Spike Island opened as a prison for the fourth time in 400 years in 1985, following its use as a Republican prison in 1921, the largest prison in the world in the mid-1800’s and a holding depot for Oliver Cromwell’s prisoners of war in the 1600’s. At the time, no one could foresee it would become famous for the Spike Island riot.
As with the previous prisons, it was in response to an emergency situation. The crime of joyriding, stealing a car to drive it at speed for kicks, was endemic, resulting in more arrests and convictions than the mainland jails could handle.
The fortress had been in use by the Irish Army and Navy since the islands handover from Britain in 1938, making it ill equipped for the transformation to prison use. Dorms that had held Naval cadets just months before were hastily converted into prison cells, with inadequate security like ‘shed doors’ with a single lock expected to restrain up to sixteen men.
The Prison Service personnel complained long and loud about the situation, to no avail.
Equally concerning was the type of prisoner being sent to the island. The island was supposed to function as an ‘open’ prison, where inmates could walk around the vast expanse of the inner fortress and outer island unrestrained. This would require model prisoners who would not abuse the situation. Instead, mainland prisons took to the opportunity to offload their worst offenders to the island.
Former prisoner Michael recalls getting up to mischief in an interview with Peter Mulryan for RTE documentaries on One about the riot, the excellent Spike Island – spontaneous madness (link below).
“We would go around the island in a tractor getting hay… and we’d be booting around corners and we’d be falling off. Then we’d be messing around in the forts gun turrets, you know. It was a bit of an adventure down there really”
On the opposite side of the line to Michael stood prison officers like John Cuffe, who recalled his time on Spike Island in his book ‘Inside the Monkey House, my time as an Irish prison officer’. It was an unenviable position – John was one of the few experienced officers tasked with looking after a large group of trouble makers.
There were signs in the early months of the problems to come. An escape of six inmates from the island using workmens rafts drew criticism. The group were drunk on illegal home brewed alcohol called hooch. They simply strolled casually out of the prison complex and used the untied boats.
Reports in the media that there were just four prison officers on duty to manage the fifty-six prisoners raised concerns, as did news that one escapee was serving eight years, far beyond the criteria of low security prisoners supposed to be on the island.
The volcano blows…
The volcano blew its top on August 31st, 1985. Though the events of the night had been building up for months, the spark as reported by prisoner Michael was a theft of money from a safe located in the administration block.
The response of the prison guards was to toss the cells, rudely trashing the bunks and personal belongings of the prisoners. Returning to the unexpected mess, most of men did not know what the search was about, save for the small guilty party.
The mood became incendiary. Hell was coming to arrive on Ireland’s Alcatraz.
Prisoners in dorm five on Michael’s floor managed to break out of their makeshift cell around 11.30pm.
“We got out. There was about five of us hopping off the door, there was about three locks on it. We really had to hop off it for a while, and there was a fella outside the door trying to break the lock when it actually popped. He was knocked out cold, he was on the ground for about ten minutes”Prisoner Michael – https://www.rte.ie/culture/2022/1005/1327272-documentary-on-one-prison-riot-on-spike-island/
As many as sixteen inmates were now roaming the corridors, quickly outnumbering the guards as they opened other inmates cells.
Once they were outside of the cells, confrontations ensued with the guards. The prisoners began to form up into one large group and barricaded themselves into the ground floor area. They were prepared to defend it with violence.
Suddenly an island of jokes and games was all fury and froth. The level of violence shocked the prison officers.
As they stood outside considering their limited options, one spotted the worst sight an officer can see. A menacing red glow coming through the window, ebbing in taunting waves.
The block in which the prisoners were held, A block, had been constructed around 1804, first holding soldiers then prisoners in its early decades. It would soon become a smoking ruin, it walls standing but interior gutted.
The prisoners saw the danger and moved outside, roaming from block to block. Fires were started in each building, including the records room, governors office and prison officers changing rooms.
The escapees worked their way around the prison perimeter until they reached the ‘Punishment block’, an 1860’s built area intended for solitary confinement. Here, things took another deadly turn.
The prisoners found the maintenance stores, filled with scythes, pitchforks, cutting tools and petrol for lawnmowers. Suddenly over 100 inmates were heavily armed with weapons and petrol bombs.
They made their way to the fort entrance where the prison guards, approximately ten, faced off against the 100 strong mob. They beat their batons on their riot shields in an effort to scare them back, hoping to contain the riot inside the prison.
They had noble intentions. Just a few hundred feet outside the prison walls, families slept in their beds. Spike Island was still home to a dwindling social population, in an island community that could trace its roots back to the early 19th century.
Children who played outside the prison walls by day were now in danger.
The prisons officers bravely stood their ground, but the sight of a well armed mob approaching in force prompted the only decision possible. They retreated to a safe room, where they could barricade themselves inside and hope no one broke through.
The prison officers were in for a long night. They had bought as much time as they could for the unknowing residents, but now nothing stood between the island village and danger.
Escape from Spike Island
The island residents were aware of the commotion in the fort and had already begun making their way to the ferry. Some were already on board the boat, with a mixture of residents and prison service personnel. Others were making their way to the ferry when the unthinkable happened – a large group of prisoners rounded the corner.
Terrified residents began to run for their lives. Some made it. Others had to suffer the awful sight of the boat pulling away, its Captain faced with the awful dilemma of leaving residents to their fate.
Under pressure from the prison authorities on the boat, it was the correct and only call. The prisoners anger was with the prison personnel. If they got on board the boat, heavily armed and agitated, it could have been a massacre. The boat Captain and authorities had to gamble that the prisoners had no ill will towards the residents.
The islanders would have to fend for themselves.
Prisoner Michael was among the group arriving at the pier. He recalled the fear in residents eyes, not something he was proud of later as it was not his or any prisoners intention to upset civilians.
Screaming and crying, they thought we were going to murder them. They were terrified watching us come around the corner in balaclavas, with pickaxes, scythes, you name it, there was serious weapons there… You could see the fear in themRTE Docs on One – Spontaneous madness – Peter Mulryan
A compromise was reached with an island resident for safe passage of the residents to their homes. The island resident doing the negotiating hid a secret – he had been a prisoner in Cork Prison until recently, and knew some of the Spike inmates. The prisoners were quick to relax when they spotted a familiar face. There was no objection to allowing the families to head to a safe house.
“They made a passageway for the people on the island to walk through. Fair play to the prisoners that that arrangement was came to, and we were given a safe house for everyone to stay in for a long time.”Resident Peter Cullen interviewed by RTE – Now viewable at RTE Archives – Spike Island Prison Riot, originally August 1985 – https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21198876-spike-island-prison-riot/
As the boat had departed the island, the prisoners were now trapped. It would have taken a brave swimmer to risk the crossing by night, as the advantages of a prison island came into play. They were unsure what to do next. The prison and fortress blazed behind them, but the lights of Cobh and freedom seemed far removed.
Their next move was decided for them when they realized the ferry was looking to return, heavily loaded with now alerted authorities. The prisoners decided to prevent it landing, making for a spectacular defence. On approaching the dock, a hail of petrol bombs lit up the Cork Harbour sky, forcing the boat to remain at sea. It was clear the prisoners were not done yet. They eventually relinquished their position when a rumor spread among them.
The prisoners knew they were just hundreds of feet from Haulbowline Island, the main base of the Irish Naval Service. They feared the arrival of well trained and heavily armed special forces. A sighting of men landing at the rear of the island seemed to confirm their fears. They beat a hasty retreat, unaware it was actually members of the regular Garda arriving, trying to ascertain the situation.
The prisoners worked their way up to hill back to the prison they had just escaped from, and in perhaps the only example of its kind in history, they tried to break back into the prison they had just escaped from. The prison officers had been busy in their absence, barricading the forts entrance doors. The prisoners, with no other options, were determined.
The battle for Fort Mitchel was underway, and it raged for an hour.
The battle for Fort Mitchel
The prisoners hurled themselves against the doors and hacked with their makeshift weapons, to no avail. The prison officers used power hoses and sheer force to brace the doors. Realizing they needed something more substantial to breech the gates, the prisoners found a useful weapon. A JCB digger was being used for prison works and parked outside the fort, out of reach of the prisoners each night. Except for this night.
They hot wired the vehicle and turned it into a lethal battering ram, hurtling it at the forts gates. The sound echoed around the ancient fort entrance, built in 1804 to deter invading French armies, but instead deterring a very different foe.
Prisoner Michael recalled the pitched battle:
We drove through the first gate. We couldn’t get through the second gate because the officers had put a lorry up against the gate.
They had power hoses, they were trying to keep us out, and we were trying to break in. There was a real pitched battle went on for an hour there”.Prisoner Michael – RTE Docs on One – Spike Island, Spontaneous Madness – Peter Mulryan
They eventually broke their way in, the situation too dangerous for the prison officers to sustain as weapons and vehicles were used against them. They were forced to retreat to the safety of a room once again, as the prisoners retook the fort.
The rioters made their way to an elevated position where they could face the anticipated arrival of reinforcements. They climbed on top of the roof of the Mitchel Hall building, a striking ornate facade built in the 1850’s which held prison officers, soldiers and even prisoners during its life time.
Here they waited for the battle to come, but the reinforcements had other ideas. Rather than risk certain injury or even death, the authorities decided to wait out the prisoners. Without food and in an exposed and elevated position, they reasoned they would not last long before growing tired.
A stand off ensued, as Television helicopters whirled overhead and Naval vessels plied the surrounding waters. The Irish Army and police forces descended en masse.
It was like Apocalypse Now, or a mini-Dunkirk
Among the arrivals was Prison Officer John Cuffe, who had worked on the island until his shift ended the evening before. He set off to his accommodation in Cobh, unaware the riot was erupting before be made it to bed. He awoke shocked to hear the radio announcing a riot on Spike Island, which he left barely eight hours before. The phone lines had been cut on the island soon after the riot erupted. He received no call to alert him, as was supposed to be the process.
He jumped from his bedroom and raced towards the ferry pier as police and army vehicles tore past. He could see the distant glow of the fires on the island, but when he turned a corner which afforded a full view of the island, the full extent of the extraordinary scene unfolded.
“I am not overhyping this when I say it, it was like Apocalypse Now… there’s a scene in it where everything is on fire in the jungle. Jesus I said, I wasn’t dreaming.
It was a mini-Dunkirk, there was boats going in and going out, Garda everywhere”.John Cuffe – Inside the Monkey House – Collins Press
The fires from several of the forts buildings lit up the darkness of the surrounding Harbour. John arrived to the island to find a matching scene of devastation.
“Spike resembled a battle site. Rocks, stones, smashed timber, broken glass and debris were strewn everywhere.John Cuffe – Inside the Monkey House – Collins Press
John headed to the fort where he found the ten or so prison officers he had said goodbye to as they started their overnight shift. They were in a bad way. Each had endured hours of pitched battles against armed prisoners.
He saw the long stare in their exhausted eyes, recalling a night that would remain with them forever.
Looking at the back of one of their helmets, John saw a deep gash. He pointed it out and was told the story of how the guard had been bracing one side of a wooden door, when a scythe came crashing through, catching the back of his helmet. The guard knew it had caught his helmet but had no idea it had broken through, less than an inch from his skull.
That noone was dead or seriously injured was a miracle.
The sun rose on the extraordinary scene and hours passed as the authorities waited. A detachment of armed military soldiers arrived and marched to the top of the hill, but they were told they were not needed and they marched away again. It was the right call. Firearms only increased the risk of fatalities, which miraculously had been avoided to this point.
Eventually, the tactic paid off. Some of the prisoners came down in dribs and drabs, hungry and fed up. Yet by late afternoon the next day a large determined group remained. It took the most powerful force of nature to bring an end to the Spike Island riot – the Irish mammy.
Mum to the rescue
News of the riot was everywhere the following morning. RTE bulletins flashed updates and showed images of an island on fire. Radios screeched the shocking story line.
Some of the listeners were the families of the men held on Spike Island, and in yet another example of lax security, they managed to get a boat to the island.
One mother made her way to the side of the prison which afforded a view of the prisoners on the roof. Who did she spot but her own son, shouting obscenities at the authorities. She quickly turned to obscenities herself, screaming at her son to get down from the roof immediately.
The embarrassed son could only shy away, eliciting a laugh from Michael and his fellow rioters. When the son began to make his way down, the rest followed, bringing an odd end a night of mayhem.
The riot over, the recriminations could begin. The Prison Service senior staff were slammed from all angles for their failure to heed the many warnings of the Irish Prison Service Union, their own staff and others.
Despite clear negligence, no one was charged with failure of any kind.
The prison officers who served that night, and whose brave stand against a vastly larger force bought time for residents and colleagues, were never recognized. No counselling was offered, no recognition forthcoming. They just had to get on with dealing with the long night be themselves.
Some prisoners were sent to other locations, while many remained to see the location get an injection of money to convert its former fortress accommodation into proper prison cells. Things did get better, even to the point of talks of a ‘super prison’ being opened on the island around 2003. It fortunately did not happen, and the prison closed entirely in 2004 after 19 years.
The prison and riot left behind a sad legacy. The beautiful A block, which housed the prisoners on that fateful night, was left a burned out shell. It had stood tall for nearly two hundred years, having first held British soldiers, then famine era prisoners, then more British and even Irish military personnel. It still stands today, beaten but unbowed, its burnt timbers and collapsed floors telling their own story.
The prisons closure did lead to the island becoming a stellar tourist attraction, one of the highest rated days out in Ireland today. Visitors can see the modern cells that were built in the wake of the riot of 1985. There is also a prison riot exhibition, showing footage and artifacts from the night.
It is a night in Irish penal history unparalleled in its intensity, one that anyone present will never forget.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
Mulryan, Peter. Spike Island – spontaneous madness. [RTE docs on one] s.l. : RTE Documentaries, 2022.
Cuffe, John. Inside the monkey house. s.l. : Collins Press, 2017.
Rogan, Mary. Prison Policy in Ireland: Politics, Penal-welfarism and political . 2011.
Prison Policy in Times of Austerity: Lessons from Ireland. Rogan, Mary. May, Dublin : Technological University Dublin, 2013, Vol. Prison Service Journal.
Report, Prison Officers Association. letter dated 24th September, 1985 from General Secretary, Prison Officers’ Association to the Clerk to the Committee. s.l. : Oireachtas.ie, 1985. http://archive.oireachtas.ie/1986/APPENDIX_13081986_3.html.
Cork Alcatraz Reinstated. RTE Archives. [Online] RTE, March 22, 1985. https://www.rte.ie/archives/2020/0304/1120228-spike-island-a-prison-again/.
Association, Prison Officers. Meeting minutes – 09041985 – Fort Mitchel – POA and Dept of Justice attending. s.l. : POA via Oireachtas report, Sept 1986, 1985.
Archives, Available on RTE. Spike Island escapees caught. RTE archives, 1985.
Archives, availalbe via RTE. Spike Island prison escape. RTE archives, 1985.
Spike Island prison riot exhibition opens 30 years after ‘mob rule just took over’. https://www.irishexaminer.com/. [Online] Irish Examiner – Sean O’Riordan, Sept 02, 2015. https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-20351455.html.
Ass, Brian McCabe – Assistant General Secretary – Garda Rep. Report on Prison Breakout Riot at Fort Mitchel Prison. s.l. : Oireachtas.ie Committee reports, 1985. Report 11.
Dawson, Kevin. Mountjoy Prison breakout statement. Sunday Tribune. 14th Sept, 1986.
Aarchives, RTE – via online. Spike Island riots – Gordon Cullen interviewed. RTE archives, 1985.
RTE, Charlie Bird -. Spike Island Prison riots. s.l. : https://www.rte.ie/archives/2020/0813/1158982-spike-island-riots/, 1985.