War of Independence on Spike Island: Desperate circumstances in Cork's infamous prison camp

Notorious IRA fighter in a race against time to escape before British forces discovered his true identity, writes Sean O’Riordan
War of Independence on Spike Island: Desperate circumstances in Cork's infamous prison camp

Block A was used to house prisoners in 1921.

There are probably no prisons built which never had an escape or attempted escape and Spike Island, although in the middle of a harbour, was no exception.

The first escape from the island took place in daylight on April 29. Three prisoners were involved: Sean MacSwiney (brother of Terence) and Cornelius Twomey, both from Cork City, and Tom Malone, alias Sean Forde, from Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath, who was active with the IRA in Co Limerick.

Of the three prisoners, it was most important to free Malone because the British authorities were not aware that he was much-wanted IRA man ‘Sean Forde’.

“He made a reputation for himself in east Limerick for attacking RIC barracks,” says Spike Island historian Tom O’Neill. “He quickly rose in importance on the crown [British] forces most wanted list, under his alias Sean Forde. Unknown to the British authorities, Malone/Forde had been arrested by Auxiliary police in Cork City on Christmas morning, 1920, when he gave his real name, Tom Malone.”

A plan was hatched to rescue Malone from Spike. The prison chaplain, Fr Callanan, conveyed the escape details between the IRA in Cobh and the prisoners. The date and time set for the rescue was 10am to 11am on April 29.

Tom O'Neill, a historian in the new genealogy room, part of the Irish War on Independence exhibition at Spike Island Museum. Picture: Larry Cummins

Tom O'Neill, a historian in the new genealogy room, part of the Irish War on Independence exhibition at Spike Island Museum. Picture: Larry Cummins

The three prisoners volunteered to assist in the maintenance of the British army golf course on the island, ensuring they were outside the security of the fort.

“On the morning of the planned escape, Comdt Michael Burke, officer commanding the Cobh Company of the IRA, assembled a rescue party and secured a boat for the mission,” says Mr O’Neill. “When the boat reached Spike, the prisoners were in position and working on the golf course. There was a sentry armed with a rifle and fixed bayonet, a sergeant and a corporal, both unarmed, guarding the prisoners. The launch moved into position and the occupants pretended to be fishing.”

The lawnmower being used by the prisoners had broken down and they were pretending to repair it. This gave Malone the opportunity to steal a hammer.

“Suddenly, the prisoners sprung into action as Malone attacked the armed sentry,” says Mr O’Neill. “He grabbed his rifle and hit him twice in the head with the hammer and the sentry collapsed, fatally wounded. The other two prisoners overpowered the two soldiers and forced them into a hollow in the ground and tied them up. The boat was brought in near the shore and the three prisoners jumped aboard.


“The plan was to take the boat to Paddy’s Block, the nearest point on the mainland near Ringaskiddy. However, seaweed had been ingested into the water intake pipe of the engine and the boat barely moved. Eventually, the boat was beached near Paddy’s Block, the IRA men and the three prisoners quickly made their way to the village of Ringaskiddy. The Cobh men returned home using a combination of ferry, rowing boat and train.”

Within a few days, Malone was safely back in east Limerick and the two Cork men were back in their districts. The escape plan had worked to perfection.

In memory of Captain Patrick White, Meelick Company IRA, County Clare, shot dead by a British soldier while a prisoner here on the 1st June 1921. Picture: Larry Cummins

In memory of Captain Patrick White, Meelick Company IRA, County Clare, shot dead by a British soldier while a prisoner here on the 1st June 1921. Picture: Larry Cummins

On May 31, internee Captain Patrick White was fatally shot on Spike Island by a British sentry while playing hurling.

Internees were permitted to play hurling and football on the parade ground every evening. To enable them to participate, the British sentries would allow them out of their compound, via a gate in the fence, leading on to the parade ground.

At approximately 5.45 pm on May 31, White was playing hurling with fellow internees on the parade ground, when the sliotar rolled under the barbed wire fence that separated the parade ground from the internment compound.

White rushed over to the wire to retrieve the sliotar and was almost immediately shot by a sentry, Pte Whitehead. The military doctor arrived and rendered first aid to the dying internee.

Fr Callanan, was also quickly on the scene and administered the last rites of the Catholic Church on the dying volunteer.

White was removed by stretcher from the scene of the shooting to the prison hospital, where he died at approximately 7.20pm.

His body remained overnight in A Block, Hut 1, surrounded by a guard of honour of his fellow internees. At 8.30am the following day, his body was removed to the prison chapel, where Mass was said for the repose of his soul.

Medals and a photo of former Spike Island internee Thomas Griffin, of Ballynoe, Co Cork. (left) War of Independence Service Medal with 'Comrac' bar (issued in 1941) and (right) The Truce Commemorative Medal (issued in 1971) Picture: Larry Cummins

Medals and a photo of former Spike Island internee Thomas Griffin, of Ballynoe, Co Cork. (left) War of Independence Service Medal with 'Comrac' bar (issued in 1941) and (right) The Truce Commemorative Medal (issued in 1971) Picture: Larry Cummins

After Mass, his body was brought back to Hut 1, where it remained guarded by volunteers.

On June 3, a military court of inquiry in lieu of an inquest was held on Spike Island to investigate the circumstances into White’s death. Whitehead was the first witness.

He stated “that his orders were to fire at any internee tampering with the wire. The deceased was stretching out his hand through the wire to get a ball. In accordance with my orders I fired at him and hit.”

The military case was that the sentries were given written orders to fire on any internee, without warning, when they saw them interfering with the wire.

IRA internee Richard O’Connell was one of those hurling with White. He said: “We were out this day hurling and the ball went into the wire. Paddy White rushed over to pull the ball out with the hurley. If he got through that wire, it would have been into his own hut, which was nothing to do with escaping from the place. The next thing was the soldier on sentry duty put up his rifle and shot White dead. We did not know at the time that there had been an ambush in Cork and that five or six of this regiment had been killed. This was their revenge.”

The two main findings of the military court of inquiry were that the deceased was himself to blame, in as much as he tampered with the wire surrounding the compound in defiance of orders, and that no blame attached to Whitehead, who fired at the deceased in the execution of his duty, or to the military authorities.

It was also decided that when internees were playing football or hurling on the parade ground, an internee would be designated to retrieve the ball from the wire and that internee would wear a white coat to identify him to the sentries.

The commanding officer of the 17th Brigade in Victoria Barracks, colonel-commandant Higginson, concluded, however, “that while Pte Whitehead had followed orders, he displayed gross stupidity in the interpretation of the order. That the sentry was aware that the deceased was attempting to get a ball and was not evidently tampering with the wire with any intention of escaping and that it was therefore, quite unnecessary for him to have fired.”

Medals and a photo of former Spike Island internee Thomas Griffin, of Ballynoe, Co Cork. Holding a War of Independence Service Medal with 'Comrac' bar (issued in 1941) is curator Dorota Gubbins of Spike Island Museum. Picture: Larry Cummins

Medals and a photo of former Spike Island internee Thomas Griffin, of Ballynoe, Co Cork. Holding a War of Independence Service Medal with 'Comrac' bar (issued in 1941) is curator Dorota Gubbins of Spike Island Museum. Picture: Larry Cummins

Early on the morning of May 31, the day White was killed, the IRA detonated a roadside bomb beside the band of the Hampshire Regiment on the outskirts of Youghal, east Cork.

The band was leading a company from the regiment from the army barracks in Youghal towards the shooting range west of the town for shooting practice.

“When the clouds of dust settled, some 20 men and boys were seen lying on the ground and pitiful groans and cries for help were heard,” says Mr O’Neill. “Seven members of the band were killed or died of their wounds.”

On Friday, June 3, White’s body was carried by fellow internees from the chapel to the pier. His coffin was taken to Cobh railway station and from there to his hometown, Meelick, Co Clare, for burial.

A plaque commemorating White’s death was unveiled on Spike Island in 1957 by Minister for Agriculture Sean Moylan, himself a former republican prisoner on Spike during 1921.

Republicans jailed for attacks on British forces 

Republican prisoners held on Spike Island, Co Cork, had been arrested for their involvement in attacks on British forces in 1921. The following are examples of some of these attacks.

January 20: An RIC patrol was ambushed at Glenwood, near Sixmilebridge, Co Clare. An RIC sergeant, two constables, and two Black and Tans were killed in that ambush.

January 24: The local IRA ambushed a combined British army and RIC patrol at Poynstown, between Killenaule and Gortnahoe, Co Tipperary. Two British soldiers were killed. Two days later, column commander Jerry Ryan was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned on Spike Island.

January 28: Members of the Flying Column of the 6th Battalion, First Cork Brigade, set up an ambush for British forces, near Dripsey Bridge, Co Cork. The ambush location was revealed in conversation to a local loyalist woman, Mrs Lindsey. In an unusual move, she sent a message to the IRA officers in charge of the ambush that she was reporting the ambush to the troops in Ballincollig Barracks.

Those in the ambush position were taken by surprise and two IRA men were killed and 10 captured. Five were later executed. Denis Murphy, one of the prisoners, was sentenced to death, but this was commuted and he was transferred to Spike Island as a prisoner.

February 3: The IRA ambushed an RIC patrol at Dromkeen, near Pallasgreen, Co Limerick. Three RIC constables and eight Black and Tans were killed.


February 8: British soldiers from Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) surrounded Rahanisky House, on the northern side of Cork City. Eleven IRA men were arrested, including Sean MacSwiney, brother of the late lord mayor. The men were convicted and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. All were imprisoned on Spike Island.

February 20: At Clonmult, near Midleton, Co Cork, almost the entire East Cork flying column was wiped out. Only one IRA man escaped. Twelve IRA men were killed, seven after they had allegedly surrendered. Two of the eight men captured were later executed. Five of the men captured at Clonmult were imprisoned on Spike.

March 5: The IRA ambushed a British army mobile patrol at Clonbanin Cross, on the Mallow to Killarney road. The commanding officer of the British Army’s Kerry Brigade, Comdt Cumming, Lieut Maligny, and two soldiers were killed.

April 21: The flying column of the 3rd South Tipperary Brigade ambushed a British army mobile patrol near Clogheen and two soldiers were killed.

May 4: Eight members of the RIC were killed near Rathmore, Co Kerry.

Mid-May: Gloucestershire Regiment troops carried out searches in northwest Cork and captured the flying column commander, Sean Moylan who was imprisoned on Spike Island along with others captured.

June 2: The IRA in north Tipperary flying column ambushed an RIC bicycle patrol at Kallebeg Cross, Co Tipperary. A Black and Tan and three RIC were killed.

Internees had freedom to run their own compounds 

Silver brooch made from 1916 half-crown coin engraved with harp and shamrock design. The brooch was made on Spike Island in 1921 and belonged to Spike Island internee Patrick Tobin. Picture: Larry Cummins

Silver brooch made from 1916 half-crown coin engraved with harp and shamrock design. The brooch was made on Spike Island in 1921 and belonged to Spike Island internee Patrick Tobin. Picture: Larry Cummins

While the British army oversaw the running of the prison camp, the prisoners and the internees were allowed autonomy and, indeed, ran their own compounds. They were even allowed to attend lectures given by an IRA officer.

“The men in every hut elected their own hut leader. The ‘block leader’, as he was known, was elected from the hut leaders and that was the chain of command within every compound,” says Tom O’Neill.

Reveille (wake-up) was at 7.30am. Between then and 9am, the internees made their beds, erected tables, washed, and had breakfast.

“At 9am, the first check parade of the day occurred, to ensure all were present and that none had escaped during the night,” says Mr O’Neill.

“The second parade consisted of a roll call at 2pm. Another check parade was added at 4.30pm. At approximately 8pm, all able-bodied men were formed up in formation in front of their huts.

“On the order of their commanding officer, they were brought to the position of attention, ordered to fall out, and march into their huts. This was a message to the British that the men were finishing their day on the orders of their own officers.” While the principal difficulty for the men was the loss of their freedom, the second was boredom.

Activities were organised to counter being stuck on an island with nothing much to do. Football and hurling matches were arranged, and concerts were another way of passing time.

“Irish-language classes were also very popular, with both elementary and advanced classes available,” says Mr O’Neill. “The opportunity was also availed of for one of the senior IRA men to give lectures of a military nature.

“Another successful pastime was making silver jewellery, from coins that were smuggled into Spike in cakes and bread.” In keeping with the internees’ nationalistic ideals, the jewellery often took the form of Celtic design, including Tara brooches and engraved with ‘Spike 1921’.

Examples will be on display in the Independence museum on Spike.

Mr O’Neill points out that autograph books were very popular with prisoners and internees.

Surviving autograph books are full of poetry, reflecting the men’s love of their country and their families. Approximately 16 autograph books, some original and some copies, are also part of the exhibition.

“Despite some conflicts between the clergy and the IRA in the community, and the threat of excommunication for active IRA men, several surviving written accounts mention the importance of religion to the men, while in prison,” says Mr O’Neill.

“In addition to the members of clergy that were incarcerated with the prisoners, every prison and internment camp had a clergyman from the local diocese, appointed as a prison chaplain.” 

Fr Callanan was prison chaplain for Spike Island.

Coastal defence garrison also became military prison in 1921 

A foggy scene looking at Block A.

A foggy scene looking at Block A.

'Military Prison in the Field, Spike Island' was the peculiarly functional name given to the prison by British forces in 1921.

Sean O'Riordan Spike Island was transformed into a prison in 1921 because of the substantial increase in the numbers of convicted republicans and internees in the British army’s 6th Division area.

The official name for the prison was 'Military Prison in the Field, Spike Island'.

“On February 19, 1921, Spike Island became a ‘Military Prison in the Field’ [MPIF], consisting of an internment compound and a prison compound,” says Spike Island historian Tom O’Neill, adding that this move was published in the then Cork Examiner.

On Monday, February 21, the newspaper’s front page contained a small piece from ‘Our Cobh correspondent’, pointing out that this new role as an MPIF was in addition to the garrison’s primary role of coastal defence.

“There were three locations within the fort on Spike Island where the men were held during 1921,” says Mr O’Neill.

“The northeast casemates were used from the very beginning for internees. The second location was the ‘A’ Block, on the southwest of the fort, and it was used only for internees. This block was previously used as accommodation for the British army’s enlisted ranks.” Mr O’Neill says the third location was ‘B’ Block and this consisted of 25 army-built wooden huts, used only for internees.

The huts were built during the First World War to provide temporary accommodation for British troops on short-term assignment to Spike Island.

“The men generally referred to their room/cell as their 'hut',” says Mr O’Neill.

“The huts, in the three locations, were the sleeping quarters, and simply by removing and stowing their bed boards and mattresses every morning, they converted the sleeping quarters into their day room.

“They were given tables, consisting of a wooden top that fitted on top of two high trestles, which could be quickly cleared to make room for the beds.

“Wooden and steel benches were used for seating.

“On Saturday, February 19, 1921, the first internees were transferred to Spike Island and secured in the northeast casemate, beside where we now have the Gun Park.

“A large percentage of the internees were from West Cork. Most of the remainder were from Cork City, Clare, and Kerry.” On April 1, all the internees were moved from the northeast casemates, to A and B Blocks, in preparation for the arrival of the first republican prisoners from Bere Island.

During April 14 and 15, some 63 internees from Spike Island were transported to Bere Island, West Cork.

On April 15, all of the convicted republican prisoners were moved from Bere Island and transferred to Spike Island.

Thereafter, Bere Island was only used as an internment camp. There were regular transfers of prisoners and internees into and out of Spike Island throughout that year.

Daring escape saw seven get off the island 

A Notebook of prisoner names. Picture: Larry Cummins

A Notebook of prisoner names. Picture: Larry Cummins

As a result of the escape of three prisoners from Spike in April 1921, neither prisoners nor internees were taken outside the fort on work parties. Therefore, another plan to escape was devised.

In the immediate aftermath of the internee riots in September, the internees were taken out into the dry moat as punishment. In order to get the internees into the moat from A and B Blocks, the soldiers opened up the sally port at the rear of A Block.

The sally port was a type of tunnel under the ramparts leading directly into the moat and in design and size was quite similar to the casemates.

On the fort side, the sally port entrance was screened with barbed wire and was bricked up, the inside was obstacle free and a cast iron gate secured access from the moat.

While in the moat, the internee staff officers studied the layout of the sally port and recognised its potential for future escape plans.

In early November, when the preparations for the escape attempt were complete, the first phase of their plan using the sally port was put into action. The internees complained to the British army that the sally port at the rear of A Block was full of rubbish and infested with rats. They even offered to clean it out.

Having received permission from the British army to do so, the internees set to work, removing bricks in order to gain access to the tunnel. This was part of the bigger plan because, by removing the bricks, it would enable the escaping internee’s access to the sally port and it also enabled work to be carried out to get through the gate into the moat.

A cat ladder, for scaling the wall out of the moat, had been made from light planks, chair rungs, and electric light flex.

Finally, it was agreed that the escape attempt would be made on the night of November 10/11, 1921, and seven internees were selected. They were, Bill Quirke, Moss Twomey, Tom Crofts, Dick Barrett, Henry O’Mahony, Paddy Buckley, and Jack Eddy.

 Handwritten list of the names of hunger strikers, listed by county. Picture: Larry Cummins

 Handwritten list of the names of hunger strikers, listed by county. Picture: Larry Cummins

A little after 5pm on November 10, the seven escapees went through the hole in the wall at the rear of A Block and into the sally port. The stones in the A Block and the bricks and barbed wire were quickly put back in place.

They then had to get across the moat at intervals, scale the wall with the cat ladder without being seen by the sentries on the ramparts. Eventually, all seven were outside the outer wall of the moat.

They made their way cautiously to the shoreline, where they had been told a boat had been beached. However, when they found the boat, it was far too heavy to lift or drag to the water. All the boats near the pier were locked.

In the darkness, they could just see a boat further out from the pier. Eddy swam to it, only to find it was tied to an anchor with a rope. Silently, he swam out again and with a pocket knife and begun to cut it.

The knife slipped from his frozen hands and he had to sever the remaining strands with his teeth. He pushed the boat ashore and a search revealed a pair of oars and bits of furze branches served as oar locks.

All seven men now piled into the boat and pulled away from the island as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid the searchlights and the motor launch. They came ashore near the Belmont army huts, on the east side of Cobh, at about 10pm.

Their planning and efforts had paid off.

They were now safe and because of the truce they could not now be rearrested by British forces for escaping from custody.

From monastery to ‘Alcatraz’ tourist attraction 

Spike Island aerial view. Credit: Spike Island

Spike Island aerial view. Credit: Spike Island

Spike Island has a long and varied history and it is both colourful and diverse.

The first recorded human occupation was more than 1,300 years ago, following the arrival in 635 of a group of monks led by St Mochuda, also known as St Cartage.

He established a monastery there and later spread his influence to the west Waterford town of Lismore, where the cathedral still bears his name.

After the monks left, the island was inhabited and farmed by the Pyke, or Pike, family, until purchased at the end of the 18th century by the British military to be developed into a coastal fortification for the defence of Cork harbour.

The existing fort on the 104-acre island was built between 1803 and 1860, by the British military.

From around 1790 to 1938, the island was garrisoned by the British army.

In addition to the primary role of coastal defence, the fort was also used as a convict depot, between 1847 and 1883. During this period, it was the biggest prison in the British empire.

Many of those held in the prison were guilty of the most minor crimes, yet tens of thousands of them were deported to Australia, many dying on the journey.

During 1916, the fort on Spike Island incarcerated those involved in the Easter Rising.

Later, during the War of Independence, it became a prison for Republican internees and prisoners. It was opened on February 19, 1921.

The men imprisoned there were almost exclusively from the six counties of Munster and from counties Wexford and Kilkenny.

 St Colman's Cathedral and the harbour town of Cobh, Co Cork viewed from just offshore. Picture: Larry Cummins

St Colman's Cathedral and the harbour town of Cobh, Co Cork viewed from just offshore. Picture: Larry Cummins

The island was handed over by the British to Ireland in 1938 and was used as a base by the Defence Forces. Later, the prison was reopened as a youth correctional facility.

On September 1, 1985, the inmates rioted. During the riot, one of the accommodation blocks, Block A, caught fire. Order was only restored after gardaí and an Irish army riot squad arrived.

The prison facility closed in 2004.

The Department of Justice handed it over to Cork County Council in July 2010 and the council set about turning it into a tourist attraction, dubbed Ireland’s Alcatraz.

The island is now a world-class tourist destination. In 2017, Spike Island was voted the best tourist attraction in Europe and was runner-up in the worldwide category.

In 2019, the island won the best attraction at the International Travel and Tourism Awards ceremony.

Many visitors do not realise the amount of wildlife on the island, which is being used for the conservation of endangered species. The red squirrel is being reintroduced to the island, where it is safe from the grey squirrel. The Irish hare is also present on Spike Island, and there is an abundance of pheasants, safe from mainland predators.

For further information, see spikeislandcork

Internment extended beyond martial-law area 

Block A was used to house prisoners in 1921.

Block A was used to house prisoners in 1921.

The martial-law area was the area of operations of the British army’s 6th Division, with headquarters in Victoria Barracks, now Collins Barracks, Cork.

In the area, the military authorities had options for trying civilians for charges under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, 1920.

“At the lower end of the scale was the summary court. This court could impose up to six months’ imprisonment, with or without hard labour; impose a fine up to £100, or recommend an accused for internment, or even to refer the case for trial by military court,” says historian Tom O’Neill A district court martial could not impose punishment higher than two years’ imprisonment, with or without hard labour. At the top of the scale, general court martials could hand down the death penalty or penal servitude for life. Executions were by firing squad or hanging.

From August 1920, internment was also available to British authorities throughout Ireland and not confined to the martial-law area.

“By the early part of 1921, the vast majority of republicans held in custody were internees,” says Mr O’Neill. “Internees were the second category detained on Spike Island. Internees were suspected republicans that were arrested, charged, tried, and found not guilty in a military court and were, however, detained as internees. Some internees were interned on suspicion of republican activities.” Existing prisons and military camps were initially used for imprisoning and interning republicans in the martial-law area during the War of Independence.

The following imprisoned republicans: Cork Male Gaol, on the western side of University College Cork; Limerick Civilian Gaol; Waterford Civilian Gaol; Kilkenny Civilian Gaol; Spike Island Military Prison in the Field (MPIF), referred to as the prison compound; Spike Island Internment Camp, referred to as the internment compound; Bere Island Military Prison in the Field and Internment Camp; Kilworth Army Camp (now Lynch Camp, run by the Defence Forces), and Cork Military Detention Barracks.

Prison closure 

The closure of the Military Prison in the Field took place in mid-November 1921.

On the night of November 16/17, the last republican prisoners were moved from Spike Island to Kilkenny Gaol.

On November 18, all the internees, including those in hospital, were handcuffed together in pairs and ordered to make their way to Spike pier. After a short boat journey, the internees disembarked at the Deep Water Quay in Cobh, beside the railway station and boarded the special train waiting for them for the night journey to Maryborough (Portlaoise) Prison. The internees and their escorts arrived at Maryborough at 8am the following day. The Spike internment compound was now empty. All the internees transferred from Spike Island, were released from Maryborough Prison on December 8, 1921, following the signing of the Treaty.

Throughout the country the convicted Republican prisoners were releasedfollowing the ratification of the Treaty in January 1922.

“The legacy of the internees and prisoners incarcerated on Spike Island, during the nine months of 1921, was the securing of Irish independence,” said Tom O’Neill.

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