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Ireland's Alcatraz: Hell on Earth

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An island off Ireland rich in history for travelers and visited by over 80,000 annually and winning two prestigious awards.

Spike Island, Ireland

Spike Island, Ireland

Spike Prison Entrance

Spike Prison Entrance

Spike Island in the Seventh Century

Spike Island began its history in the Seventh Century as a monastery with about forty monks flourishing by farming and fishing until the Vikings invaded the island in 820 A.D. It is rumored that the important ecclesiastical doctrine "Liberdeordine Creaturum" was written by the monks discussing God's plan for the universe. The document is n display in the museum on the island for visitors to see.

Spike Island Monastery

Spike Island Monastery

Liberdeordine Creaturum

Liberdeordine Creaturum

History of Spike Island

A former monastery, a military fort, a prison, and today a nationally acclaimed leading tourist attraction. Vistors depart from Cohn on a ferry to Spike Island for a tour complete with walking trails, visiting the prisoner's cells, seeing the guns and cannons, and visiting the museum and cafe. Over 80,000 visitors take the tour annually, and each year the numbers increase. Probably due to winning the World Travel Award as "Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction in 2017. Then in 2019, it won Best Attractions at the International Travel and Tourism Awards in London. It is a true nature's paradise, a bird watcher's delight, and a must for any history buffs and its 1300 years of history.

In 1640, Oliver Cromwell used the prison holding thousands of Irish prisoners to be shipped to Bermuda or West Indies as indentured servants or to be sold to the sugar plantation owners as slaves.

As prisoners arrived on the island, it was deemed "hell on earth" by them. They had to excavate and build the prison along with completing a sewer system. Most of these prisoners were not hardened criminals but the poor of Ireland. Using shovels and pickaxes, they loaded the wooden carts that were so heavy, it took eighteen men to pull it forward. And this was with them tied together by ball and chain. Barely able to make it to their crowded cells, they were forced to sleep on cold, damp floors. If, however, you were sent to another part of the prison called Punishment Block, you were forced to be clothed in all black head to toe with a black hood and only slits for the eyes. You were then chained to the cell wall, and your food would be thrown on the floor.

Harsh treatment consisted of lashes and even more of hard labor. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, and malnourishment lead to disease and suicide. Between the years 1850-1854, over 900 men died. There was even a children's prison for the young boys 12-16 years of age. It was also the largest prison in the world at this time, 1847-1885.

During the Great Famine, just stealing a loaf of bread or a chicken could land you in prison at Spike Island. During the War of Independence, political prisoners and republicans were housed in prison. In 1938, the British gave the island to the Irish government. Prisoners were again housed until 2004 when it was finally closed.

In 2007, the Irish decided to excavate and restore the island as a museum, and it opened soon after restorations were completed..

While excavating, the graveyards were uncovered, suggesting over 1200 men died on the island. While examining the bones, it was found that some of the tops of the skulls were removed. It is thought this was due to experimenting to find the cause for criminal behavior. In 1945 a memorial was placed to honor the men who died there between 1847-1885.


Spike Island Memorial 1945

Spike Island Memorial 1945

Spike Island Graveyard

Spike Island Graveyard

Famous Prisoners of Spike Island

Perhaps the most famous was John Mitchell. Born in 1815, Mitchell began writing for The Nation. He later published The United Irishman and subsequently arrested and convicted of treason felony and sentenced to 14 years at Spike Island. While there, he began his Jail Journal, highlighting the terrible conditions at the prison and sparked an outcry for prison reform. Changes were made, and the phrase Spike System was coined. He was then transported to Bermuda and then to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). He managed to escape in 1853 to America, where he published the Jail Journal. In 1867, he published The Irish Citizen in New York City.

And there is James Grey, AKA "Jack-in-the-Box." James had built himself a wooden box with the hinges on the inside. He would hide in the box with accomplished shipping the box elsewhere. While on a ship, he left his box to steal from other containers, anything of value. He was finally caught in 1856 and spent four years in Spike Prison before being released.

Comments

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 23, 2020:

Rosina, thanks for reading and your comments. I will check it out. Thanks again.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 23, 2020:

Thanks for reading. I appreciate the visit and your comments.

Rosina S Khan on October 22, 2020:

Fran, do you see my comment here? I ask because you didn't reply to it.

Here it is again:

Spike Island which once had a large prison holding thousands of Irish prisoners became Heaven on Earth when it was transformed into a museum and was a large tourist attraction since 2017. It even earned two awards and therefore, it is even more spectacular. Thanks for the share, Fran.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 22, 2020:

The story of the prison and the conditions for the prisoners is sad but interesting. I would love to explore the island and visit the museum. Thanks for sharing the information, Fran.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 22, 2020:

Thanks for your visit. It does have a lot of history and winning two travel awards!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 22, 2020:

Thanks for writing about Spike Island. It has a long history, and when used as a prison, had some interesting characters interned there. It sounds like a lovely place to visit now as a museum.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 22, 2020:

Liz, thanks for reading. I agree, what a place to visit with 1300 years of history.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 22, 2020:

Thank you for reading. I do appreciate it along with your comments

Rosina S Khan on October 22, 2020:

Spike Island which once had a large prison holding thousands of Irish prisoners became Heaven on Earth when it was transformed into a museum and was a large tourist attraction since 2017. It even earned two awards and therefore, it is even more spectacular. Thanks for the share, Fran.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 21, 2020:

This is a very interesting article. I had not heard of this prison before. It looks like a good place to visit with a lot of history on the site.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on October 21, 2020:

Very interesting information about this prison. It's a good thing that the museum is being got ready and at some stage, I would like to visit it.