Ireland’s Alcatraz

picture of Spike Island

Spike Island, outside Cork Harbour

They sat clothed from head to toe in black, a veil covering their faces, leaving only their eyes visible to look out at the cold limestone walls around them. Their bones ached and their flesh was rubbed raw from the chains that held them fast. This was solitary confinement, 28 cells in which the floor was a prisoner’s bed and a small stool the only item of furniture.

The troublesome and most dangerous prisoners were kept here in the 1860s ­- the Penal Class, men whose agony was so great that several tried to seek release through suicide. It wasn’t for nothing that Spike Island became known as a ‘Hell on earth’ to some of its inmates.

Years later, Winston Churchill, in a typical grandiose flourish, would call the area ‘the sentinel tower of the approaches of Western Europe’. These days, though, Spike has received yet another appellation – being deemed Europe’s most popular visitor attraction at this week’s World Travel Awards.

Spike Island beat off stiff competition from the likes of the Acropolis, Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum…not bad going for an old prison that only opened its doors to the public in 2016.

It’s fair to say that wasn’t the intended plan when General Charles Vallancey designed the island’s fortress back in 1789. Fort Westmoreland, as it was called then, was later added to, becoming the squat, star-shaped structure it is today. The name changed, too, to Fort Mitchel as a nod to John Mitchel, the Fenian who is said to have begun his Jail Journal there before being transported.

By the time the Famine brought its misery, death and destitution, the fort, which had been designed to garrison soldiers, was being used to house prisoners – at one stage some 2,300 of them, making it the largest prison in Europe.

And what prisoners they were… Henry Sweers tried to escape in 1863 by swimming to Cobh (a not inconsiderable 1.8 kilometres away) but was forced to turn back when he was halfway there. He was whipped for his efforts. That didn’t deter Henry, though, who tried again two months later, only to be intercepted by boatloads of warders. This time, a good thrashing and a spell in solitary weren’t deemed enough, so Henry was forced to wear heavy chains… constantly… for two solid years, until his release.

picture of Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin

For sheer persistence when it comes to escapes, the award must surely go to William Johnston, who started his escapology habit when he managed to break out of Kilmainham Gaol in 1858. He was soon caught and transferred to Cork, where he broke loose once again in January 1859.

What gifts Johnston had in the escape department were clearly lacking when it came to avoiding detection. Two days later he was found drinking in a nearby pub and was returned to prison. This time the warders took no chances – Johnston was placed under 24-hour watch and had all his clothes removed. Sound – if rather brutal – measures you would think, until one day he was discovered, still naked, halfway out of a tunnel he had somehow managed to dig.

Johnston was transferred to Mountjoy Prison, but after two escape attempts there, he was sent out to Spike. The warders were made aware what sort of a nuisance was coming their way. Despite careful watching, he confounded them all one stormy October night in 1860.

Warders found the bars of his cell removed and sheets tied together to fashion a rope. Johnston and another inmate were missing. The alarm was raised and the island scoured, but all that was found was a ladder and two prisoner caps floating by the shoreline. The guards called off the search, assuming the escapees had drowned in the rough sea.

While returning to the prison, one of the warders tripped in the darkness and fell flat on his face…only to find himself staring into the eyes of William Johnston, who was hiding in a nearby bush with his accomplice. It was bad luck for Johnston. The ladder and caps had been a decoy, which almost worked. A severe beating followed, but for the rest of his incarceration, Johnston continued to strive for freedom – often being found in possession of pen knives, bars and escape equipment.

He was eventually released in 1866. Two years later he was back inside, having been found guilty of theft. The warders knew trouble when they saw it and stripped him naked every night before lights out. And then, the inevitable… Johnston escaped, having removed the iron bars of his cell and climbed 30ft-high walls to finally reach freedom. It was third time lucky for William Johnston.

During the War of Independence, the prison was used to house republican prisoners, and in November 1921, IRA officer Dick Barrett and six others continued the tradition of escape by rowing to freedom under the eyes of their British guards.

There are so many stories, but you can’t talk about Spike without mentioning Percy Fawcett. That meek-sounding name belied a soaring adventurous spirit.

picture of Percy Fawcett

Explorer and Spike Island resident Percy Fawcett

Percy or ‘Puggy’ as his wife affectionately called him, was a surveyor who in 1903 was sent to work on Spike by the British War Office. The tranquil surrounds were very different from North Africa, where Fawcett had previously worked for the British Secret Service. His three years on Spike would be a quiet interlude until his next adventure in 1906, when he took the position of chief surveyor in Bolivia.

Tasked with mapping Bolivia’s rainforests and rivers, he encountered great danger, whether from Nature herself or the manmade variety in the form of Amazonian tribesmen or the roughnecks of the boom towns set up on the back of the rubber industry.

Traipsing through those rainforests only whetted Fawcett’s appetite as he heard tales of fabled lost cities. One of these really caught his imagination, and he would devote the rest of his life to finding what he dubbed ‘The Lost City of Z’.

In between time spent in England with his family, Fawcett mounted a series of expeditions, journeying where no other European had ever gone in his bid to find the lost city. In 1925, he, his son Jack and another companion set off on another trek to find Z. They were never seen again.

In the decades that followed, rumours abounded about the explorers’ fate – some said they had been killed by tribesmen, others that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his final years as chief to a tribe of cannibals.

The stories only fuelled imaginations, so much so that various search parties were sent out to discover what had happened. It’s said that almost one hundred would-be rescuers died trying to find the answer.

The mystery is kept alive to this day, thanks to the movie The Lost City of Z, starring Brad Pitt.

Fawcett, the spy, jungle explorer and Spike resident certainly left his mark on history, as did the rest of the island’s characters.

What stories can be told… Is it any wonder then that this prison island – Ireland’s Alcatraz – is Europe’s leading attraction?

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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30 Responses to Ireland’s Alcatraz

  1. Carol Ervin says:

    I’m always amazed at the resourcefulness of some who are imprisoned. Conditions appear to be better today, but not everywhere. Thanks for this, David.


  2. You continue to come up with the most interesting posts about your homeland, the history of which most of us are woefully ignorant. I hope others are enjoying them as much as i am.


  3. Fabulous post as aye, David. I don’t know about the poor unfortunate prisoners but it was a real treat to read.


  4. paulandruss says:

    This was a fascinating story of somewhere I had never even heard of and you brought it to life brilliantly. Great read.


  5. Wow! I had NO idea! Well done, Mr. Lawlor. You continue to fascinate and intrigue!


  6. I love these stories, David. I think a compilation of your blog posts would be popular reading – Fun Irish Facts – Accessible Irish History.


  7. billkasal says:

    Always a fun and interesting read, David. What characters!


  8. Fabulous post, David. Spike island has such a rich history. I didn’t know about Fawcett’s connection.


  9. Your blog is always good for interesting facts and unexpected snippets of history. Fascinating post!


  10. Always love learning new historical anecdotes. Thanks for this!


  11. endardoo says:

    Great read Dave. Some rare characters you describe too. And some rare escapades


  12. Pingback: Ireland’s Alcatraz: Spike Island was once “Hell on Earth.” –

  13. Pingback: Ireland’s Alcatraz | historywithatwist | First Night History

  14. Kelly MacKay says:

    That was great. O enjoyed it. the shape of the fort is familiar to me. we have several in Canada of the same shape. Happy New Years


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