Intelligence and breakouts further open up history of Spike Island

Spike Island: A new ferry with a capacity of 127, along with the existing 80-capacity vessel, will both operate from June to August, further boosting visitor numbers.

British intelligence was very good at identifying Republicans who were interned without trial in Spike Island in 1921.

Of the 1,400 prisoners kept there, around two-thirds were simply “picked up off the streets” by British Army patrols on suspicion of being involved in the IRA.

That’s according to the historian Tom O’Neill, who has analysed their records and created biographies on them.

In the cases of the vast majority of them, the (British) intelligence was correct. They had very good intelligence,” Mr O’Neill said.

His comprehensive research has uncovered many interesting facts about who was incarcerated there and what happened to them.

Michael Collins’ brother, Sean (or John as he was known to some) and Terence MacSwiney’s brother were both interned there.

MacSwiney’s brother, Sean, was imprisoned there after the former Lord Mayor of Cork, died following 74 days on hunger strike at Brixton Prison, London.

Around a third of the prisoners there had been convicted of IRA involvement by British military courts. They had been sentenced to death, but then the sentences were commuted.

Collins and MacSwiney escaped the island along with Con Twomey and Tom Malone in April 1921.

An IRA unit based in Cobh was responsible for the jail break.

Historian Tom O’Neill has analysed the records and created biographies of prisoners in 1921.

The four men had been working on maintaining the island’s golf course and overpowered their guards, killing one of them.

The IRA unit landed in a boat and took the four men to Ringaskiddy.

“They were never recaptured,” Mr O’Neill said.

Dick Barrett, from Ahiohill, near Bandon, Co Cork, was also incarcerated on Spike Island. He was quartermaster for the IRA and had been involved in the famous Kilmurry ambush.

“He escaped from Spike Island on November 21, 1921. He ended up being captured during the Civil War and was executed by the Free State Government on December 8, 1922,” Mr O’Neill said.

Barrett was one of seven who also made a successful jailbreak from the island.

They discovered an old boat that was unguarded and used some timber they’d found as makeshift oars to row their way to Cobh.

“They couldn’t be re-arrested because the Truce came in,” Mr O’Neill said.

Five of the six men captured alive following the IRA’s disastrous ambush on British forces at Clonmult, near Midleton, Co Cork, were also held there.

Mr O’Neill, who has also written a book on that ambush, said it was the worst loss of life in a single engagement ever suffered by the IRA during the War of Independence. A total of 12 IRA men were killed and two later executed.

Dorota Gubbins, Spike Island heritage curator, near one of the graphic panels on display, as part of the ‘Independence’ exhibition in relation to internees and prisoners held at Spike Island prison in 1921.

One of the prisoners was shot dead on the island, and 20 witnesses said the killing was unlawful.

Patrick White, who was from Co Clare, was playing hurling one day with a group of other inmates.

The sliothar went out of bounds and he asked the prison guard for permission to go and retrieve it. The guard gave his permission and when White went to pick it up, he shot him dead. He (the guard) claimed he was trying to escape,” Spike Island manager John Crotty said.

The soldier had been involved in a group which had been attacked by an IRA Flying Column a few days earlier near Youghal.

It’s believed that he was either suffering from post-traumatic stress, or was simply taking revenge for that incident.

“There was a riot on the island in 1921 during which a soldier fired a warning shot. It hit a prisoner in the foot and he later died of septicaemia,” Mr Crotty said.

The new exhibition, which will be opened next month, is just one of a number of things going on at Spike Island as it aims to further boost its visitor numbers.

A panel detailing the escape of prisoners from Spike, which included Sean MacSwiney, brother of Terence.

The island has extended its opening season from March to October to February to November for the first time this year. It will also have seven-day-week opening from May to September.

Mr Crotty said the island welcomed 2,500 visitors in its first ever February, despite some unpredictable weather, up 30% on target. March figures were equally good.

The island remains the top-rated visitor attraction in Cork and Munster on TripAdvisor, the industry standard, and number three nationally.

The ‘Shivs and Shanks’ exhibition was launched on March 12, showcasing improvised weapons confiscated by the Irish Prison Service.

Mr Crotty said the ‘Ring of Spike’ walking trail is now completed with a new free map highlighting the trails given to all visitors.

Doyle Shipping Group is trialling a new ferry with a bigger capacity which will operate from Cobh to Spike.

A history of the use of Spike Island by the British authorities.

“The new ferry has a capacity of 127, up from the 80 capacity on the other ferry. Both ferries will operate from June to August, meaning the island can run over 200 passengers in one movement,” Mr Crotty said.

Work on a new ticket office on Kennedy pier in Cobh is progressing and hoped to be in place for June. A new wheelchair accessible pontoon on Kennedy pier is also being built and should be ready by next month.


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