The History With A Twist blog recently posted an article on one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions…and one of its darkest historical places! I had never heard of Spike Island, which is in Cork Harbor, but apparently it was “Ireland’s Alcatraz” and one of the worst places in all of Europe to be confined when it was built in the late 18th century. Pretty interesting story!

They sat clothed from head to toe in black, a veil covering their faces, leaving only their eyes visible to look out at the cold limestone walls around them. Their bones ached and their flesh was rubbed raw from the chains that held them fast. This was solitary confinement, 28 cells in which the floor was a prisoner’s bed and a small stool the only item of furniture.

The troublesome and most dangerous prisoners were kept here in the 1860s ­- the Penal Class, men whose agony was so great that several tried to seek release through suicide. It wasn’t for nothing that Spike Island became known as a ‘Hell on earth’ to some of its inmates.

Years later, Winston Churchill, in a typical grandiose flourish, would call the area ‘the sentinel tower of the approaches of Western Europe’. These days, though, Spike has received yet another appellation – being deemed Europe’s most popular visitor attraction at this week’s World Travel Awards.

Spike Island beat off stiff competition from the likes of the Acropolis, Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum…not bad going for an old prison that only opened its doors to the public in 2016.

It’s fair to say that wasn’t the intended plan when General Charles Vallancey designed the island’s fortress back in 1789. Fort Westmoreland, as it was called then, was later added to, becoming the squat, star-shaped structure it is today. The name changed, too, to Fort Mitchel as a nod to John Mitchel, the Fenian who is said to have begun his Jail Journal there before being transported.

By the time the Famine brought its misery, death and destitution, the fort, which had been designed to garrison soldiers, was being used to house prisoners – at one stage some 2,300 of them, making it the largest prison in Europe.

And what prisoners they were… Henry Sweers tried to escape in 1863 by swimming to Cobh (a not inconsiderable 1.8 kilometres away) but was forced to turn back when he was halfway there. He was whipped for his efforts. That didn’t deter Henry, though, who tried again two months later, only to be intercepted by boatloads of warders. This time, a good thrashing and a spell in solitary weren’t deemed enough, so Henry was forced to wear heavy chains… constantly… for two solid years, until his release.

picture of Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin

For sheer persistence when it comes to escapes, the award must surely go to William Johnston, who started his escapology habit when he managed to break out of Kilmainham Gaol in 1858. He was soon caught and transferred to Cork, where he broke loose once again in January 1859.

What gifts Johnston had in the escape department were clearly lacking when it came to avoiding detection. Two days later he was found drinking in a nearby pub and was returned to prison. This time the warders took no chances – Johnston was placed under 24-hour watch and had all his clothes removed. Sound – if rather brutal – measures you would think, until one day he was discovered, still naked, halfway out of a tunnel he had somehow managed to dig.

 

Full Article: Ireland’s Alcatraz

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