Ireland's Alcatraz to reopen, as a heritage site
Published 18/06/2010 | 05:00
IT was a fort, a naval base, and a prison for Dublin's thugs but Ireland's Alcatraz -- Spike Island in Cork Harbour -- is to begin a new life as a tourist attraction after it is handed over to a local authority next month.
The jail facilities were tested out on politicians yesterday as local councillors visited ahead of its official transfer from the Department of Justice to Cork County Council next month.
Councillors and their guests were brought by boat to the 104-acre island and spent some time behind the massive stone walls of Fort Mitchel, which was used to house inmates by the Irish Prison Service until 2004.
Council workers have been busy over the past number of months carrying out maintenance work on the island, which is only accessible by boat, and it is hoped that guided walking tours of the historic site will begin in the middle of July.
In the longer term, Cork County Council plans to turn Spike Island into a major tourist and heritage attraction along the lines of the famous Alcatraz Island in California. However, with funding currently almost impossible to obtain, the timeline for the development of this project is unclear.
Over the coming weeks former residents of the island will get the chance to revisit their homes. Most of the handful of civilians who once lived on the island moved to the nearby town of Cobh on the mainland a number of years ago.
Spike Island's first known use was as a monastic settlement in the 7th Century when Saint Mochuda built a church there.
By the 1700s the island was a famous dropping off point and hiding place for smugglers. However, this was brought to an abrupt end with the purchase of the island by the British government in 1779. It soon began the construction of Fort Westmoreland, using mostly convict labour.
Spike Island housed thousands of Irish convicts on their way to deportation to the West Indies and Australia from 1847, while during the War of Independence hundreds of republicans were held on the island.
Conditions at the time were terrible and a number of hunger strikes broke out as a result.
The British then used the island as a military installation until the last soldiers departed with the handing over of the Treaty Ports to the Irish State in 1938. Eamon de Valera first raised the Tricolour on the island in that same year and the name of the island's military installation was changed to Fort Mitchel in honour of nationalist activist John Mitchel, who was incarcerated there following the 1848 Rebellion.
Spike Island was used during World War Two as a naval base and to house coastal defence guns, while munitions and up to 750,000 gallons of water were kept underneath the parade ground to withstand a siege.
In 1985 the Department of Justice took control of the Island and used it primarily to house adolescent offenders until its closure in 2004.