Spike Island: Ireland’s Alcatraz

I read an article last year stating that Spike Island in Cork had won the World Travel Awards (kind of like the Oscars of the travel industry) beating out Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. Spike Island is a former prison site half an hour from my home place in Ireland and I thought, Why haven’t I visited yet?? So last week, while back in Cork, I loaded the two littles into the car and headed for Cobh.

You could actually spend an afternoon in Cobh without ever getting on the ferry to Spike Island. A grand cathedral and a wall of colored Georgian houses round out the harbor. The infamous Titanic’s last port of call was Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown.

The ferry ride over to the island is a tame fifteen minute spin. If you have any kind of g for history, especially Irish history, Spike Island is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.

The island was home to a 6th century monastery and an 1800 built, star shaped fortress. During the famine, Britain used this same fortress as their biggest prison. It was closed down for many years, but when the island was handed back to the Irish Free State in 1938, it once again opened its doors (or closed them depending on which way you look at it!) as a prison. It was actually open as a modern day Irish prison as recently as 2004. A sense of sadness tinged the day, as stories of some of the prisoners unfolded.

When you get off the ferry, you are given a tour lasting about an hour and then you get about two hours to ramble and discover the island on your own. The first unassuming white house that greets you actually plays a huge part in Irish history. It was where the English handed the island back to the Irish in 1937. The island is home to many cannons and much artillery. If the island had not been handed back, it is fairly certain that Ireland would not have been able to claim neutrality during World War Two as the British would have used it as a base.

There is a man-made, convict-built slope up to Fort Mitchel, where many hours of hard labor ensured the officers had a place to shoot golf balls. The fort itself is divided into different eras of the prison. At the height of the Great Famine, starvation and desperation meant people committed petty crimes such as stealing bread so they would be placed in prison (on purpose) which ensured they recieve a (terrible) meal everyday. Men like these were housed side by side with hard core convicts at Spike Island.

This part of the prison was burned in a fire in 1916.

The most eerie part of the prison for me was The Punishment Block. On the outside the shiny limestone almost makes it look welcoming.

But it was far from that! This 28 cell unit had the harshest conditions in the prison and housed many political prisoners. Our guide informed us that this building was a key part of Irish Australian history. When given the choice to spend the rest of their lives in The Punishment Block or be deported to Austrialia, many of the prisoners chose Australia.

The prison has many nooks and crannies to explore, each room telling its own story.

The modern day part of the prison is also hauntingly eerie. Ghosts of the past seep through the metal doors. I’m glad we came here during the day. I would be a wreck on the night time tour.

We had time to hike around the fort and soak in the beautiful views all around the island. I was fascinated to learn that there were non- prison residents living on the island until fairly recently. This little community were forced to abandon their tiny village during the 1985 prison riots. Now most of the buildings lie debilitated, a reminder of another time.

This was the school house- slightly different from my little school!

I highly recommend a visit to Spike Island. For me, it was one of the rare tourist attractions that lived up to its hype.

Next up, the Tour De Ireland with just me (Wyatt is back to work in Seattle) and the two littles where we take in Wicklow, Antrim, Louth and Wexford.

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