We disembarked on the lengthy pier and walked to the star-shaped fort alongside a steep, twisting path. The sleek slopes rising as much as the formidable ramparts and entrance gate, we’re informed by our information, kind a glacis, a feat of navy engineering that leaves attackers uncovered and makes defence far simpler.
On this chilly, clear day, with a low afternoon solar casting comfortable shadows, it was straightforward to miss the enormity of this building in Cork harbour – and the darkish actuality of Spike Island fort and jail itself. Till we discovered that the huge banks surrounding the 24-acre fort had been truly constructed within the 1850s by the inmates themselves.
Irish convicts awaiting transportation, principally to Australia, had been tied collectively by ball and chain and put to work on the land with shovels and pickaxes. The earth and stones they collected in wood carts had been so heavy that it took 18 males to drag them. It sounded extra like a story of American slavery than colonial Eire.
Life was infinitely worse inside, nevertheless, for these responsible of misconduct or branded harmful offenders – usually political prisoners, murderers, rapists and violent thieves. These inmates had been held in solitary confinement inside a purpose-built punishment block. They had been closely chained, usually to the wall of their cells; slept on chilly, damp stone flooring; and clothed in black from head to toe – together with a hood with solely slender slits for eyeholes.
It’s the vivid mixture of a penal historical past to rival Alcatraz (the jail at Spike Island is definitely mentioned to be 10 occasions bigger in dimension) and an extended political historical past to match Robben Island (there’s proof that Cromwell’s troops held Royalist prisoners on Spike as early because the 1650s) – and its reopening as a customer attraction in the summertime of 2016 – that has sparked renewed curiosity within the place and its violent historical past.
Final yr, on the World Journey Awards, for instance, Spike Island was named “Europe’s Main Vacationer Attraction” (considerably remarkably forward of such opponents because the Acropolis, La Sagrada Familia and Buckingham Palace).
In actual fact, it’s not onerous to see why. For one factor, there’s a lot to see on the island, from six-inch weapons secreted away on the finish of deep bastion tunnels, to the imposing central parade floor, an artillery “gun park”, hanging rampart outlooks south to the mouth of the harbour, and trendy cells that echo and clank like one thing out of 70s sitcom Porridge. Then there’s the fascinating, if darkish, historical past.
“Within the mid-19th century, Spike was not solely the most important jail on the earth, with 2,300 inmates, but in addition a spot of extreme punishment – of onerous labour, strict self-discipline and spiritual instruction,” mentioned John Flynn, Spike Island’s lead tour information. “That’s why it shortly turned generally known as ‘Eire’s Hell’ and ‘Hell on Earth’.”
Prisoners not held in solitary confinement had been crammed 12 to a cell; overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation meant deadly illnesses and psychological sickness had been rife. “The prisoners are like a menagerie of untamed animals that snarl and struggle in defiance of their keepers,” wrote jail chaplain Charles Bernard Gibson in 1863. There may be proof that at the least 1,200 males died on the island.
A youngsters’s jail held as much as 100 younger offenders aged 12 to 16. Many boys, and grownup males, had been despatched to Spike as a direct consequence of the Nice Famine of 1845-49, usually for such petty crimes as vagrancy and stealing bread or chickens.
Nationalists, Fenians, rebels and revolutionaries had been additionally a part of the jail inhabitants; in 1921, throughout the Conflict of Independence, greater than 600 republicans had been held on the island – a number of even escaped.
The fort entrance
This vivid historical past is informed via exhibitions, movies and museum shows; strolling trails additionally lead across the fort and island, providing spectacular views, each of one of many largest pure harbours on the earth and again a mile throughout the water to the heritage city of Cobh, from the place boats to the island depart and return.
We had been informed tales of the various characters related to the island: James Gray, the ingenious “Jack-in-the-Field”, who would conceal himself in a hinged container and steal from different bins aboard ships and trains; serial jail escapee William Johnston; and daredevil British writer, spy, explorer and Spike Island colonel Percy Fawcett.
The jail constructing. : Alamy
Most of all, although, Spike Island stands as an interesting microcosm of Irish historical past over the previous 1,500 years. We learnt in regards to the Sixth-century monastic settlement, Cromwellian campaigns, 18th-century smugglers, British navy fortification, the notorious convict depot, and Irish republicans incarcerated following the Easter Rising and throughout the Conflict of Independence.
Newer occasions have seen a British sovereign navy presence as much as 1938 as a part of the Treaty Ports settlement (Churchill described Spike Island as “the sentinel tower of the approaches to Western Europe”); subsequent use by the Irish Military and Navy; conversion to a infamous civilian jail in 1985, principally for younger males convicted of minor offences comparable to joyriding, which led to a riot that destroyed many buildings; and, lastly, trendy vacationer facility.
It’s historical past, a lot of it tough and disturbing, as palpable bodily presence. There may be graffiti on the mattresses, written by inmates, within the trendy jail; the stark cells within the Victorian punishment block nonetheless seep damp. The common night Spike Island After Darkish excursions solely heighten this intense feeling of unease.
Add new initiatives this summer time that embody plans for a bigger second ferry, night harbour excursions, group in a single day stays and additional strolling trails, and it turns into clear that Spike is a journey vacation spot with appreciable potential.
“We attempt to give guests the richest expertise we are able to however, to be sincere, we’re nonetheless creating and nonetheless studying in regards to the island,” says John Flynn. “Spike is a sleeping large.” Eire’s Alcatraz appears wakeful now.
• Adults €18, youngsters €10, household tickets €45, inclusive of ferry and guided tour; Spike Island is presently open Saturdays and Sundays; it is going to be open seven days every week from April 30-September 30, spikeislandcork.ie