I’d never even heard of Spike Island two years ago, which can probably be forgiven as it is a fairly recent tourist attraction. However, once I did hear about it, it quickly became clear that this little island was something special.
Spike Island or Fortress Spike Island has quickly become a must-do experience for tourists from near and far and is sometimes referred to as “Ireland’s Alcatraz”. In the few short years it has been open to the public, it has won a number of awards including Europe’s leading tourist attraction 2017 at the World Travel Awards.
Intrigued? I certainly was. You only have to read the Tripadvisor reviews to see that it’s not just good marketing. People are genuinely raving about this little island located in Cork Harbour. When the only negative comments on Tripadvisor are that people didn’t have enough time on the island, you know it’s got to be worth a visit.
Well, there was only one way to find out what all the fuss was about! So earlier this month I got organised and made the trip out to Spike Island along with José and my parents too. I didn’t fancy waiting till next year and regular tours stop for winter at the end of this month (group tours of 15+ can still be booked during winter months).
Update: it seems the season has been extended this year and weekend tours will be running into November. Keep an eye on the Fortress Spike Island Facebook page for the most up to date info.
Getting to Fortress Spike Island
Tours to Spike Island leave from Kennedy Pier in Cobh and let’s be honest, any excuse to go to Cobh is a good one! Having said that my dad wasn’t too impressed with the idea of heading to Cobh in October. He was assuming the weather would be brutal. Yet the beauty of the Irish weather is that you never know what you’re going to get, at any time of year! We got lucky and blue skies and sunshine greeted us on the morning of our trip.
When I booked online, there had been just two tours available at 12pm or 2pm but depending on demand more trips may be available. No doubt the result of the fine weather and the cruise ship in port, a number of additional tours were added the day were were going. From our accommodation near the pier, we watched the queues grow from early morning.
Despite the additional tours, we still had a bit of a delay heading off when it transpired that our trip had been overbooked. Thankfully all was sorted without tears and those left behind got to follow us over to the island on a rib, leaving everyone on the ferry jealous that they weren’t last to board!
We took the scenic route to Spike Island, circling Haulbowline Island, a naval base and headquarters of the Irish Naval Service. I thought it was all part of the tour but once we arrived on Spike Island we were informed that it depends on the tide. Due the fact there is a sandbar in the harbour between Spike Island and Cobh, it isn’t always possible to go directly across, in which case you must go around Haulbowline!
On the Island
On reaching Spike Island, we were met at the pier and given a quick briefing. It’s a quick 10-15 mins trip to get there so once on the island, you should have over 3 hours before the return trip. You have the option of doing your own thing and self-guiding for the entire time or taking a tour (lasting between 60-75 mins) first and then exploring on your own.
We chose to do the guided tour and we were very glad we did. Our guide John G (John is still a very popular name in Ireland, so the initial is required!) was really fun, informative and most importantly loud and clear, which meant my hard of hearing dad (also John!) was able to enjoy the tour too.
We started the tour with a short uphill climb (transport is available, if needed) towards the 18th century star-shaped Fort Mitchel, stopping along the way to hear some of the history of the island and to catch our breath. The hills are actually man-made and while you might not appreciate that while you’re climbing, they were an important part of the defensive structure of the island and at least offer stunning views back towards Cobh now!
History of Spike Island
The island has a long and fascinating history. From 6th century Monastery to convict depot, to Fortress, to prison. You name it, Spike Island has seen it! As you can imagine there are many stories and many characters to learn about throughout your visit.
Due to it’s important strategic location, there has been a military presence on Spike Island for over two centuries. There have been three forts on the island and the third fort, which remains today, was built between 1804 and the 1860s. Originally called Fort Westmoreland, it is now named Fort Mitchel after John Mitchel, a nationalist hero who was imprisoned on Spike Island in the 1840s.
In 1847 Spike Island became a convict depot, with prisoners held here before being transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) or Bermuda. By the early 1850s there were over 2,300 prisoners on Spike Island. This made it the largest convict prison in Britain and Ireland. Conditions were appalling with prisoners crammed into rooms and treatment was brutal. It was so bad that letters were sent from the colonies asking the guards to ease up. The men were arriving so broken in mind and spirit after Spike Island, that they were of little use when they got there.
Most recently the island was used as a prison for young offenders between 1985 and 2004. My parents remembered it featuring on the news because of a riot in 1985, which resulted in international coverage. Details of the riot and old footage can be seen as you explore the buildings and the A Block, a large dormitory building which was burned down during the riot remains a ruin to this day.
Following the riot a number of the inmates (mainly imprisoned for joyriding, there were no serious offenders on the island) climbed onto the roof of one of the buildings and refused to come down. Our guide told us that the mother of one of the inmates got word of what was going and and made her way to Spike Island from Cork. She got hold of a megaphone and after 24hrs of protesting, it took her just a couple of minutes of yelling to get her son down. Once he did, the rest of the inmates followed not long after. Never underestimate the wrath of an Irish mammy!
So much to see, so little time!
On the tour we got access inside Bastion 2 to see the 6 inch gun, which is now inside having been moved from it’s original exposed position on Bastion 3. It was the main coast defence gun on Spike Island but was never fired at an enemy. However, it was fired for testing and resulted in shattered windows on the mainland. The fact that nobody had been informed it would be happening, didn’t help matters either. Oops!
Another benefit of the tour is that the guide points out what you can see in each area, so you can decide what you really want to do after the tour. Among other things you can visit the purpose built Punishment Block, the Artillery Gun Park, the Children’s Prison and the 1985 cells which were built after the riot. We headed off to see as much as we could!
We also took time to enjoy the magnificent panoramic views out to the mouth of the harbour from Bastion 3 and back towards Cobh from Bastion 6. There are also a number of walking trails, including one which covers the entire perimeter of the fort but unfortunately we just didn’t have time for it all. We didn’t stop for lunch either as we figured we could just eat back in Cobh but there is a large café on Spike Island with plenty of seating. There are snacks and pre-made sandwiches and wraps available, so you can grab something quickly if you’re hungry but want to keep going.
It really isn’t possible to experience everything on the island in just a few hour but in the future there might be the option to spend longer there. You may even be able to stay overnight eventually! Until then you can always go back for an after dark tour or the Spike Island Cinema Club. Scary movie, anyone?
This tiny island has played such a huge part in Irish history and visiting is definitely a fascinating experience. I guess it’s not a bad thing to leave people wanting more and trust me, a visit to Spike Island will definitely do that.