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Inside Spike Island - Spooks, surprises and saints on 'Ireland's Hell'

Spike Island provides a surprisingly deep dive into Cork Harbour's history, says Pól Ó Conghaile

Its journey has taken it from biggest prison on the planet to 'Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction'. So what exactly is Spike Island's secret?

Taking the ferry from Cobh on a dour, rainy day, I want to find out.

In 2017, this 104-acre island in Cork Harbour beat off famous attractions like Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower to claim the title of Europe's top tourist attraction the World Travel Awards.

The award attracted plaudits, but also scepticism. Spike Island? Seriously?

Stepping off the boat onto a concrete pier near the Haulbowline naval base, I'm not sure what to expect. Prison tour? Heritage site? Weird and wonderful walks?

The answer is all of the above. As the wind spits sideways rain into our faces, tour guide John Flynn evokes a sixth century monastery, a British fortress, the Victorian world's largest prison and, disarmingly, a simple home.

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Spike island's Gun Park

Spike island's Gun Park

Supervisor Tour Guide at Spike Island John Flynn.

Supervisor Tour Guide at Spike Island John Flynn.

Little Nellie

Little Nellie

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

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Spike island's Gun Park

In a glass-half-full kind of way, the weather adds to the atmosphere. But much of the tour is outdoors, so be sure to dress for the occasion.

Spike Island re-opened in June, 2016, as a visitor attraction following an investment of over €6.5 million by Cork County Council and Fáilte Ireland. In a geographical stretch, it now sits within Ireland's Ancient East.

The investment has paid off. Stepping into its notorious, 19th century 'Punishment Block', the light sinks and corridors slink through a hive of dank, depressing cells. On several occasions, visitors inadvertently give each other frights...

'Jesus!' exclaims one woman as I emerge from the cell she's entering.

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Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Spike island's Gun Park

Spike island's Gun Park

Little Nellie

Little Nellie

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

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Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

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Back in the day, it wasn't uncommon for prisoners to find themselves incarcerated in these grim spaces for up to 23.5 hours a day. Few emerged the better for it.

Restoration works are obvious, but they've been smart enough to let the buildings speak (or spook) for themselves, too. Some stand almost like abandoned blocks, windows smashed, granite weathering. It feels eerie.

Outside the island's cafe, a young hurling team slaps sliotars about in the grass at the centre of the parade ground. A reminder that, as well as military men and convicts, the island has been home to communities, too.

Other buildings showcase arms, tanks and military gear through the ages. I'm surprised to find costumed attendants on hand to answer questions... I get a jolt when a 'guard' with a rifle ghosts past me in the punishment block.

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Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike island's Gun Park

Spike island's Gun Park

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

Little Nellie

Little Nellie

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Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

'Fort Mitchell' is the star-shaped fort dominating the island today. I learn that its shape meant defenders could arc fire over all parts of the island, "making the whole island one effective kill zone".

Tunnels in its outer edges take me into bunkers with a sniper's eye view over the harbour entrance... and the point where RMS Titanic docked before her fated transatlantic journey.

Built at a cost of €1 billion in today's money, the fortress was never attacked.

There are gentler stories too. Stories like that of ' Little Nellie of Holy God', a four-year girl who, our guide hints (and hopes), may become a saint one day.

Born in 1903, 'Nellie' astounded people with her religiosity and uncanny knowledge of the faith. She died tragically young but and, upon exhuming her body a year after her burial, it is said to have shown no sign of decay. Tours stop outside her home, and you can see a recreation of her bedroom in our video (above).

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Little Nellie

Little Nellie

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Cobh, viewed from Spike Island

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island's Punishment Block. Photo: Leo Byrne/Fáilte Ireland

Spike island's Gun Park

Spike island's Gun Park

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Co Cork. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The cell where 'The General' Martin Cahill was imprisoned on Spike Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

A cell on Spike Island. Photo: Leo Byrne / Fáílte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, fort and parade grounds. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

Spike Island, Cork Harbour.

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Little Nellie

Spike Island served as a prison again from 1985 to 2004, and tours of the 'modern' block are harrowing in their own way... not least due to archival RTE footage featuring the unmistakable voice of Charlie Bird reporting on the riots of 1985.

Tips? This is an expensive trip, at €18/10pp. You need to book ahead, plan parking in Cobh (free in the Cathedral car park), and give it a full half-day.

If you like what you see by daytime, there's a way to up the ante. After Dark tours are available (€20pp) of a place once known as 'Ireland's Hell'.

Get there:

Spike Island is open daily from May to September (and over the October mid-term), weekends in shoulder season and by appointment for groups only from November to mid-February (see spikeislandcork.ie for ferry schedules and times). Visits cost €18/€10pp including ferry, or €49 for families of four.

For more to see and do in Cork, see purecork.ie.

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