Home » The first prison on Ireland’s Alcatraz? Oliver Cromwell in Ireland and Spike Island Cork.

The first prison on Ireland’s Alcatraz? Oliver Cromwell in Ireland and Spike Island Cork.

Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Naseby, just a few years before he undertook a military expedition to Ireland that lives long in the memory.
Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby in 1645

The name Oliver Cromwell impacts an Irish ear with a forceful thud.  In a nation full of easy going individuals, there are few quicker ways to set pulses racing than to mention his name. If an all-time villain had to be chosen from the macabre pantomime of Britain’s occupation of Ireland, Cromwell would sit on the black leather chair, devilishly stroking a white cat. 

His tactics and victories remain the inspiration for many an Irish nationalist song, and no wonder when you consider his scorched earth policies also led to a famine that killed perhaps far more than his fighting.  There is no consensus of the number of deaths by the sword or resulting famine of the Cromwellian conquest, but estimates range from a modest 15%, to an astonishing 83% of the Irish population.  Somewhere around 30% to 50% of the then population seems most probable, a staggering 400.000 – 700.000 people, a percentage even higher than the infamous 19th century famine. 

Whatever the true figure, it was a phenomenal subjugation of an indigenous population, in line with Spanish and Portuguese conquests of South America of the time.

If violent conquest was a source of pride at the time, Cromwell could hold his head high.

Oliver Cromwell portrait

Recent arguments on the behavior and tactics of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland have contended that Cromwell’s actions were within the rules of war for the time, but the defense that ‘it was ok because everyone was doing it‘ rings hollow. No one forced a sword into his hand, a genuine vindication for many of his conscripted soldiers.

Nor was his description of Ireland as “a dangerous and morally reprehensible bastion of Catholicism” forced from his mouth. The only good thing to be said for Cromwell in Ireland is that he spent just nine months in the country.

His successful armies found themselves with significant numbers of prisoners of war, which represented a native population best displaced rather than encountered again on the battle field. Those not slaughtered were sentenced to a term of transportation overseas as indentured servants, a role that tied them to a contract of work for an owner or master.  They could be bought and sold among employers without say and they went unwaged for the duration of their service. 

They could not marry without the permission of their ‘master’, and if a woman became pregnant, the length of her contract was extended to account for the months she was off work.  The indentured were punished for perceived under performance and trespasses, and lacking the rights of a free citizen, the punishment could be severe. It was by all standards a horrific ordeal.

Early map of Cork Harbour showing Spike Island, or Enespike, which is likely a mistranslation of the Irish 'Inis Pic' or 'Inish Pich', Gaelic Irish for Spike Island. Note the tower or castle, suggesting early military fortification of the island as early as the 1600's.  This too could be runis from the earlier monastery.
A map of Cork Harbour and Spike Island, or ‘Enespike’, from the Irish ‘Inis Pic’. Believed 1600’s. The nature of the ‘castle’ or tower in unknown.

The punishment should not be confused with the outright slavery that scarred African nations around the same period, and who often labored shoulder to shoulder with the Irish. There are clear distinctions between the two – the children of Ireland’s transported did not inherit the title or sentence of indentured servant, the term of service was generally honored and was not for life, and they were sentenced to this term, and not stolen from their homes by forceful means purely for commercial purposes, to highlight a few.

Recent racist attempts at historical vandalism should not be allowed to do a disservice to either. Nor should the severity and cruelty of what befell Cromwell’s incarcerated Irish be understated.

The practice of Transportation had its origins in a 1597 law that stated rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars “shall be banished out of this realm… and shall be conveyed to such parts beyond the seas as shall be… assigned by the Privy Council”. The American colonies and Caribbean Islands were early destinations, later to be replaced by Australia and Gibraltar.

The number transported from Ireland during Cromwell’s time is often estimated as high as fifty thousand, but a figure of 10 – 15k is more likely. Even at this, it is a number that would have created significant logistical and operational challenges.

Where to hold these prisoners prior to effecting their transportation overseas? The answer it seems was Spike Island Cork, and a four century career in incarceration was about to get underway.

Spike Island Cork from the air, infinitely different from Cromwell's time 400 years earlier due to the massive building work in the following centuries.

The island was likely less a formal prison and more an informal holding area, where prisoners were held until their vessel was ready for the arduous journey across the Atlantic. Accommodation was unlikely to be comfortable – despised prisoners of war would not receive much in the way of luxury, so incarceration may have taken place outside, in pens or basic temporary roofed structures.

Noting physical of the period remains so we can only speculate as to its design – in fact only a single record points to the island being used as a holding place by Oliver Cromwell in Ireland. A poem written written in 1687 by Diarmaid Mac Seain Buidhe MacCarthaigh states;

After they had laid low their armies, in Spike Island they imprisoned thousands, without food or drink or beds, waiting for a journey to an unknown country“.

Amhrain Dhiarmada Mac Seain Bhuidhe Mac Carrthaigh. Author – Ó Donnchadha, Tadhg. 1916, Dublin, Gill Books

A single reference is concerning from a historical perspective but the assertion has merit. The island would be used as an island prison on three more occasions over the next three hundred years, highlighting the locations suitability. Cork Harbour and Cobh were ground zero for Irish transportation and emigration for over two hundred years, the perfect refuelling and loading point for epic three month voyages to the Americas or Australia.

When famine era prisoners were sent to a place where ‘a prison ship lies waiting in the bay‘, as ‘The fields of Athenry’ so famously states, it was to Cork Harbour they were heading, often to be held in Spike Island cells to await the next available transport. The location had several advantages – it had an obvious sea barrier deterrent to escape, it was a difficult location for mainland forces to arrange a jail break from, and it was right at the center of the departure location.

An image described as convicts awaiting transportation, but the lack of manacles and chains suggests a casual air to the image.
Convicts awaiting transportation.

A dramatic explosion on the island shoreline towards the late 17th century seems to reaffirm the islands early involvement in transportation.

The impressive 72-gun warship, the Breda, sat close to the island’s shoreline in 1691 with as many as 500 souls on board.  The vessel was supporting the forces engaged in ongoing struggles on the mainland.  Within its hull were 160 Jacobite prisoners, men of the Limerick and Cork Garrisons who had recently surrendered.  They were to be exchanged for English prisoners held in France, and there were certainly worse fates to be had for anyone supporting King James.

A compliment of some 340 soldiers and crew made up the remaining souls on board, but they included angry men like soldier Captain Barrett, who were frustrated to hear the prisoners were to be exchanged and freed. He reportedly set the ship on fire with the intention of burning alive the unfortunate prisoners, but the fire got so out of control it reached the gunpowder stores, and blew everyone sky high. Just seven crew escaped and not a single prisoner, making for the first mass grave in the vicinity of Spike Island.

Captain Barrett was among the survivors, and not a victim of his ploy. That prisoners were held in this way, right on the islands shoreline, does suggest the poem by Diarmaid MacCarthaigh is an accurate assertion.

The 19th century convict outfit - consisting of black frieze covering head to toe and a dramatic black mask, intended to prevent communication between convicts.   This was used in the Punishment block on Spike Island, and also in a lesser form during the first nine months incarceration at Mountjoy, which was single cell confinement.
The penal class on Spike island in the 19th century – dressed head to toe in black frieze with a hood with slits for the eyes.

It seems Spike Island began its career in incarceration as early as the mid 1600’s, a career that would span five centuries right through until 2004.

The second prison was a formal convict depot that operated from 1847 to 1883, which became the largest prison in the world for a brief period between 1852 and 1855.

A third prison held Irish Republican prisoners in 1921 as the Irish War of Independence raged, and space was needed for the 1200 Republicans that eventually filled its cells.

A final prison formally opened in 1985, initially for Ireland’s young offenders but it would welcome hardened criminals like the General, Martin Cahill. Its doors only closed in 2004, meaning prisoners walked the island just twenty years ago.

There was even time for a military prison during the later years of the island occupation by the Irish Defence Forces, who held the base from 1938 to 1985.

Spike Island has been in demand for over 1300 years, back to the time of its mysterious monastery of the 7th century.

Oliver Cromwell in Ireland and his Spike Island incarcerated prisoners of war are but another sad chapter in the long story of Ireland’s historic island.


Siochrú, Micheál Ó. God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland. s.l. : Faber and Faber, 2008.

Ó Donnchadha, Tadhg. Amhrain Dhiarmada Mac Seain Bhuidhe Mac Carrthaigh. Dublin : Gill, 1916.


Post by John Crotty - information related to upcoming release 'Spike Island - The complete history of Ireland's historic island'.  Content may be shared  with credit to author John Crotty and mention of upcoming release - or - link to page.  Full bibliography in back of book.