Spike Island started 1921 as a British Military base, a function it had occupied since 1779. Built to defend the important Cork Harbour from Napoleonic attack, the fort was converted into a prison in 1847, becoming the largest in the world. After its closure in 1883, no solider ever expected the arrival of prisoners once again. But the eruption of the Irish War of Independence in 1921 led to exactly that.
When the Military Prison in the field opened on Spike Island in February 1921, its arrivals had no idea what the future had in store. They had been arrested for their activities during the Irish War of Independence and sentenced by Military Court. Some were lifted off the streets and interred without trial, with the prisoners held in one ‘camp’ on the island and the internees another.
Many were serving long sentences, so it was great relief to hear of a truce announced on July 11th, 1921, that might lead to their release. This initial delight turned to anger when months passed by with no sign of an agreement, or their return to normal life. This delay particularly infuriated the internees, who were being held without trial.
They decided to take action.
A letter was sent in August by the IRA commander of the prisoners requesting the release of the internees, signed by Commanding Officers Henry Mahony, 1st Officer in charge and William Quirke, 2nd Officer in charge. It threatened a hunger strike if this was not actioned.
Addressed to the camp commandant, it stated;
“Sir, take notice that we, on behalf of the internees here, demand immediate and unconditional release on the grounds that the English Government has neither legal or moral right to hold us by force. If the internees here are not released by Tuesday 30th at 6pm, we will refuse to partake of food until our just demand is complied with and thus bring the opinion of the civilised world to bear on the inhuman manner in which the British people and their hired government are treating one of the small nations for which the late war is alleged to have been fought”Michael O’Sullivan Autograph book – Book 5 – Spike Island, 1921. Tom O’Neill Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners, 1921 – History Press.
Both the request for immediate internee release and for prisoner of war treatment for the prisoners was refused by the prison authorities. On August 30th at 6pm, a hunger strike began in both the prison and internee compounds. Almost three hundred internees deemed medically fit to do so began refusing food, as did approximately one hundred prisoners in their compound, making for a hunger strike of scale during the Irish War of Independence.
Those deemed medically unfit for the hunger strike took up roles maintaining the huts and tending to the strikers, demonstrating the group were in this struggle for the long haul. A few days passed and the men started to become weak, a result of the bodies glucose stores being depleted and the metabolism beginning to shift towards preserving lean body tissue.
Fortunately for the lives of the men, if not their intended outcome, actions conducted behind the scenes on the mainland meant no one would have to die in this horrific manner.
The Commanding Officer of the prisoners, Sean Twomey, felt that it was improper that the hunger strike was not sanctioned by General Head Quarters of the IRA. He stepped down in protest. He was as aware as anyone that tense negations were planned with the British regarding the terms of Irish freedom. These negotiations would have a better chance of success if all efforts were coordinated.
His disapproval was proven correct as notice came from central command that the unsanctioned hunger strike should end immediately, approximately four days after it had started. The reason outlined to William Desmond of Collenagh, Cork, was
“because it considered that the fight was by no means over, and that men after such an ordeal might be unfit to engage in active service should the opportunity come their way”.William Desmond – Witness statement – Bearuea of militry history – Military Archives
For now, at least, the rebels were safe, but they would have to stay put and await outcomes on the mainland. Numerous other transfers in and out of Spike Island continued during September 1921, but already the military seemed to be preparing for the locations closure.
Newspaper reports spoke of ‘Trouble at Spike Island’, stating conditions were poor and treatment was deteriorating in the months after the Truce.Freeman’s Journal – 26th Sept 1921.
The signs were there that something was brewing. The prisoners regrouped after their hunger strike idea was quashed and considered their options. Experienced rebels like Wexford’s Sean Sinnott plotted how they could continue their resistance. Sean was a veteran of a dozen British prisons, a man who could be forgiven for feeling he had received his fair share of prison time.
They came to a simple conclusion – they could not be kept incarcerated if there was nowhere suitable to house them on the island!
They plotted a prison riot in which they would destroy their accommodation, reducing the huts to uninhabitable shells and forcing the British to consider releasing them. At the least they might hope for removal from the island, to a prison where escape was more likely to succeed or visits from family could be undertaken.
William Desmond later wrote in his witness statement that the prisoners on Spike Island had heard Treaty negotiations were breaking down, and hostilities might resume at any moment. Perhaps they felt at less of a remove if they were off an island in Cork Harbour, and closer to the action.
They planned in secret, spreading the word in hushed conversation in cells and exercise yards. Sunday October 16th seemed as ordinary as any other to the prison guards. It would have taken a very astute spectator to spot the difference in body language and knowing glances among the prisoners.
At 6pm, the preordained order was given, and all hell broke loose.
The men began systematically destroying their huts, breaking everything apart – beds, chairs, tables, doors, floors, fireplaces, windows, wash houses… anything that could be broken was destroyed, and nothing was safe. The internees carried out their orders in gleeful orgy. The destruction of the giant windows of the A block building in particular brought great satisfaction, as each hut followed orders to smash them at the same time, ground floor and first floor, creating a sound akin to an explosion.
Prison guards initially looked on helplessly, not permitted to open fire as the men were clearly not attempting escape, but acting up none the less.
The irrepressible Sean Sinnott took enormous pleasure in the opportunity to take out years of incarceration on his current island location.
“We broke up Spike Island… But the breaking up of the place! Oh, boys, at six o’clock that night, the din! There were huge big windows about eight feet high. They all went out in one big bang, in both blocks, and then the Tommies came rushing in with their bayonets. The next day we were all ordered out in the compound.
There was a Scotsman there. Some of the fellows started a row and the machine guns up on the wall were turned on us, and the officer in charge came in and put up his hand that way. There would have been a holocaust only for that.
Kennedy was the Officer’s name. He stopped the Scotsman who had ordered the machine guns on us. He shouted from the gate ‘I’m in charge’. They had us all out in the compound because we had broken up even the Chapel. ‘They turned us into a prison’ says Henry Mahony. ‘Boys, we’re going to wreck it’.
And they did wreck”Sean Sinnott’s reminiscences: (an interview with Rv. Seamas S.de Val, c. 1968)
Inevitably, the action had consequences. The Commanding Officers of the internees were removed and placed in solitary confinement until the following day, which prompted the internees to threaten further hunger strikes if they were not released. The Freemans Journal carried the story that the
‘Spike Island Leaders were put in irons’… as ‘inhabitants of Cobh watched the shooting flames that gave the signal of trouble on Spike Island”.Spike Island leaders put in irons – Flaming buildings light up Cork Harbour – Freemans Journal – Oct 1921
It was 9am the following morning when they re-joined their fellow rebels, when the hunger strike had already started. It was ended as soon as they appeared, but that did not stop the general unrest as the destruction restarted in earnest. It continued until October 18th, two days after it had begun, as a systematic dismantling of the fabric of the prison continued.
The prisoners were gambling that the authorities would not open fire on a large body of men for such destruction, a brave move considering previous actions in the War of Independence, but the Truce gave them confidence.
The military were at a loss as to how to deal with the indiscipline. After consideration, they opted to remove the men from their huts and force them into the open dry moat outside the forts walls. The large outer wall surrounding the space, which was opposite the high stone walls of the inner fort, meant the men were hemmed in and completely exposed to the elements.
They stood in the green grass moat surrounded by grey walls, where machine gun nests and searchlights swept beneath open skies, and wondered what was to come next. The answer was 3 nights of punishment, intended to break their spirits and buy time for the authorities to assess the situation.
The men were kept in the moat location day and night, with no roof over their heads to tame the weather. The conditions were against them, with diary reports recording three awful nights filled with rain and biting wind. The men were put on bread and water rations, an effort to starve them into weary submission.
The group was confined to a single area of the moat and shots were fired in their direction if they strayed from the ordained location. Sometimes shots were fired just for the hell of it, intimidating them into good behaviour. It was a hellscape of wind, rain, hunger and torment, one that no one present would ever forget.
Such indiscriminate firing, often in darkness when accuracy could not be measured, saw Daniel Clancy, of Kanturk, County Cork shot in the toe. It can be reasoned the shot was not intended to kill him, but bullets have a nasty way of performing their intended function.
After being hit, Daniel was transferred to Cork Military Hospital and might have wished his comrades well as he was stretched away, his wound innocuous. No diary report or witness statement expressed any significant concern at the time. But this was the last any of his comrades would see Daniel Clancy.
He tragically died three weeks later on November 11th, 1921, when his wound became infected. He was the second prisoner on Spike Island to be shot and killed by British troops, and ‘Free at last’, as reported by the Freemans Journal in November when announcing his death. In retrospect it can be said that Daniel Clancy was murdered, though the charge was not levelled at the time. Unnecessary indiscriminate firing on an unarmed body of men resulting in a wound and ultimate fatality can be termed nothing less, and in a civilised society it would have been treated as such.
A third man, Patrick Mulhall of Castlecomer, also had toes shot off by British bullets. He was sent with Daniel Clancy for treatment, an episode he was lucky to survive. The lethal game of cat and mouse continued for three nights, before the internees were allowed back to their destroyed huts, which at least provided a roof over their heads if little else by way of comfort. Sleeping on broken floors and shattered glass in windowless huts was an improvement over their dry moat experience.
They set about making the spaces somewhat habitable and less dangerous for the short term, knowing an inspection was coming and the outcome of this would be clear.
An inspection of the accommodation was carried out on October 25th by Sinn Fein representative Staines, Camp Commandant Major Kennedy and the Superintendent of internee and prison camps in Ireland. They quickly agreed that the conditions were uninhabitable, destroyed to a condition that made reinstatement more expensive than alternative options, like closure and transfer elsewhere.
This outcome likely suited all parties, with Major Kennedy probably secretly happy to see the back of his troublesome diversion from military duties. Its unlikely the respected military man ever dreamed he would be caring for upwards of 600 Irish Republican prisoners at any one time. The Sinn Fein representative also believed being on the mainland was a better option for the men. The prisoners and internees had achieved their aim.
A transfer was arranged and the closure of the prison prepared in private, for fear of Republican efforts to free the men. The letter request went as follows:
“The following will proceed from Spike Island to Maryborough Prison at a time and on a date to be notified later: 532 internees, prison staff, One medical Officer…
The move will be carried out by rail, entraining station, Queenstown (Cobh). An escort of two companies (of not less than 134 privates) from the detachment, 2nd Bn, Queens Own Cameron Highlanders at Spike Island, reinforced from Battalion Headquarters…”.
Spike Island’s third use as a prison was over, following Oliver Cromwell’s holding depot of the 1600’s and the Famine era behemoth of the 19th century.
Unbelievably, a 4th prison in 400 years would follow in 1985.
Learn more about Spike Island’s 1921 prison here –