I was delighted to get the chance to visit the much applauded Spike Island prison museum this January for free. Huge thanks to our guide, John, and the staff who, despite the freezing temperatures, shuttled our tour group across via speedboat.
Spike Island, as a tourist attraction, has increased in popularity over the past number of years. It also won second place at Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2017. With all this fuss I had to see for myself and got in touch with the team via the website. Let me first say that I was lucky to get on board a tour group going in January as the island is only open for group bookings (15 or more) in winter. A detailed list of opening times is on the website with twice daily sailings at weekends and on school holidays. This place is a popular school tour spot, no doubt.
How to get there?
Parking is available at Whitepoint (Five Foot Way) and is a short walk back into the town. Campers can also be parked here overnight if you are on a camper drive around Ireland. Trains run daily from Cork’s Kent Station to Cobh. Click here for times and tickets. The meeting point is on Kennedy Pier, opposite the A.I.B and past the kiosk for tickets to the island. Tickets are priced at €18 for an adult and €10 for a child.
What to expect?
Upon arrival at the dock on Spike, it is a short walk up to the walls of the prison itself. Along the way, our guide filled us in on some lesser known (well lesser known to me) facts about the history of the island. Looking back over the harbour to Cobh he pointed out the dominating silhouette of St Colman’s Cathedral. Did you know that prisoners were held beneath the church before being transported on to Spike and beyond? I did not. And that some of those prisoners were children who, during the famine, were imprisoned for stealing food to survive. Seems like a bit of an over-reactionary sentence to me.
There are cottages along the hill (en route to the prison) which were once home to the families of those stationed on the island as well as islanders who made this home. Amongst the houses being refurbished is one once inhabited by a girl called Little Nellie who apparently saw visions of God and Jesus.
Her devotion and unusual circumstances following her death attracted the attention of Pope Pius X. His interest in the story resulted in him reducing the age of Communion from 12 to 7. While I would be highly sceptical of this sort of miraculous event it is a newer part of the island’s tour so be prepared to hear about Nellie on your visit. Onwards to the entrance of Fort Mitchel and its impressive 24-acre star-shaped walls. Work began on this fort in 1804 and Winston Churchill apparently called the island; ‘The sentinel tower of the approaches to Western Europe’. Fort Mitchel was set down in such a way as to make it barely visible by approaching enemy troops. The compound houses eerie, burned out, crumbling, former cell blocks, a punishment block, an artillery gun park, as well as the children’s prison and social history room.
How much time is needed on the island?
The tour itself lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes and the boat brings you back to shore after you have had some free time to wander about. It was a sunny day when I visited, which did nothing to alleviate the creepy vibe this place emits, and I could see how a few hours could be whiled away here. The site recommends at least 3 hours including a chilled bite to eat at the cafe (which was closed on my visit so I couldn’t tell you a thing about that!) and a chance to walk around the island/ fort at your leisure.
I walked into the old children’s prison and the small, brick cells give a sobering idea of how conditions were for the inmates. There is an infographic showing the menu for prison meals and little character bites about former inmates.
The mannequin prisoners and echoing conversations bring this area of the prison to life in the most ominous way. There are two cell block buildings that are not accessible to visitors but a creepier, more haunted-looking building I have not seen. These are more modern prison cells and there’s also the most recent 1985 building which was made up of 4-bed cells. One of the more infamous inmates at Spike Island includes Martin Cahill (organiser of a €40million art heist in Dublin).
The views out over the harbour are beautiful and a further reminder that this part of the country is a gem, or am I just biased? Spike island lies within view of the mouth of the harbour and is a natural defence post against invasion and invasions there were a-plenty including a French treat in the early 19th century to a German one in the early 20th century. It was also out past the prison island that the ill-fated Titanic was moored awaiting its flotilla of passengers before departing Ireland for New York.
Kiddies will enjoy running through the tunnels to the gun bunker and chasing around the green.
After dark tours
Another element to Spike Island is one I will be vehemently avoiding, thank you very much, is the After Dark tours. Once called ‘Ireland’s Hell’ this prison complex was the largest island prison subjecting the inmates to solitary confinement and dreadful living conditions. This resulted in their suicide and high levels of mental health issues and depression amongst inmates. Tales of murders, unmarked graves and prisoners so dangerous they needed to be chained to the walls await those brave or foolhardy visitors interested in this kind of tour. Tickets and details available on the website.
Many Cork people have a personal connection to Spike Island either in its incarnation as a prison and having relatives as inmates or as a fortress and having family who served as soldiers on the island base. The opening of the island as a museum is a way for the public to finally get to see what life was like on this prominent isle in the mouth of the harbour.