Spike Island’s New Excellent Exhibitions

Spike Island Cork has opened its newest addition, ‘Independence’, to the public, following a €100,000 investment.  The new exhibition focuses on the 1400 prisoners and internees who were held on the island in 1921 during the Irish war of Independence.  Many of the men incarcerated were simply lifted off the streets by British intelligence but they had an excellent and effective network of spies.

“In the vast majority of cases, the British intelligence was correct. They had very good intelligence,” said Tom O’Neill, who conducted comprehensive research to uncover many interesting facts about those incarcerated on Spike Island and what happened to them. Michael Collins’ brother, Sean and the former Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney’s brother were both interned on the island. In regards the latter, Sean MacSwiney was imprisoned there after his brother died following 74 days on hunger strike at Brixton Prison, London.

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.  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.

Island manager John Crotty said the exhibition shines a light on a fascinating time in Irish history.  “The Irish war of Independence was gruesome, fierce and unforgettable from an Irish perspective”, said Mr Crotty.  “For anyone involved in it this was a dangerous time to be alive”.  “We hope the exhibition shows just what it took not just for the fabled men of 1916, but also the men who carried on the struggle and fought incredible odds to free the Irish nation”.

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 a 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 per cent on target. March figures were equally good.   A second larger ferry of 126 capacity is now operating to the island and this will be complimented by an 80-seater ferry in June to August.  Other new additions include the ‘Shivs and Shanks’ exhibition which was launched on March 12, showcasing improvised weapons confiscated by the Irish Prison Service.

Mr Crotty said the ‘Ring of Spike’ walking trail is also now complete, with a new free map and download app given to visitors on arrival highlighting the trails.  “We are adding something every year and with 104 acres of beautiful island and a 24-acre fortress with dozens of century old buildings, we will continue to develop the site and add new attractions for visitors to discover annually”.

For more information, visit Spike Island’s website at spikeislandcork.ie.

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