One of the joys of being a historian is that it often offers the chance to be involved in some fascinating projects. Alongside my lecturing, research and writing I often work as a historical consultant for museum and heritage projects. These are always team efforts and it’s wonderful to get to work with people with a huge range of skills and interests – from archivists, architects, tour guides, museum designers to those with personal connections to the sites. At the moment I’m busy developing the schemes for two big projects.
One of these projects is the development of Spike Island in Cork Harbour. Spike Island has had a monastery, a fort and a prison on its 104 acres over the course of many centuries. Spike lies off the coast of Cobh, in the middle of Cork Harbour (said to be the second largest harbour in the world…Sydney being the largest). I first visited a few months ago and it’s an amazing site. There’s something special and romantic about islands (though the thousands of prisoners held on the island in the nineteenth and twentieth century would undoubtedly disagree.)
It’s a short hop to Spike Island from Cobh.
Disembarking at the jetty it takes a few minutes to walk to the Fort entrance, past several derelict houses with the small island village just off the the left – reminders that while this island was a prison for many years, it was also a home to many.
Although there is no direct evidence of human occupation on Spike Island it is likely that there was human activity there dating back to the Mesolithic period (c7,000BC). The nineteenth-century development of the island destroyed much evidence of early activity, though ongoing archaeological work may reveal evidence of earlier settlements.
The fort that exists today was built in the early nineteenth century at a time when Britain and Ireland were involved in the Napoleonic Wars. It was constructed between 1804 and 1815 and was based on the star-shaped fort designs which first came to prominence in seventeenth-century France. The military function of the fort was key – the prison element came much later.
Designed by General Charles Vallencey. Vallencey was an engineer, surveyor and antiquarian. As a member of the Irish Corps of Engineers in the 1750s he worked on Charles Fort and was responsible for ensuring that a number of bridges across the Shannon and the Suir were secure. Vallencey was also responsible for the harbour in my home town, Skerries. In 1793 he was appointed Chief Engineer of Ireland. He took part in an ambitious military survey of Ireland between 1776 and 1805. A map of the entire island was completed but only the southern part was completed in detail (the activities of the United Irishmen in the 1790s, culminating in the 1798 rebellion may have had an impact on the completion of this project). He had charge of the Cork Forts in the 1790s, though after the failed French invasion of Bantry Bay he was recalled to Dublin. He later returned to Cork to take on the ambitious project of developing the fort on Spike Island.
The history of Spike Island is a fascinating and absorbing one. The island tells its own version of the Famine, the Young Ireland movement, the Fenians, the War of Independence… It was a Treaty Port, a base for the Irish Army and Navy, a youth detention centre and a home to many… There are a myriad of fascinating stories associated with Spike Island. Over the next year I will be trying to do justice to those tales.