Thursday 23 November 2017

A great escape to fortress Spike

It's been a monastery, a fortress and the world's largest prison, but why has Cork's Spike Island been named Europe's top tourist attraction? Our reporter went to find out.

A special place:John Meagher takes the ferry across from Cobh to visit Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
A special place:John Meagher takes the ferry across from Cobh to visit Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Supervisor Tour Guide at Spike Island John Flynn.
John Crotty, general manager at Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is not difficult to imagine how awful it must have been to be locked up in Spike Island's Punishment Block.

Many of the small cells are not lit and it is perfectly permissible today to gingerly step into some of them and appreciate the terrifying blackness that would have accompanied the closing of the heavy doors.

It was not uncommon for convicts to be incarcerated alone in these grim windowless, soundless rooms for 23.5 hours of the day, and many, it is said, quickly lost their minds.

Prisoners were first sent here 170 years ago this week and any misdemeanour ensured a stint in Punishment Block. The prison, once the world's largest, would come to be known as 'Ireland's Hell' and even on a bright, but cold October afternoon today, this place in the island-strewn Cork Harbour can send a shiver up the spine.

Supervisor Tour Guide at Spike Island John Flynn.
Supervisor Tour Guide at Spike Island John Flynn.

Spike Island retains a special place in the popular imagination. Some think of it as the place where young offenders were sent in the 1980s. Others have heard the stories of starving children who wound up here after stealing food during the Great Famine. Those with an appreciation of military history will be familiar about its importance to the British long after independence and others, still, may have learnt about the religious community established here some 1,500 years ago.

Now, the name may well echo far beyond Ireland's shores. Just 16 months after it opened as a tourist attraction, Spike Island has been named as Europe's leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards. Remarkably, it beat off competition from Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum.

Manager John Crotty accepted the award on behalf of Spike Island at these 'travel Oscars' in St Petersburg and says he has already seen a rise in the number of visitors and those making general enquiries.

"It's really brilliant to win it, especially after such a short time," he says, "and it shows just how special this place is. There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world and, for Irish people, it's somewhere that has played a part in our history."

Previous Irish winners include such huge projects as the Guinness Storehouse and Titanic Belfast. But Spike Island is an entirely different proposition. It's not something one can just turn up at and queue outside - there's a 10-minute ferry ride there from Kennedy Quay in Cobh and, at present, boats travel over at noon and 2pm.

Ireland's Alcatraz

John Crotty, general manager at Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Crotty, general manager at Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Furthermore, it's a seven-day operation for only six months of the year and it is closed completely from the beginning of November through to the end of February, although groups of 15 or more can be accommodated by prior arrangement during that time.

Despite such limitations, Crotty - formerly a supermarket executive - is anxious to point out just how special the Spike Island experience can be. "It can be seen as Ireland's Alcatraz," he says, referencing the notorious prison in San Francisco Bay that has long been a tourist magnet. "But there's so much more to Spike. The prison is only one aspect of it - there's so many layers of history here. The island has been occupied since at least the 6th century when a monastic settlement was established here."

And, he points out, the island occupies an area roughly 10 times that of Alcatraz.

Visitors typically spend three hours on the island, but it would be very easy to while away an entire day thanks to the sheer scale of the fort, the large number of exhibitions and the abandoned village with its stunning view of Cobh and the strikingly tall steeple of St Colman's Cathedral.

The whereabouts of the monastery has yet to be established although it's hoped that a team of UCC-led archaeologist may be able to shed light on that next summer. Any discovery would give John Flynn yet more to talk about. A hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide, he is determined to learn even more about this intriguing place. "We've learnt a lot over the past five years," he says, "but there's still so much detail we don't know."

The tour begins as passengers alight at the pier on the side of the island facing the Haulbowline naval base. Even before you make the steep uphill walk to the former Westmoreland defence fort that was turned into a prison in the mid-19th century, Flynn will have pointed out one of the island's most intriguing landmarks.

Little Nellie

It's the family home of one Ellen Organ, who is popularly known among devout Catholics as Little Nellie of Holy God thanks to the number of 'miracles' attributed to her after her death aged just four.

This daughter of a Waterford military man stationed on Spike Island had expressed considerable religious fervour in her young life and had requested Holy Communion after becoming severely ill. A special dispensation was made and, in Rome, Pope Pius X changed the age rule where Communion could be available for children as young as seven (up to that point, they had to be 12). It's thought the Vatican will soon ratify the process to have her canonised.

But, saintliness is far from your mind as you walk towards the imposing edifice of the former prison at the centre of the island. It was originally established as a defence fort - one of five in Cork Harbour - but was converted into a prison in 1847. Today Mitchel Fort - renamed in the 1950s after one of its most famous inmates, the 19th century nationalist leader John Mitchel - still imparts a sense of foreboding, and that's before you even get to the infamous Punishment Block.

A walk around here is to step back in time to the harsh penal conditions of the 19th century. The prison operated until 1883, when it was taken over by the British army. But it would be used as a prison on certain occasions, not least when more than 1,000 were interned during the War of Independence.

Spike would remain in British hands until 1938, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. As part of Queenstown [modern Cobh], it was one of three so-called 'Treaty Ports' to be retained by the Crown. They were returned to the State and to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera as part of the settlement of the Anglo-Irish Trade War of the 1930s.

Among the many exhibitions charting the island's history is one commemorating the momentous changeover the year before Ireland formally became a Republic.

Numerous remnants of British rule remain, including a pair of enormous early 20th century canons - guns capable of shooting six-inch diameter missiles up to 12 miles. The one that's accessible to tour groups is built into the thick fort walls and has been painstakingly restored.

Much of Spike Island is exactly as one would have found it more than 150 years ago, but there's a lot, too, that recalls more recent troubles, particularly the eerily vacant shell of Block A. It was set alight by rampaging prisoners in August 1985. They managed to climb on to the roof of a neighbouring building, but surrendered the next day when armed police and the army were mobilised. An RTÉ television report from the time featured aerial footage that showed the extent of the devastation.

It confirmed what many security experts had suspected: Spike had been hastily chosen earlier that year to house a new breed of criminal, many of whom were incarcerated for the then popular menace of joyriding. It wasn't a purpose-built prison and the riot - which, miraculously, saw no loss of life - was something of an inevitable consequence.

Despite some talk in government about turning the Curragh into a civilian prison, Spike Island remained in use for a further 19 years. And even after the problem faded and cars became more difficult to hot-wire, Spike was still popularly known as the 'Joyriders' prison'.

Martin 'The General' Cahill spent time here and today visitors can see one of the cells that he himself painted. The prison shut in 2004 and the island eventually moved to the control of Cork County Council in 2010, when its potential as a destination for culturally curious tourist was first seriously mooted.

Spike Island's assistant manager, Tom O'Neill, worked here in the prison service between 1989 and 2003 and says few could have conceived of the idea that it would one day be a tourist attraction - a global travel awards winner and the most popular Cork destination on TripAdvisor, displacing Fota Wildlife Park.

"It was a working prison," he says, "so you just couldn't imagine it being anything else. But the tourists that come love it and its greatest attraction is how many attractions are here. People might think it was just a prison, but it's so much more."

Its opening to tourists in June 2016 after a number of years of redevelopment and repair work coincided with Fáilte Ireland's creation of the Ireland's Ancient East brand, which includes Cork Harbour within its boundaries. Much of the focus has been on this historical naval gateway and the fact that more than 2.5 million Irish people emigrated from Cobh, many of them on 'coffin ships' bound for America, never to return.

The Titanic connection is also a central part of the marketing of Cork Harbour as a tourist destination. The old ticket office of the White Star Line has been converted into Titanic Experience Cobh - 112 people embarked here, although the doomed liner itself was moored at the far side of Spike, in deep water. Another naval tragedy is remembered in the area - just three years after the sinking of the Titanic, another great passenger ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German submarine and more than 1,000 people lost their lives.

In all, Spike Island has received more than €6m in funding, with €2.5m supplied by Fáilte Ireland, and the balance from Cork County Council. But much more is needed to fully develop its potential, and some politicians in the area are dismayed that more funding hasn't been earmarked through Fáilte Ireland's Grants Scheme for Large Tourism Projects.

The chairman of Cobh municipal district council, Padraig O'Sullivan, has called on the tourism body to financially support the next phase of the development to include additional restoration work and new exhibition centres.

Fáilte Ireland spokesperson Alex Connolly says: "The application from Cork County Council for further work at Spike Island was not deemed eligible as it did not meet the stringent criteria set down.

"These eligibility criteria were applied across all 115 applications that were received and Fáilte Ireland was equitable in its treatment of all applications and applicants. In the future, as the attraction on Spike Island grows and develops, it may well meet the criteria and qualify for further funding under subsequent schemes."

For now, such development hardly matter to those captivated by John Flynn's tour and the tales of the paranormal that have made Spike Island a destination for special night-time excursions.

"I love the fact that it's not overrun with tourists," says one visitor. "You can lose yourself in this place and feel like you're stepping back in time. In a world where so many tourists end up going to exactly the same places, it's really good to have a different experience."

@johnmeaghermuso

@stevehpix

Photos by Steve Humphreys

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