, Co Cork, was astounded to discover his great grandfather, Pat Coughlan, was an IRA prisoner on the island in 1921
Cork family makes surprising discovery at new War of Independence exhibition on Spike Island

Tom O'Neill, deputy general manager at Spike Island, left, with his book, 'Spike Island's Republican Prisoners 1921', and Damien Coughlan, with a photograph of his great grandfather, Pat Coughlan. Picture: Denis Minihane

A visit to a new exhibition on the War of Independence led to an unexpected discovery for a family whose great-grandfather had kept his involvement in the fight for freedom a secret all his life.

Spike Island has opened a definitive collection on all 1,200 IRA Volunteers imprisoned there by the British in 1921.

Damien Coughlan, from Rathcormac, Co Cork, was leafing through one of the copies of a 1921 prisoner diary when he came across a page with a poem written by his own great-grandfather, Pat Coughlan.

Pat, also from Rathcormac in North Cork, had signed it on October 6, 1921.

None of his descendants knew he was held on Spike Island for his involvement in the fight for freedom.

He was arrested by British soldiers on June 14, 1921, and taken to Fermoy military barracks, and later transferred to Kilworth camp. The British authorities decided to imprison him as an internee. He was transferred to Spike Island on September 14. This was the last ever transfer of internees from Kilworth because the following night all the remaining IRA internees escaped through a tunnel.

While Pat was on Spike Island, he wrote a poem in an autograph book belonging to fellow internee, Patrick Tobin from Tallow, Co Waterford.

On hearing Damien's story, management at the facility presented him with a copy of a new book Spike Island Republican Prisoners 1921, and he was astounded to find the arrest details, transfer and more information which he never knew about his great grandfather.

Military pension

Tom O'Neill's book, 'Spike Island's Republican Prisoners 1921', and a photograph of Damien Coughlan great grandfather, Pat Coughlan, and the page in Patrick Tobin's autograph book from Spike in 1921 featuring an autographed poem written by Pat. Picture: Denis Minihane
Tom O'Neill's book, 'Spike Island's Republican Prisoners 1921', and a photograph of Damien Coughlan great grandfather, Pat Coughlan, and the page in Patrick Tobin's autograph book from Spike in 1921 featuring an autographed poem written by Pat. Picture: Denis Minihane

Damien subsequently found Pat's military pension in national archives, which confirmed his involvement.

“The story details his involvement in the hunger strike and riots that took place on Spike during that momentous year. It was all a big shock to the family, who were blown away to discover so much of his hidden past,” Spike Island manager John Crotty said.

“Pat Coughlan was typical of the men who fought for Ireland in the War of Independence, who often didn't share their experiences with their families, dealing with it in their stoic way,” he added.

The family credited noted historian Tom O'Neill, who is deputy general manager at Spike Island, with the discovery.

Mr O'Neill spent more than a decade of painstaking work correlating information, much of which he gained from the British military archives in Kew, London.

During the War of Independence, Spike Island was the largest British military-run prison for Republican prisoners and internees, housing almost 1,200 men from Munster and South Leinster.

Republican prisoners were tried, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by British military courts. Internees were imprisoned without trial for their suspected involvement in republican activities.

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