Ireland won a hard fought freedom for 26 counties in 1921, as an Empire was brought to the negotiating table by brave Republicans following a bloody War of Independence. Spike Island, which had been occupied by the British military since 1779 and extensively and expensively fortified in the 19th century, would not be relinquished. This was largely down to the insistence of one man – Winston Churchill, who was on the Treaty debating team and insisted there would be no Spike Island handover.
He had visited Cork Harbour in 1912 as the then Head of the Admirality, and saw the two centuries long importance placed on the location by British Military strategists. It would be another 17 years before the retention was overturned.
The island was not specifically referenced in the Treaty document negotiated by Michael Collins and the Irish team in 1921, instead being referred to as one of three ‘Treaty Ports’.
Article Seven of the Treaty terms stated;
The Government of the Irish Free State shall afford to His Majesty’s Imperial Forces:
(a) In time of peace such harbour and other facilities as are indicated in the Annex hereto, or such other facilities as may from time to time be agreed between the British Government and the Government of the Irish Free State; and
(b) In time of war or of strained relations with a Foreign Power such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require for the purposes of such defence as aforesaid.
The annex further clarified the location that incorporated Spike Island as;
Queenstown (now Cobh)
(b) Harbour defences to remain in charge of British care and maintenance parties. Certain mooring buoys to be retained for use of His Majesty’s ships.
Spike Island remained an outpost of British Military might after 1922, a role it had served for 143 years to this point.
Britain had come to realize in World War One that smooth arrival of goods from America was intrinsic to its success in time of war, so it had to defend the Western approaches. Over one hundred and twenty military vessels operated under the Queenstown (Cobh) Command of Admiral Bayly in World War One, including thirty six American destroyers. They were employed in the fight against German submarines, writing the book on a new style of naval conflict against the emerging menace.
Just a few short years after the wars end, men like Churchill remained convinced Cork Harbour was the anchorage to conduct this defensive work. Spike Island remained a key location for defending that anchorage, centuries after the realization had first occurred, making the desire for a Spike Island handover very limited.
While the loss of the Treaty Ports and continued presence of British Troops was unpalatable to many, it was not impractical. Ireland lacked the ability to defend its coasts. The limited funds available to begin the process of building a prosperous nation were better spent elsewhere. Having a wealthy near neighbour willing to carry out mutually agreeable defensive duties was not without merit, provided those services could be dispensed with at the behest of the Irish State.
The loss of the Treaty ports paled into insignificance compared to the loss of the six counties of northern Ireland, even if in reality they had been lost before the Treaty.
In this manner, Spike Island cut a quiet figure from 1922 to 1938 as an unnecessary British Military base, save for the dramatic Cobh pier head shooting in 1924.
The island fortress remained in the hands of the South of Ireland Coastal Defense (SICD), an integral part of Britain’s Western Command. SICD primarily consisted of the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) who maintained the fort and kept its weapons battle ready. They were assisted by the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) who provided logistics and operational support, and units like the Royal Military Police (RMP) and Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).
The group enjoyed a quiet posting and were in no rush to see a Spike Island handover. With low risk of invasion immediately after World War One, there was little investment and improvement made to the harbour forts.
Almost two decades of continued British occupation on the island would pass quietly but a change was on the horizon. Eamon De Valera oversaw an angry trade war between Britain and Ireland during his time as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State from 1932. Its resolution was the Anglo-Irish trade agreement in 1938, which settled issues including Irish payments to Britain for historic land repurchases in the late 19th century.
De Valera identified the opportunity to insist on the return of the Treaty Ports to Irish ownership as part of the resolution, and in a subtle act of statecraft he succeeded in a matter that had significant consequences.
Senior British military officials advised Neville Chamberlain that the ports were unnecessary, being underfunded and in need of significant investment. From the British perspective, it could be deemed a cost saving exercise with little loss. Static coastal defenses were increasingly obsolete as Naval vessels had grown large enough to defend themselves, while aerial warfare had developed considerably.
Winston Churchill disagreed with the handover, having visited Cork Harbour in 1912 and seen with his own eyes the Treaty ports were essential in Britain’s fight to secure cargo from America, refuelling and harboring escort vessels. For him it was the additional range the outposts afforded, and he held the belief that all additional land / fortifications / refuelling opportunities had value. In reality his thinking was dated, his angry rhetoric as much political point scoring as a genuine belief that the ports were essential.
Regardless of his concerns, it was agreed that the Spike Island handover would wait no longer. Along with the other Cork Harbour forts, the island would be returned from British to Irish ownership on July 11th, 1938, with the other ports scheduled as September for Berehaven and October at Fort Dunree for Lough Swilly.
Churchill was incensed. On hearing the news he thundered to Parliament;
“When I read this agreement in the newspapers a week ago I was filled with surprise. On the face of it, we seem to give everything away and receive nothing in return… The ports in questions, Queenstown (Cobh), Berehaven and Lough Swilly, are to be handed over unconditionally, with no guarantee of any kind, as a gesture of our trust and goodwill, as the Prime Minister said to the Government of the Irish Republic…
When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922, I was instructed by Cabinet to prepare part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty. The Admiralty assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to feed this island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels... If we are denied Berehaven and Queenstown… we should stirke 400 miles from the effective radius out and home.
These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the defenses of western approaches, by which the 45 million people in this island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread… You are casting away real and important means of security and survival for vain shadows and for ease“.
Churchill declared the concessions “astonishing triumphs” for DeValera. Ireland extended its territory without a shot being fired or a single loss of life.
With war on the horizon, many in Cobh and Cork Harbour may have been spared the horrors of aerial bombardment. The return of the Treaty Ports and the Spike Island handover, with so little lost, was a shrewd act by DeValera and seen as a reversal of fortune of the terms of the Treaty sixteen years before, irrespective of the realities of their condition.
For all Churchill’s thundering, the advice to Chamberlain was relatively sound. The ports had limited use in the theater of modern warfare and would have further stretched Britain’s limited resources. Later in World War Two, all shipping was routed north of Ireland. The world and military tactics had changed since Cork Harbor’s heyday as a port of global military significance, in the 18th and 19th century.
The return of all the Treaty Ports was important, but the symbolism of the Spike Island handover was deeply powerful. This was the island the British had fortified in unparalleled efforts to defend their Empire. When the job was done, that same island became the largest prison in Irish and British history, imprisoning a nation and holding Fenian rebels who fought against British rule.
Those rebels included John Mitchel, the man whom the future successful generation of Irish freedom fighters, including DeValera, cited as an influential figure in their Republican beliefs.
The fort which started construction in 1804 was finished during the 1850’s and 60’s by Irish convict labour – the very same rebels that would demolish it in the cause of Irish freedom. They were instead forced to improve the very fabric of the Empire that enslaved them.
As if this symbolism was not sufficient, the memory of the 1921 Republican Prison on Spike Island was remarkably fresh for an entire generation of Republicans. Many serving members of government and senior civil servant roles were occupied by those who had spent time in Spike Island’s cells.
When combined, all these factors made the return of the island a deeply symbolic and patriotic occasion.
There was another auspicious connection, seemingly by coincidence. The date chosen for the Spike Island handover, 11th July 1938, marked exactly seventeen years to the day of the announcement of the truce between Ireland and Britain in 1921. Many considered it the day a vastly outnumbered Ireland brought a brutal oppressor to the point of negotiation and capitulation. The day an Empire showed a reluctant acceptance that the Irish spirit for freedom could not be extinguished, so had to be accepted and endured.
It was a day no Irish Republican would ever forget, and the return to Irish ownership of Spike Island, 159 years after the British military first arrived and seventeen years to the day from that truce, would be a celebratory, solemn and State affair.
So it transpired when Eamon DeValera made arrangements with several leading government figures to attend the Spike Island handover. He travelled with several current Ministers, Senators and ex-IRA leaders, including Oscar Traynor, Kevin Boland and a man very familiar with Spike Island – James ‘Jim’ Ryan, who had time in Spike Island prison cells in 1921.
Also part of the group was Frank Aiken, then Minister for Defence and former combatant in the Irish War of Independence who had become IRA Chief of Staff after Liam Lynches death in 1923. DeValera had met Aiken when he was just nineteen, riding dispatches for Austin Stack in 1917, a year after Stack was held on Spike Island for his efforts to land arms aboard the gunrunning ship the Aud.
The group traveled from Dublin and were welcomed at every station they passed, before arriving to Cobh where they inspected the gathered troops prior to departure for Spike. The dignitaries could not have missed the swelling crowds that the military struggled to contain. Packed cars and trains continued to arrive until 40000 swelled the town of Cobh, there to see the Spike Island handover and recognize the significance of the occasion.
The broadcasting of the event on State radio did not dampen the desire to attend in person.
It was interesting that De Valera did not travel to the island until after the military handover. It was said he refused to travel until every British representative had departed the former island prison– a relic perhaps of his own time in British prisons, and representative of the feeling of the group that accompanied him.
In this way, he was not present when the British flag was lowered and the Irish flag raised for the first time* in what was a purely military ceremony, with no government involvement. De Valera would travel later and raise the flag on his own, and Ireland’s, terms.
In De Valera’s absence, first to arrive on the island and the man to receive the handover was then Colonel, later Major Paddy Maher, who was Director Artillery in the Irish Army at the time. He had played a significant role in the handover negotiations and would become the first ever assigned Irish commander of Spike Island’s fortress. He later moved his family to the island where his son Brendan experienced an island upbringing during the Second World War.
He travelled with around three hundred troops from Cobh, meeting the British troops and shaking the hand of British Army Captain O’Halloran, himself an Irishman. Formalities began at 6.20pm, and while extensive BBC Pathe footage exists of the British and Irish troops in Cobh, and there are extensive Cork Examiner images of the event, there is no single image or clip of the British flag being lowered.
Fortunately, over forty seven years after the event in 1985, RTE conducted an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Jack Griffin, who was part of the military detachment at the Spike Island handover in 1938. He recalled an extraordinary encounter unfolding when a British Sergeant broke with protocol, and was met with the unexpected response of having the Irish language roared back at him;
“The Union Jack was taken down – we saluted that Union Jack been taken down, all our party saluted the Union Jack been taken down. Bugles blowing, and all that stuff. The next thing was, the Tri-colour went up, all saluted. Now the Tri-Colour stayed there. Compliments were rendered again by the two batteries, and the British battery turned and marched out the gate. We stayed to present arms as they marched out. Now that was the official… military take over – the fort was now the property of our Ministry of Defence. All protocol was observed.
The next thing happened was, as you know, in every barracks there is a guard mounted all the time. Well the guard in this case was still in position, and the guard consisted of two NCO’s, a sergeant, a corporal and six men. We produced a sergeant, a corporal and six men… They stand facing one another in the guard room. The off going guard commander shouts out his orders – he has about twenty orders in all. He shouts them out at the top of his voice – every soldier in the world after he is in the army for three months, he has these things down by heart. Its years since I learned them, but I still know them off by heart.
To our amazement, we were watching this, because this was the last act, and we could all watch – this was our six actors on the stage, against their six actors. And the next thing was, there was a screech the like I never heard in all my life. It was a Cockney Sergeant, shouting out his orders at the top of his voice – but he got put back in his box. Because, you shout one order to me, I repeat that order, and the next thing came back, the finest of Aran Irish, at the top of a louder voice. It was from our Sergeant MulKerns – God rest him, he’s dead since – he was an NCO from the Gaeltacht – and by God above he put that Cockney guard back in his box.
But it made no difference… in all probability, MulKerns didn’t know what the Cockney was saying, but he knew what he should be saying. Now the Cockney certainly didn’t know what Mulkerns was saying, but he knew what he should be saying. So all protocol went out…. down the Ten Commandments. Anyway, they saluted one another, and the British guard marched off… off they went to get the quarterly transport… operated by the Royal Army service corps, and went out to join the destroyer”.
Speaking the Irish language could have earned an Irish man time in the prisons solitary cells back in the days of Spike’s 19th century prison – not today on Ireland’s youngest island, as several hundred years of Irish occupation erupted from the mouth of Sergeant MulKerns. The British troops departed and the scene was set for De Valera and company to travel to the island.
The moment they arrived and met Major Maher on the pier, a nineteen gun salute echoed around the harbour. A camera captured the scene as they set off for the fort, the image showing a determined looking De Valera marching between a military guard of honour. Major Maher inspects his watch, a military man concerned by formality and precision. The time chosen was 8pm, and he would not miss it.
As the flag was raised over Spike Island, the Irish Military Band played a soldier song, some three hundred Irish troops saluted and the guns of Spike Island thundered once again. DeValera made no grand speech at the Spike Island handover, letting the sound of the national anthem and cheering crowds herald the event.
Later that evening he voiced his feelings on the historic occasion when he opened a volunteer hall in nearby Midleton.
He said he did not propose to make a speech, because “anything he could say would only detract from the meaning and significance of what had been done that day“.
“That”, he espoused, “must be apparent to everybody”.
He did recite a prayer to the gathered crowd, as was his way;
“What I do wish to say is this – I wish on behalf of the living generation to thank almighty God that in our time, that he has seen fit to reward the sacrifices and efforts of the past, and to pray that he may be willing in our time also to see brought to a final success, the efforts of those who preceded us, to restore unity to our country and bring the whole of this island again into the possession of the Irish people”.
At the same moment the flag was raised on Spike Island, the tri-colour was simultaneously raised at sites across the country – over the water at Fort Camden in Crosshaven, which was being returned alongside its opposite Fort Carlisle. At sites in Dublin and the Curragh, County Kildare, home to the Irish Military. It was also raised in Cobh where the action of the flag raising on Spike elicited an eruption of cheering from the crowd of forty thousand that shook the town to its foundations.
The celebrations were wild and Cobh did not sleep that night. Fireworks lit up the sky after the official party had departed, and bonfires dotted the Cork coastline as groups met and sang national songs.
Among the celebrating masses in Cobh there to enjoy the Spike Island handover was a young unnamed Cork woman, for whom we only have a return address, who was moved to write a letter the following day that wonderfully captures the joy the occasion brought those attending, relayed here unedited and in full;
Dear Poli, 12/07/1938
You needn’t bother answering this letter now but I thought I would write and tell you all about the forts while it is all still fresh in my memory, not of course that I could ever forget it as long as I live.
Well I’ll begin at the beginning. I had my mind made up not to go to Cóbh at all but to listen to it on the air, but as I was coming thro’ town and saw all the flags flying and all the Guards around the Hotel my Irish blood rose, and I got the urge to follow the crowd to Cóbh, so when I got home I coaxed Popa Long to come with me and we got the 7.15 bus to Cóbh and just as we reached “The Beach” the “Joise-de-joie” (or what ever they call it) was fired and we jumped out of the bus and ran in along thro the gate and just as we got in the Tricolour creapt up the flagstaff in Spike Island. And in all my life I never before felt anything like the sensation I got when that flag went up.
All the crowd (40,000 people in Cobh) roared as loud as their lungs could go, they jumped, clapped and waved their hats, even as I think of it I could still break my heart crying. I was grand. The pipers on the mainland then played the National Anthem and there was no more to be seen then only the flag flying over the harbour. There was just a lovely breeze there and it used allow the flag to open its folds and then it would lift up itself and wave! By this of course the other forts had their flags flying too-but they are not to be seen from Cóbh.
However there was a boat going out around the forts and off we went on that. We went out past Spike and could see the soldiers putting the field guns in to the moate etc. Such a welcome change for Spike then we could see the two flags on the forts and as we got nearer you could clearly see the green, white & orange in them. Just as we were passing Spike Island on our way back soldiers came out and took down the flag for the night. So we saw it going up and coming down for the first time. That was at 9 o clock to the dot it came down and also the other two forts came at the same moment.
Almost at once Dev’s launch came to Cóbh and we really thought somebody would be drowned before the night was out. The people just roared and clapped themselves into a frenzy over time. He went on to Midleton then and we came home. I got home about 11 oclock and rushed into my light frock and off with Ina and myself to the Victory Ceilidhe in Arcadia. We got a lovely seat just opposite the bandstand and when the poor man did come I thought the crowd would tear every stitch off him. Vivion was with him in uniform and also Rory a young fellow of about 16 years. A lovely child. Also Devs Aide-de-Comp a nice man. I never saw anything like the reception he got and he smiling all over like a cat in a tripe shop. He made a small speech and fled.
The whole day was the most exciting, interesting and thrilling day ever spent in all my life. On Cobh people just hugged themselves and everybody else, and shook hands all round with each other. The greatest triumph of the day was to see the Tricolour flying over the “Royal Cork Yacht Club”. Seamus Fitzgerald ordered of Mr Daly that it should be flown and the latter said he didn’t want any trouble so he would fly it and one ould so and so resigned because of it. I saw it with my own eyes and it brand new and all the other ones were dirty and old. Great satisfaction this.
I’ll close now but we must go to Crosshaven some night”
As well as the state organised occasions and the public outpouring in Cobh, informal celebrations took place across the country, as far away as Derry and Belfast. The Derry Journal recorded;
“to celebrate the taking over of Spike Island by the Irish troops, the National flag was flown from the Garda barracks and private homes of Glenties”.
Bonfires erupted on the Falls Road in Belfast, as the length and breadth of the country rejoiced in its own way. It was and remains an occasion to rank among the greatest in modern Irish history. For those who had taken part in the revolutionary period twenty years previous, and a generation too young to be involved in its triumphs, it was a cause for national celebration, in a nation that had not yet had much to celebrate.
Every newspaper in Ireland and many British and international publications carried the story, with the Derry Journal summarizing the Spike Island handover;
“Another fortress of British Power has been quietly surrendered to the Irish nation. Another, and vitally important, piece of Irish territory has been regained for Ireland”.
The day is remembered annually on Spike Island with fireworks and special tours, with recent key anniversaries receiving State visits from sitting Taoiseach who follow in the footsteps of the legions of the Irish freedom fighters that went before them. They remember a day when Ireland grew just a little larger in size, but infinitely larger in stature. A dedicated section of the islands ‘Independence‘ museum marks the moment the flag was raised for the first time.
The Irish Army took the place of British troops after their departure, a position they occupied for 41 years until the Irish Naval Service took over the island fortress from 1979 to 1985.
For the delighted attendees of the handover in 1938, the reasons for celebration were clear, but few could have envisaged how future events made the event even more fortuitous. Just fourteen months after the handover date on September 01st, 1939, Hitler’s armies rolled into Poland sparking the outbreak of World War Two.
Not long after, an aerial bombing campaign decimated much of mainland Britain and northern Ireland – even Dublin and Irish shipping did not escape, the victim of ‘accidental’ air raids that some saw as warnings to the Irish Government to maintain its neutral stance.
Had Spike Island not been returned to Ireland, and Cork Harbour remained a remote British outpost with little anti-aircraft defenses, its distance from the protection of the RAF could have seen a severe and dramatic example made to mainland Ireland and Britain. A port of pride for Winston Churchill could have been a source of despair for Irish interests, and there might be no Spike Island to hand over had it remained a legitimate target for the Luftwaffe.
The beautiful town of Cobh across the water could have easily fallen victim to a superpower keen to make examples. In fact Cork Harbour was cited as a target for a German invasion of Ireland, Operation Green, which was diversionary in nature and secondary to the invasion of Russia, but had to be taken seriously.
The importance of the return of Spike Island, and the lucky escape the occasion meant for Cork Harbour, make for another stunning chapter in the long history of Ireland’s historic island.
Churchill would again thunder in 1940 regarding the impact of the loss of the Treaty Ports including Spike Island, and repeat the complaint again at the wars end. His assertions were seemingly based on his own agenda of punishing Ireland and DeValera for the decision on Irish neutrality.
A report prepared for Frank Aiken in 1941 showed in detail why the return of the ports was not intrinsic to Britain’s efforts in World War two, but Churchill had found a useful excuse for British military failures to that point, and after the war it remained an opportunity to thrash at DeValera and Irish neutrality.
Spike Island instead remained silent during the Emergency years, manned by the Irish Army who stood ready to repel a German or British invasion. A 37 year occupation by the Irish Defence Forces had begun, before a third prison incarnation began operation from 1985 to 2004.
In the Spike Island handover, a young nation grew just a little larger, and stood just a little taller. It was a day of national celebration that all present would never forget.
See the BBC’s coverage of the event via Pathe footage here – https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVADTWSXI1S5B3WTE1YKTWEI0MB7-SPIKE-ISLAND-AND-CORK-HARBOUR-DEFENCES-HANDED-BACK-OVER-TO-IRISH/query/wildcard
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING
Journal of the Royal Army Service corps – July, 1924 – National Archives UK
House of Commons debates – 05th May, 1938 – Winston Churchill
1938 Handover pamphlet – Spike Island handover – Care of Spike Island Museum
Jack Griffin Interview – Union Jack replaced by Tri-colour – 1985 – RTE Archives
Dwyer, T.Ryle – Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality during World War II – 2010 – Gill and McMillan
Frontier Sentinel – 16th July 1938 – British Troops evacuate Spike Island
New Ross Standard – 15th July, 1938 – Taking over Spike Island – another chapter written
Ireland, 1945–79: The Thomas Davis Lectures – S1 – JJ Lee – 1979 – Gil and McMillan
Derry Journal – 15th July 1938 – Glenties notes.
Derry Journal – 13th July 1938 – Union Jack hauled down at Spike Island
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.