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Letter from Ireland

The Sorrows of Spike Island

Millions were forced to flee during the Great Famine­—some of those left behind were condemned to Ireland’s most notorious prison

January/February 2020

Ireland Spike IslandIn the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland was in the midst of a crisis. The repeated failure of the potato crop had driven millions of people to the brink of starvation. This catastrophe, combined with the simmering social, religious, and political tensions associated with British rule in Ireland, forced thousands of people to flee the country each month. Many of them left from the small town of Cobh, in Cork Harbor. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as many as 2.5 million Irish men, women, and children departed from Cobh alone, more than from any other port in Ireland. Tearful families gathered on the waterfront to say their goodbyes. Many were seeing their loved ones and their homeland for the last time.


Ireland MapAs they sailed out through Cork Harbor, they passed a foreboding island on their right featuring a bleak stone fortress that must have struck a jarring contrast to the colorful rows of Victorian architecture that lined the streets of the town they had just left behind. The island was known all over Ireland, and everyone who sailed past it must have shuddered. It was Spike Island, the site of Ireland’s most notorious prison.


Located along Ireland’s southern coast, Cork Harbor is perpetually bustling with activity. Pleasure yachts, cruise ships, tour boats, even Irish naval vessels, crisscross its waters. At its northern end lies the mouth of the River Lee, and farther inland, Cork, the Republic of Ireland’s second-largest city. In the early twentieth century, the harbor’s scenic town of Cobh gained some notoriety for its link with two famous maritime disasters—it was the last port of call for Titanic in 1912 and, three years later, Lusitania was torpedoed just off its shores. Memorials to both tragedies stand close to its waterfront.


Today, Cobh is perhaps best known as the place to catch the ferry to Spike Island, which is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. Once the site of the largest prison in the British Empire, Spike Island was described by those held there as hell upon earth. Early on, it was a place synonymous with death—more than 1,000 prisoners perished in its first seven years of operation. The British, who controlled Ireland until 1921, conceived of the prison as a solution to what authorities saw as the increasing criminality of the Irish people. While Spike Island did house hardened criminals and political prisoners—most famously Irish nationalist John Mitchel, for whom the fort that became the prison is now named—many confined there were petty thieves who had fallen on hard times and committed small crimes to make ends meet.  In the 1840s, even minor offenses could get someone sent to Spike Island. As the years wore on, some inmates were sent to Australia, some returned to their homes in Ireland, but many never made it off the island.



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