Why you should care
It’s a chance to step inside one of the largest, most brutal prisons in the world.
Not long after we’re comfortably seated in a tugboat taking us on the short voyage across Cork Harbour to Spike Island, the idle tourist chatter on board starts trailing off. All of us know we’re headed to “Ireland’s Alcatraz,” but the outbreak of silence gives the sense that no one really knows what to expect once we arrive.
To set foot on Spike Island, a notorious 19th-century prison, is to step back into the haunting underbelly of the British empire at its peak. Before then, the island served as a naval fort complete with ramparts and moat. By the time the Great Famine gutted Ireland in the late 1840s, it had become the largest jail in the world. Stolen some bread to feed your starving family? Spike Island awaited you, often before you’d be forced to leave the country on a three-month voyage to Australia or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
From atop the fort’s ramparts, built with labor that cost countless convict lives, there are spectacular views of Cobh to the north and Cork Harbour — one of the largest in the world — to the south. Stand here to imagine the awesome sight of six U.S. Navy destroyers entering the harbor weeks after America entered World War I. “We offer an unrivaled insight into Ireland’s religious, military, penal and social history,” says John Crotty, Spike Island’s general manager. Visitors can also view a collection of huge breech-loading cannons (lovingly restored by ex-cons) that protected Cork during World War II, a period known in Ireland as the “Emergency.”
Sit alone inside any of the dark cells where penal-class prisoners were chained up … and your blood is guaranteed to curdle.
The island’s standout feature, however, is the so-called punishment block, complete with sound effects depicting the squalid lives prisoners lived 150 years ago. Sit alone inside any of the dark cells where penal-class prisoners were chained up for 23.5 hours a day and your blood is guaranteed to curdle.
Criminalizing Ireland’s poor, and oftentimes revolutionary, population during the 1800s was not done solely to maintain law and order, says John Flynn, the island’s senior tour guide researcher, but had a political dimension too. “A lot of convicts were sent to Spike Island just for the offense of begging,” he says. Hundreds of convicts died every year during the 1850s, and the mass graves of 1,200 inmates that litter the island today are a prized source of historical material for experts studying how Britain used incarceration to suppress its colonial subjects.
Since Spike Island opened to visitors for the first time last year, following a $7 million renovation, it has quietly become an international hit, delighting the people behind it. “To this day the island maintains its own little ecosystem of workers who bring life to the place,” says Crotty. In September, it was named Europe’s best destination at the World Travel Awards.
Experts say the growing popularity of destinations such as Spike Island over heavyweight attractions such as Buckingham Palace or the Champs-Élysées points to a wider trend.
“We all feel we are much more sophisticated travelers these days — we seek experiences and places (such as Spike Island) that others haven’t had, so that we have an exclusivity of experience,” says Nic Mayer, a travel and tourism expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ hospitality and leisure practice. “Travelers these days are looking for their Facebook moment, for something original.”
GO THERE: SPIKE ISLAND PRISON
- Directions: From Cork city center, take the train or follow road signs for the seaside town of Cobh. Once the impressive St. Colman’s Cathedral comes into view, you’re close. Local storekeepers can point visitors to the Spike Island Tour dock, from where it’s a 15-minute ferry ride to the island. Tickets (from $20) are best booked several days or weeks in advance.
- Hours: Tours leave Cobh at midday, and visitors usually spend 3.5 hours on the island. Night tours and group bookings of 15 or more are available year-round, with regular bookings available for March and April (weekends) and May to October (daily).
- Pro Tip: Download the Spike Island Tour app for self-guided tours of the island, but beware that the on-site Wi-Fi can be patchy.