Museums & Heritage Sites

1821 map

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.


View of Cobh from Spike Island

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.

Entrance to Fort Mitchel (formerly Fort Westmoreland)

Entrance to Fort Mitchel (formerly Fort Westmoreland)

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.

1821 map

Map of Spike Island with Westmoreland (now Mitchel) Fort clearly visible, 1821

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.

10 weeks to go!

A new year, a new week, a new book. 2015 started very well when I got my hands of the University of Chicago Press Spring Catalog (all 375 pages of it!). It’s the size of a telephone directory (for those who remember telephone directories!) so I was expecting a lengthy trawl in search of my book but, lo and behold, it appears in all its glory on page one!

University of Chicago Press, Spring 2015 Catalog

University of Chicago Press,
Spring 2015 Catalog

There’s a smaller History Catalog and one of the illustrations from the book is on the front cover. I’m particularly pleased about that as that image was the one I had suggested might be used as the cover image for Blood Runs Green. It didn’t make it to the front page (but appears in all it’s glory inside the book) so I’m really pleased to have that image from Judge made it to some front cover!

History Catalog, University of Chicago Press

History Catalog, University of Chicago Press

The original color illustration by Bernhard Gillam is a quite astonishing image (I’m very grateful to Mimi Cowan who first alerted me to its existence).

judge july 1889

At the forefront of the picture the simian murderer stands over the body of the slain Dr Cronin. In case there was any doubt that the murderer is an Irishman the green flag is adorned with harp and the slogan ‘Freedom to Ireland’. The title of the image is ‘Under False Colors’ and the text below reads: ‘The noble cause of Irish freedom is retarded and disgraced by such deeds as this, and the assassin is repudiated by every good Irishman’ The Cronin murder took place in Chicago but in this image the location has been transposed (or at least connected) to Ireland. Behind the main image there is a small wooded area where two bodies lie at the base of the tree. A wooden post and sign reads ‘Phoenix Park’. For those in the know the dead men are Lord Frederick Cavendish, the recently appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and his under-secretary and right-hand man Thomas Burke. In  May 1882 (almost exactly seven years before Cronin’s death) the two men were ambushed as they strolled through the Phoenix Park in Dublin close to the vice-regal lodge (now Aras an Uachtarain the official residence of the President of Ireland). The Dublin murders generated huge attention (& Charles Stewart Parnell was erroneously linked to the deaths). Five men were found guilty of the murders and executed…many in Chicago expected the same fate to befall those accused of Cronin’s murder.

It’s interesting that Judge assumed that readers would be sufficiently familiar with the Phoenix Park murders and would connect them in some way to Cronin’s murder that the editors saw no need to provide any further information within the journal. In some ways it’s a testimony to the sophistication of the journal’s readership and it highlights just how much attention had been devoted to Irish republicanism and the Cronin murder in the previous few months.