Because of its strategic location in Cork Harbour just off the coast near Cobh, Spike Island has a long and varied history. There is much more to it than can be mentioned here, but this is a very general overview.
The earliest settlement gave it the start of its monastic history. St. Carthage is credited as having founded a monastery on the island in the seventh century.
Spike Island also has an extensive history as a place of detention. In the 1640s (during Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland) the island was used as a detention center for Irish who were being transplanted to live in Barbados as slaves. Until their ship came to pick them up, they were used as labor by the English forces who held the island.
During the years called “The Famine,” prisoners who had been sentenced to ‘transport’ (mainly to Australia and Tasmania) were held here until they were shipped out.
During the War of Independence, many members of the Irish Volunteers were held on Spike Island.
And from 1972 until 1982, it was used to hold military prisoners, most generally enlisted men who were found to have broken the rules of service.
The military moved off of Spike Island in 1983. In 1985 the Department of Defence turned over the island to the Irish Prison Service (Dept. of Justice), and a civilian prison was operated there until 2004.
As was already mentioned, Spike Island’s third history is a military one. Ireland’s Naval Service used the island as a military base from 1979 – 1985.
Prior to that, the English built Fort Westmoreland in the 1700s and Fort Westmoreland II was begun in the early 1800s and completed in 1840. This is the star-shaped fortification that can be seen today.
A visit to Spike Island from Kennedy Pier includes a short boat ride. It is not necessary to purchase a guided tour of the island; however, unless you are very familiar with the island or read Dr. Michael Martin’s book (shown above) about the history of the island, a guided tour is recommended. Otherwise, you will see many gray stone buildings and have no idea what you’re looking at. Tickets may be purchased here
(and pre-purchase is highly recommended, as the tours will not operate unless there are a minimum number of participants): http://www.titanic.ie/tours/spike-island-guided-walking-tour
The island has only been open for visitors for a couple of years now. Perhaps, in a few years there will be informational signs installed or an audio tour implemented, so visitors will know what the buildings were used for. For more information on Spike Island, visit the official website at http://www.spikeislandcork.ie