Spike Island – the military and engineering history of Ireland’s Alcatraz
20 September 2016
Spike Island in Cork Harbour
The RTE series ‘Building Ireland’ returns this month to explore and explain how Ireland’s great building and engineering achievements came to be, and their impact on the development of our towns and cities. In the company of an enthusiastic team of experts, the series marries local heritage with construction technology and engineering.
Architecture, geography and engineering are the disciplines brought to bear; each programme focuses on a prime example of Ireland’s built heritage and recounts the fascinating story of its construction. The first episode (30 September at 8:30pm, RTÉ One) delves into the history of Spike Island, a prime defensive location in the middle of the second-largest natural harbour in the world.
Cork Harbour has been a world-class naval base, an industrial hub and, for millions of emigrants, the last sight of Ireland they would ever see. As a geographer, I’m interested in the islands that dot this harbour. The most important of all the islands in the harbour might just be Spike Island, sometimes known as ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’. This tiny island has had a role in defending an empire, and building Ireland itself.
The island, less than a kilometre long and barely half a kilometre wide, was initially barren, wild and rugged. Why was this tiny speck of land so important that Britain would place a naval base on the site?
Internationally, Cork Harbour is ideally positioned to become almost an outpost for security for the south western approaches for the west coast of England and Wales. In Europe, the Napoleonic threat was the big one, and Ireland was always seen as a potential back door where an enemy would attempt to use it as a base with which to invade the western side of England.
Fortifications and military engineering
In the first episode in the new series of Building Ireland, chartered civil engineer Tim Joyce finds out exactly what kind of fortifications were built on the island and how they functioned to defend from invaders.
“The fort was surrounded by a deep, dry moat, with a steep slope beyond,” he explains. “It’s a type of artificial slope known as a glacis – just flat enough to tempt invaders, but too steep for them to climb at speed. With shot and shell raining down from these ramparts, it would have been a stiff task to get anywhere near the walls, let alone overrun them.”
Joyce speaks with Commander Brian Fitzgerald of the Naval Service to learn more about Spike Island’s strengths when it came to the defence of the British Empire. Fitzgerald explains that with the high ground to the west, high ground to the east and the island in the centre, the arcs of fire that can be delivered around Cork Harbour in and of itself makes the harbour impenetrable.
But the island was not always a military fortress; by the 1840s, Spike Island had become part of the Irish prison system. It became a sort of penal colony, housing everyone from political prisoners to the homeless – victims of the vagrancy laws enacted at the height of the Famine.
In the programme, physical geographer Dr Susan Hegarty speaks to historian Cal McCarthy and archaeologist Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin from University College Cork, who is conducting excavations across the island to find out more about what life would have been like for the prisoners of Spike Island’s prison.
The wooden prison on the island was designed to take 200 men. But as soon as it opened its doors, it accommodated 400 men. “This was supposed to be a temporary convict depot, yet 36 years later it was still a temporary convict depot,” explains McCarthy. “The military always insisted that anything built by the convicts would be built to their standards in order that it could be used as part of a military base later on. Indeed, in this punishment block you can see the domed roofs in the cells. These cells are bomb-proof.”
“By 1850, there were about 2,500 men imprisoned on Spike Island. We’re carrying out a dig in the [prison] graveyard because the historical sources that are available to us about Spike Island really tell us the story from the perspective of the authorities,” Ó Donnabháin adds. “What we’re able to access here are the physical remains of the convicts themselves. Their skeletal remains contain not only information about their lives before they came into the prison system, but also give us information on the impact on their bodies of incarceration.”
Victorian splendour of Cobh across the harbour
Spike Island was once the home to the largest prison that has ever existed in Britain or Ireland. The harsh prison regime stood in stark contrast to the residential Victorian splendour of Cobh, a prosperous seaside town that developed from the local maritime trade on the other side of Cork harbour.
The Cobh we see today is a legacy of the social and economic shifts that followed in the wake of the famine. As the economy began to recover, a new, prosperous middle class came to the fore, leaving the squalor of the cities behind for the fresh air of rural Ireland. And Cobh, with its Royal Navy connections, was in the perfect place to take advantage of that boom.
Architect Orla Murphy visits the most prominent example of this architecture in Cobh, The Crescent, where she speaks to Mona Hallinan, the Architectural Conservation Officer for Cork County Council. The character of these houses is immediately evident.
“These houses were for the elite,” according to Hallinan. “The way these places are designed reflects that. The Crescent itself can be seen from everywhere in Cobh and it’s overlooking the entire harbour. So while Cobh has fantastic views, not everybody had the views that you’re getting here. And it’s prominent; it can be seen from everywhere in the town, so it gives an idea of the high status of the people that lived here.”
Hegarty concludes with a reflection on how far Spike Island has come, from the fortress and prison, to what it is today. “Today, the voices of Spike Island – the stories of its inmates, soldiers and sailors – are finally being heard. The ferry from Cobh brings curious visitors, not shackled prisoners bound for exile. But who knows what remains to be discovered, beneath the soil of Ireland’s Alcatraz?”
The full list of ‘Building Ireland’ episodes
Programme 1: Spike Island
Geographer Susan Hegarty leads the team on a visit to Fortress Spike Island in Cork Harbour built to defend an Empire, only to become an island prison. Engineer Tim Joyce investigates the military engineering of the vast complex while Architect Orla Murphy explores the Victorian character of Cobh’s residential architecture. Transmission date: 30 September @8:30pm.
Programme 2: Kilkenny Castle
Architect Orla Murphy recounts the story of Kilkenny Castle, from its origins as a 12th-century fortress to its remodelling as an elegant stately home. Geographer Susan Hegarty explores the layout of mediaeval Kilkenny and engineer Tim Joyce finds out how a catastrophic flood in 1763 led to new bridges over the Rive Nore that are still in use today. Transmission date: 7 October @ 8:30pm.
Programme 3: Ardnacrusha
Engineer Tim Joyce visits the Ardnacrusha power station to explore the innovative engineering that made it the biggest hydroelectric project in the world when it opened in 1929. Geographer Susan Hegarty investigates the River Shannon as a source of power and architect Orla Murphy discovers the German influences in the construction of the buildings. Transmission date: 14 October @ 8:30pm.
Programme 4: Kerry Tourism
Geographer Susan Hegarty discovers how an inhospitable but beautiful landscape was exploited as a mass market tourism destination. Engineer Tim Joyce explores the engineering behind Europe’s most westerly railway and architect Orla Murphy investigates the role of a railway company in developing a world-class hotel. Transmission date: 21 October @ 8:30pm.
Programme 5: Dublin’s Distilleries
Architect Orla Murphy goes in search of the Roe Distillery, which was the world’s biggest producer of whiskey by the late 19th century. Geographer Susan Hegarty discovers how a supply of fresh water was crucial for large and small industry in the Liberties, while engineer Tim Joyce investigates the science and technology for making whiskey. Transmission date: 28 October @8:30pm.
Programme 6: Galway’s Corrib Canal
Engineer Tim Joyce discovers the canal system in Galway and its impact on the shape of the city. Geographer Susan Hegarty explores the caves under Lough Corrib to understand the difficulties in canal construction while architect Orla Murphy looks at the building of the University in Galway and how it fulfilled the ambitions of the City of the Tribes. Transmission date: 4 November @ 8:30pm.
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