Spike Island's secret: Unearthing graves of prisoners who died in deliberately forgotten public-health catastrophe

Authors say the high mortality at Spike Island prison in the 1850s was caused by overcrowding and poor diet. Picture: Denis Scannell

Archaeologists will attempt to locate the unmarked graves of up to 1,000 prisoners who died in a deliberately forgotten public-health catastrophe on Spike Island in Cork Harbour during the early 1850s.

For years, the high death toll at the notorious Victorian prison was blamed on the Famine that was still raging outside, but now the authors of a new book say the high mortality was caused by severe overcrowding and poor nutrition.

“We can show that their deaths were not due to the Famine,” says UCC lecturer Dr Barra O’Donnabhain, co-author with Cal McCarthy of Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets.

“In 1850-1, they were transporting convicts overseas and the death rate among those convicts is nothing near what it was on Spike Island at that time.”

In 1850, Spike Island held 2,300 inmates, making it the largest prison in the then UK, dwarfing institutions such as Dartmoor, Mountjoy and Kilmainham.

“Up to 40 men were crammed into rooms that had been designed to hold half that number. Holding more than 2,000 men in severely overcrowded dormitory-style rooms at Spike Island prison was a recipe for disaster,” Dr O’Donnabhain says.

Dr Barra O’Donnabhain directed excavations. Picture: Stephen Bean
Dr Barra O’Donnabhain directed excavations. Picture: Stephen Bean

In the four years that followed, 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 Spike Island.

“This graveyard was deliberately buried under many metres of earth in the early 1860s,” Dr O’Donnabhan said.

“While ostensibly done as part of the completion of the fortifications on the island, it also conveniently erased from memory a dark chapter in the island’s history.”

The prison authorities did not openly attempt to conceal the deaths – they did publish annual reports – but there are no records for 1853, the year when the highest number of prisoners, 286, died.

In the coming months, however, the Spike Island Archaeological Project will attempt to find where those men were laid to rest using ground-penetrating radar.

Excavations, which started on the 104-acre island in 2013, have already revealed much about the men and boys who were incarcerated, laboured and died during the Victorian prison’s 36-year history.

Archaeologists have excavated 15 of the 150 or so graves at another graveyard on the southside of the island and what they found was surprising.

Archaeologists unlocking the secrets of Spike Island’s ‘public health catastrophe’. Picture: Stephen Bean
Archaeologists unlocking the secrets of Spike Island’s ‘public health catastrophe’. Picture: Stephen Bean

“I did not think that we would see a lot of care being put into convict burials, but these are like military burials,” says Dr O’Donnabhain, who directed excavations.

The team was also surprised to find that the convicts were buried in painted coffins with a special finish. In two graves, the remains of a crucifix were still intact along with a fragment of cloth from what might have been a scapular, said to protect a person from hell.

“It was very poignant to see that. It’s an expression of hope,” says the site director, who speculates that the care taken with the graves was the prisoners’ way of honouring the lives of their fellow inmates at death.

“If you are in a living hell and the chaplain is telling you that you are a sinner and your final resting place is in an unmarked grave on an unmarked island, you have been denied a voice. But with these graves, it’s as if the other prisoners are saying, ‘I am making a statement that you were worth something’.”

However, the prevailing attitude of the time was that these prisoners were a sort of contagion that needed to be kept separate from the rest of society. Some were transported to Gibraltar, Bermuda and Australia to serve their time in hard labour, while others remained on the island.

The title of this fascinating insight into the Victorian penal system, Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets, illustrates how those left behind were seen.

Reverend Charles Bernard Gibson, who was the Presbyterian Chaplain on Spike Island from 1856-1863, wrote: “Indeed, I know but one objection to Spike Island as a convict depot — and it is a sentimental one. The site and situation appear too beautiful for such a set of thieves and pickpockets as we have congregated there.”

Though, it’s hard to know what the 109 souls on board the convict paddle steamer Minerva thought of the island when they first landed there on the night of 8 October 1847.

Archaeologists have excavated 15 of the 150 or so graves at another graveyard on thesouthsideof the island. Picture: Stephen Bean
Archaeologists have excavated 15 of the 150 or so graves at another graveyard on the southside of the island. Picture: Stephen Bean

The half-finished military fort on the island was to be turned into a prison depot to deal with the perceived rise in lawlessness and criminality during the Famine. The first prisoners would have disembarked to find a wilderness which, through their own hard work, they would transform into a modern barrack square.

Spike Island would go on to earn a reputation as a place for hardened criminals — and it did hold murderers, robbers and rapists — but, early on, the vast majority of the inmates were there for stealing and vagrancy.

Cal McCarthy and Barra O’Donnabhain spent hours in the National Archives fleshing out the details of the convicts, their keepers and the institution itself.

There are many fascinating accounts of the people who did time at Spike Island — the Tralee bank manager tried for fraud; a former Kilkenny mayor, the political prisoner John Mitchel after whom the fort is named, not to mention the bigamist with two names and as many wives — but it is the stories of the young boys who were incarcerated on ‘felonies’ of stealing an umbrella or a handkerchief that are the most affecting.

In Victorian times, you were guilty of a felony for stealing goods worth a shilling, a value that was set in the 13th century.

One of those so-called felons was a 12-year-old boy called David Doran, who at 4ft 3” was known as a “pint-sized burglar”. He was arrested for vagrancy in Waterford and dismissed as “a very bad character” when he failed to fit into the regimented prison routine. He was taken to Spike in April 1849 and died in hospital there on December 2, 1851.

His name and the names of about 80% of all those who died in the Victorian-era prison are known.

There are detailed accounts, too, of what they ate, how they worked, their illnesses and the many attempts at escape — only one was successful.

And though prisoners had to deal with overcrowding and malnourishment, they did not starve to death.

When archaeologists began digging on the island in 2013, they lived for a day on a prison diet from 1848.

The main gates to the former Spike Island prison.
The main gates to the former Spike Island prison.

“The volume of food was what was most surprising,” says Dr O’Donnabhain. “While people were starving outside, their stomachs were full in the prison, but it was not nourishing food.”

A prisoner started the day with what we might consider a huge bowl of stirabout — made of rice and oats — and a quart of milk. Lunch was 1lb of white bread and ¾ pint of milk, while supper was a ½lb of bread with ½ pint of milk. The only time meat was eaten was on a Sunday and there was no provision at all for vegetables.

And yet for all its faults, Spike Island would adopt reform and become part of the ‘Irish System’ which influenced modern correctional systems in Europe and the US.

After the heavy death toll in the early 1850s, it reduced prisoner numbers. Deaths fell dramatically, from a high of 286 in 1853 to just two in 1858. It finally closed in 1883.

But has that much changed since? Dr O’Donnabhain asks the question, pointing out that the socio-economic profile of prisoners is still the same: “We can’t be smug looking back at the past. We are still choosing to run a Victorian-type system. Maybe it’s time to have a discussion about what we are trying to achieve with prisons and if there is a better way of doing that.”

  • Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets: a History of the Victorian Convict Prison on Spike Island by Cal McCarthy and Barra O’Donnabhain is published by Cork Country Library, €13.99. Spike Island opens to visitors on June 4.


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