In 1979 the Irish Naval Service took responsibility for patrolling the newly established 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Ireland. This resulted from our entry into the EEC (now called the EU). In order to provide a suitable environment to train the new entrants into the expanding Navy, a naval garrison under the Command of Lt. Cdr. E. J. Doyle took over Fort Mitchel on Spike Island.
The first Naval Service recruits came to the island in 1980 and in the next five years up to four classes a year were enlisted. At its height there were over a hundred recruits under training. The fort by now was a vibrant place and an ideal environment for training without the distraction of today’s technology. The walls reverberated to the sounds of marching and orders being shouted to the young men. In 1982, the first class of cadets came to the island to be taught the skills that would make them the ship’s engineers and captains of the future. The twelve cadets who had joined the service the previous November had recently arrived from the Army Cadet School in the Curragh Camp where they were taught the basics of military life.
They were billeted in dormitory style accommodation in the ground floor of ‘A’ Block. Above them on the first floor was the military prison where defaulters from all parts of the Defence Forces were detained. The military prison was closed in late 1982. The cadets remained in the by now spotless billet for another three months as they awaited the refurbishment of ‘C’ Block. The upper floor on the southern end was to become the comparative luxury of the cadet’s mess, with the northern end the NCOs mess, with single officer’s accommodation on the ground floor of the southern end. The cadet’s mess housed another two cadet classes before the garrison was stood down in the spring of 1985. The officer’s mess was in the eastern end of ‘B’ Block . The entrance was on the ground floor but the visitor was met by walls panelled in wood and a wooden stair case that led to the mess on the first floor. Here there was a dining room, a small bar and a large ante room.
Life on the island for the trainees was a simple existance. Evenings were spent preparing uniforms for the next morning’s inspection and going for a cup of tea and a sandwich in the canteen in ‘A’ Block run by Michael Carter and his family. Outside the walls of the fort were the married quarters where some sailors from the naval base and the garrison staff lived. The children played in the road safe from any passing traffic and the families went to mass in the small church. Sport was an integral part of the training with athletics, football and sailing being the main activities. Cross-country running and orienteering was practiced using the island terrain and the basics of sailing were taught from the yard on the northern shore. The football field on the western shore was in constant use. This was the venue for the annual naval sports day when traditional athletic activities were mixed with seamanship skills like line throwing and rope pulling in the form of a tug-of-war competition between the ships and the shore units.
In 1985, the government decided to convert the fort into a prison and the order was given for the naval garrison to stand down.