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Spike island is more than just an island. This little piece of land off the southern tip of Ireland in Cork Harbour holds the key to so much of Ireland's history, much more than even you can imagine.
This piece of land has borne witness to great religious communities, raids by the fearsome Vikings, even the Normans could not ignore Spike; they came and they conquered this island. This well placed island was also used for the transportation of convicts right up to and during the great famine, including its most famous resident, John Mitchel of the "Young Irelanders". Ellen Organ, known as Little Nellie of Holy God also lived here in 1905 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Organ.
This Island had many owners including Brother Mochuda who was gifted the land by a king of Munster after Brother Mochuda eased him from his suffering, he was reportedly deaf lame and blind. For some generations thereafter this island was referred to as "most holy". Some may dispute this as there are no buildings or evidence to suggest that monks lived on this island for any length of time. Take one visit to the island and feel the peace and tranquillity that is evident all around. What better place would a person find for quiet reflection?
Enter our next set of occupants; the fearsome Vikings. Many of us need only to go back to our primary school days to remember what we were taught about the raids the Vikings made on Irish land. They stole and burned everything in their wake. Is it not surprising then that little evidence exists to support the theory that Brother Mochuda and his monks lived here?
Following the Vikings, the Normans came to Ireland and during the 11th and 12th century the Normans had what could be described as an understanding with the Church of England who had control of the churches on Spike at the time; thus some sort of protection could have been granted to the islands' occupants at the time.
During the late 1700's some building work was started and abandoned. A few short years later, a new star shaped fortress was to be built designed by General Charles Vallency. During Cromwellian times, Spike may have also been used as a holding centre for the purpose of transportation of thousands of Irish people who were Catholic or just may not have sided with Cromwell during his ethnic cleansing of the country. Unfortunately this was not to be the only time that Spike Island was to be used in such a way.
The fortress that was designed by General Charles Vallency was to become a reality. It has been estimated that between 400 and 500 convicts were used to construct a star shaped fortress which was to become known as Fort Westmoreland. Construction would not be easy. Landscaping had to be done to prepare large flat areas for artillery. This fortress and other buildings still exist and can be accessed today.
During the mass transportation of convicts to British colonies Spike Island had been used to hold the convicts until the boat was due to set sail. This practise continued right up to and including the famine years until it ceased in 1867. Men, women and children were sentenced to transportation for various offences from vagrancy to stealing. Some would have found their way to Spike Island following a sentence of seven years transportation for fishing in a river belonging to a Lord. Just picture your family starving - no money, no food and you "trespass" across Lord So and So's land to catch a fish in a river that runs through the field beside you. You get arrested for stealing the fish that your family need to survive. On top of that, they charge you with trespassing. At 11 years of age you're told you are sentenced to seven years transportation to Van Diemen's Land. To get there, you must be brought to Cork Harbour by foot. Even if you committed your crime in Limerick, you would be marched in chains to Cork then put in hold on Spike until the ship was due to sail. Many who arrived on Spike Island never left. Their remains are still on Spike Island today.
One of the island's best known residents was John Mitchell of the Young Irelanders. He was arrested by the British for his outspoken and rebellious views. It was Mitchell who more than hinted that the only way for Ireland to achieve Independence from the British would be to take up arms in revolt. He was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. It is said that the Governor of the prison met him personally when he arrived and that he was not treated like all the other prisoners. Instead, he was given his own room with a bed, a chair and a table. Even on the transportation ship, his "cell" was unlike that of the other prisoners.
Many of the inhabitants were officially convicts; these people stole food to feed their children. They didn't go into Marks and Spencer to steal a bar of chocolate and packet of crisps. People were starving. Some had families, some with very young children to feed. Some of the parents were barely adults themselves. Should these people be known as felons, as convicts, as criminals? Their crimes were a means to get food. Their hunger, their families hunger, the wails of their young babies from starvation drove these people and made them desperate, thus labelling them forever in the official records as criminals. Should this be so? Think about it.
The island was returned to the Irish by the British in July 1938 some years after our war of Independence was won. De Valera raised an Irish flag for the first time ever on Spike Island and renamed the fort as Fort Mitchell in honour of its most famous inmate. To this day, you can see the cell in which john Mitchell was housed.
Some may think that's the end of Spike Island's history but there is more. Did you know the Irish army held a base here for decades? In 1979, the navy set up a training academy. The island was used as a juvenile prison for over 20 years from 1984 to 2005 and was to house up to 60 inmates at a time.
This is just a brief outline of the history of this fascinating island.