Spike Island has a long history as a place of detention and punishment which has earned it the title of “Ireland’s Alcatraz”. In the 1640s, during Cromwell’s campaigns, the Island was briefly used as a holding centre for the transportation of thousands of dispossessed Irish people to the West Indies. From Spike they were “transplanted” to Barbados where they lived out their lives as indentured servants or slaves. In the nineteenth century, convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and Tasmania were held on Spike and also on prison hulks anchored within the harbour.
The convicts worked building the dockyard at Haulbowline and a wooden footbridge was built between the two islands to facilitate the movements of prisoners.
In 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, Spike became a convict depot. The practice of deporting prisoners as punishment was in decline at this stage and instead prisons were built where prisoners could be accommodated for extended periods of time.
As a result of the famine, homelessness and poverty were rife and with them came an increase in crime and political unrest.
Between 1847 and its closure in 1883, many thousands were imprisoned on Spike. Among these political prisoners was John Mitchel, a member of the ‘Young Irelanders’ and an outspoken critic of British rule. Although he spent only four nights in the prison prior to his deportation to Van Diemen’s Land, he wrote vividly of his stay in his book ‘Jail Journal’.
By 1883 a reduction in the overall number of prisoners led to the closure of the prison and it once again became a purely military complex. However, the Island’s days as a prison were not yet over.
In 1916, the captured crew of The Aud, a ship carrying a cargo of arms for Ireland to aid the Easter Rising, was held on the island prior to being transferred to a POW camp in England.
During the War of Independence, Spike was used as a prison and internment centre for members of the Irish Volunteers. Up to 500 prisoners were housed in ‘A’ and ‘B’ Blocks and in wooden huts. There were two daring escapes during this period including that of three IRA prisoners on April 29th, 1921. The three men, Seán MacSwiney (brother of the late Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney). Tom Malone (alias Sean Forde) and Con Twomey, were rescued by motor launch by members of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the IRA based in Cobh.
From 1972 until 1982 it was used as a military detention centre.
A quotation from a 1687 poem by Diarmaid Mac Seáin Buidhe MacCarthaigh which describes the conditions endured by Cromwellian deportees on Spike Island.
‘A n-airm le chéile d’éis gur leagadar,
‘S i nOileán Spíc na mílte i gcarcar ann,
Uireasba bidh is dighe agus leabtha ortha
Ag faitheamh le tríall go h-iath nach feadadar’
‘When they had laid down their arms together,
And thousands imprisoned on the Island of Spike,
In the great want of food, drink and bedding
Awaiting the journey to places unheard of’