Huge crowds are flocking to see a tourist attraction that’s being dubbed ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’.
More than 10,000 tourists, have in August alone, clambered on to Spike Island in Cork harbour to view its vast heritage. Such is the attraction that Cork County Council, which is in charge of the Spike Island tourism experience, is planning to increase ferry traffic to facilitate visitors.
The famed island has, through the ages, been a monastery, a massive prison and a fortress.
In the past two years, over €6m has been spent turning the island into an tourist attraction, with funding poured in by the local authority and, to a lesser extent, Fáilte Ireland. The island now employs 26 tour guides along with maintenance crews, archaeologists and administrators.
“Visitor numbers are very encouraging,” said Spike Island manager John Crotty. “We attracted 10,000 this August alone and we are only restricted by our ferry capacity, which we hope to increase next year to two ferries. We aim to be a major provider of school tours, corporate events and ghost tours in the coming months.”
The Mayor of County Cork, Cllr Seamus McGrath said the Spike Island tourism experience had been a tremendous success story, so far, for Cork County Council.
“I think the time has come to open up access to the ferry service from other locations in the harbour.
“The ferry service from Cobh has been extremely popular and I am asking the council to consider running a service from other areas such as Passage West, Monkstown, Crosshaven and possibly Ringaskiddy,” Cllr McGrath said.
The main attractions on the island are the 1850’s punishment block, a former prison used to punish unruly prisoners, the 1985 cells and riot exhibition, six-inch guns that guard the harbour and the recreation of a transport ships hull. Other items of interest are the gun park with dozens of artillery and coastal defense cannons and Mitchell Hall which houses art temporary exhibitions.
The island was first used for a monastery in the 6th century. It began its military phase in the 1600’s when Cromwell held Royalist prisoners there before they were transported to Bermuda.
The first fort was erected on the island in 1779 during the turmoil of the American War of Independence and it was expanded upon due to fears of a French invasion during the French-British war in 1793.
In 1804 work began on the 50 acre Fort Mitchell that dominates the island today, one of the largest star shaped forts in the world. The fort was hastily converted to a prison due to an explosion of crime in the 1840’s and 50’s, during the famine years. By 1851 Spike Island was the largest prison in the British empire, most likely the world, with 2,300 prisoners crammed into its inadequate cells. Conditions were appalling and at its worst the death rate was 12%. Thousands of convicts are buried in mass graves on the island and the period is a dark chapter in British penal history.
From 1791 to to 1851 over 40,000 Irish prisoners were transported from Cork harbour to Australia alone. Another 2.5m emigrated from Cobh during the Famine, the largest emigration point in Ireland.