The island has over the centuries been used a monastery, a prison (on several separate occasions), a base for smuggles and an army/navy base. Since 2010 it has been a heritage attraction for visitors.
Spike Island can be accessed by a passenger ferry from Cobh. The cost in 2016 was €18 for an adult and €10 for a child, so it isn't the cheapest day out but I thought it was well worth it. The recommended time for a visit is 3.5 hours, which was enough but I didn't feel I had seen everything. I think at busy times you are told what time to catch the ferry back but on the day I visited it wasn't busy, so you could return whenever you wanted to. However as usual I was pressed for time, so couldn't stay longer. I think the ferryman was in a bad mood on the day of my visit, as he shouted at a man and his partner who turned up at the bottom of the pier steps just as we were about to leave. The man hadn't attempted to board the boat, so I don't know what the problem was. Not great customer service!
I went on a guided tour, which was interesting but far too long at over 1.5 hours. Our guide who was very knowledgeable talked very fast and didn't pause for breath, so there wasn't much opportunity to ask questions. She did eventually let us go to the café and said the tour would continue after we had enjoyed some refreshments but I slipped away at this point to find the 2 geocaches on the island and to look at some of the exhibitions and the Convicts' Graveyard. I don't think the guided tour was compulsory but this wasn't made clear. I wouldn't bother with it on another occasion, as there are plenty of interpretation boards and exhibitions and we were given an annotated map of the island on the ferry on the way over.
There is some evidence that a small monastery was founded on Spike Island in the 7th century by St. Mochuda, who is also known as St Carthage.
During Oliver Cromwell's campaigns in Ireland in the 1640s the island was used for a short time as a holding location for Irish prisoners waiting to be transported to Barbados where they were to destined to become indentured servants or slaves.
In the 18th century Spike Island was used by smugglers.
During the American War of Independence in the 1770s Cork replaced Kinsale as the main Royal Navy port on the south coast of Ireland. A fort was built on Spike Island to defend the port. It was called Fort Westmoreland and it was completed in 1779.
Work began on a larger star shaped fort, also called Fort Westmoreland, with six corner bastions in 1804. The bastions were connected by ramparts and the fort was surrounded by a dry moat. Artificial slopes called glacis were constructed on the outside of the fort. A glacis is a bank sloping down from a fort which exposes attackers to the defenders' missiles. The fort was designed with a low profile to absorb cannon fire. The new fort was finally completed in 1860. Inside the fort there were 4 barrack blocks, a church, a hospital, gun positions, magazines, stores and casemates (shell proof barracks with vaulted roofs).
Main Entrance to the Fort
Former Officers' Quarters inside the Fort
Former Soldiers' Quarters - burnt down during 1985 Prison Riot
The Stairs up to the ramparts were filled in when the fort became a prison in 1985 to prevent prisoners from escaping
Mitchel Hall - Museum & Exhibition
In the 1840s this building was used as a prison hospital. A few years later it was used to house over 100 child convicts aged 12-16 in two dark and windowless rooms.
No 2 Bastion and Gun
Bleak House - former Admiral's Residence built c1815 at the western end of the island but now derelict
In the 19th century prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia or Tasmania were kept on Spike Island or on prison hulks anchored in Cork Harbour. Between 1847 and 1883 the island was used as a longer term prison.
During the First World War Spike Island was the headquarters for the South Irish Coast Defence. Officers' Quarters and administrative buildings were constructed outside the fort on the north and west coasts of the island. The families of some of the soldiers stationed on the island lived on Spike Island in houses near the pier on the north side of the island.
Dwelling Houses outside the fort on the north side of the island
Dwelling house on the north side of the island
Another dwelling house on the north side of the island
In 1916 the crew of the boat called The Aud were held on the island for a brief period. The boat was carrying arms, which were to have been used to aid the Easter Rising.
During the War of Independence Spike Island was again used as a prison, this time to house up to 500 members of the Irish Volunteers. On 29th April 1921 three IRA prisoners escaped from the prison and were picked up from the island by a motor launch.
Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 the British Government retained the use of forts in 3 ports in Ireland: Berehaven, Lough Swilly and Cobh. British troops were garrisoned on Spike Island until 11th July 1938 when the British reluctantly handed it back to the Irish State under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1938. The Taoiseach, Éamonn de Valera, and other senior members of the government were present for the handover. The fort was renamed Fort Mitchel in honour of the author, political journalist and activist for Irish Nationalism John Mitchel. He was a prisoner on Spike Island in the 1840s while awaiting transportation to Bermuda.
The Irish Army used Spike Island from 1938 until 1979. It was then used by the Irish Naval Service as a training establishment. It was also a military prison from 1972-1982. In 1985 it became a civilian prison again. However it hadn't been adapted for use as a prison and the prisoners were kept in large dormitories. On the night of Saturday 31st August 1985 the prisoners started a riot. The guards were soon overpowered and the prisoners took over the fort. Some of the inmates climbed on to the top of the Mitchel Hall and remained there until 5pm on the Sunday when they finally surrendered. 'A' Block and part of 'B' Block had been destroyed by a fire started by the prisoners.
1985 Prison Riot Exhibition
After the riot the fort was remodelled to provide secure cell accommodation. This work was completed by 1990 and the prison was designed to house 102 men. The prison was closed in 2004.
Post 1985 Cell with 4 beds and a toilet
Entrance to the Exercise Yard of Modern Prison
Screened Prison Visiting Box in use 1995-2004
Prison Visiting Room in use 1987-2004
In 2010 the ownership of Spike Island passed to Cork County Council. It has been possible to visit it since then, according to the reviews on TripAdvisor. However a €5 million renovation project on the island was only completed in June 2016.
Plaque commemorating the handover from the Department of Justice and Law Reform to Cork County Council on 11th July 2010
Spike Island Map at the back of the shelter on the Pier
Beach on the north side of the island
Memorial erected in 1945 to commemorate the prisoners who died on Spike Island from 1847-1885
Memorial to Captain Patrick White of the Meelick Company of the IRA who was shot dead by a British soldier on Spike Island in 1921
Cobh from Spike Island
Football Pitch at the west end of the island
Gun Park inside the Fort
Inside the Punishment Block
I think this is a water tower