For quite some time now, I’ve wanted to visit Spike Island in Cork. Having finally carved out a day last Thursday, plans were made, the picnic was packed and the family was rounded up for a big day out in neighbouring County Cork. Getting to Spike Island, however, requires a little bit of planning and thought so try not to leave it until the very last minute as this rarely works out!
Considering myself quite organised, I pre-booked the tickets and even rang the attraction in advance to find out about parking. However, note that when booking tickets online, the slot you select is the time you leave and return. Sounds obvious of course but somebody, and we won’t mention names here didn’t quite read this information correctly and arrived half an hour late for their 11 am sailing!
Taking pity on the unfortunate “tourist,” the staff member at Spike Island very kindly changed the booking to the 1 pm sailing. I would not recommend this as a strategy, however, as it was not worth the stress of driving from Killarney to Cobh silently wondering if we would get on the ferry at all that day!
Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and the delay allowed us time to relax with a coffee at a nearby café and to explore the pretty harbour town of Cobh. My eldest daughter was charmed by the European feel of the town as we trekked up to the Cathedral which dominates the landscape. St. Coleman’s is Ireland’s tallest Cathedral with the steeple being 91. 4 metres tall (300 ft) and stands majestically on a hill overlooking Cobh Harbour. Construction began in 1868 and was completed in 1919 in the Gothic Revival style, designed by George Ashlin and Edward Pugin.
From 1849 to 1921, the present town of Cobh was known as Queenstown in honour of Queen Victoria who visited the town in 1849.
There is plenty to see in Cobh including The Cobh Heritage Centre which is located in the Victorian Railway station, a building with a great history of its own. It tells the Queenstown Story which covers three centuries of emigration from the 1600s right through to the 1950s. My father-in-law sailed from Cobh to America in 1951.
Nearby is the Titanic Experience which is located in the historic White Star Line Building – the last place from where Titanic’s final passengers departed.
Another day or two will have to be planned to visit these two experiences, not to mention nearby Fota House and Gardens and Fota Wildlife Park – both located only 10 minutes from Cobh.
For now, however, we were ready to set sail and make the short 12-minute crossing to Spike Island. On arrival, we were greeted by our informative Guide, Honor. There is the option to skip the guided tour and head off by yourself but despite protests from some in our party who wanted to do their own thing, we stood our ground and enjoyed Honor’s 30 – 40 minute fascinating insight into the island. You are then free to explore the island at your own pace and this takes approximately 3 hours. If you need to sail back earlier or later, this can be arranged in the Gift Shop.
Originally the site of a monastic settlement, the island is dominated by an 18th-century bastion fort named Fort Mitchel.
The island’s strategic location within the harbour meant it was used at times for defence and as a prison.
It was first used as an island prison in the 1600s for Cromwellian prisoners. In the 1840s, the island was used to house convicts prior to penal transportation, mostly to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania).
The island remained in use as a garrison and prison through the Irish War of Independence when Republican prisoners were held there. Richard Barrett was among those detained but escaped during the truce of 1921. Over 1400 men were held on the island at its peak.
There is a record of Republican prisoners you can search, and within minutes I found details of a distant relation of mine, Michael Lynch who was transferred to Spike Island in July 1921. He later emigrated to New York and with Michael Quill from Kilgarvan formed the Transport Workers Union of America in 1934.
The final prison opened in 1985 and was used as a youth correctional facility until 2004. My husband has a clear memory of a threat to be sent to Spike if the kids in his Dublin school didn’t behave! One of Ireland’s most infamous criminals, Martin Cahill (“The General”) was held on Spike Island in 1988 for four months for “breaching the peace.”
The island also had a small civilian population until 1985; a small school, church and ferry service to Cobh.
Following our most interesting visit, we sent sail back to Cobh. A visit to the City was promised which was an easy thirty minutes away. A fine meal in Sakura Japanese Restaurant on MacCurtain Street rounded off the day, followed by a quick spot of retail therapy to keep everybody happy!
Cork to Killarney is more accessible than ever before, and with the new Macroom Bypass knocking at least 20 minutes off the journey, we were back in The Kingdom by nightfall.
“One of the best days out ever!” was the verdict! We’ll take that!
By Geraldine McGlynn, Golden Ireland.