Home » The explosion of the gunship Breda – 1691

The explosion of the gunship Breda – 1691

Spike Island is most famously known as Ireland’s Alcatraz, as a result of the Island housing four prisons over the four centuries. The island fortress is well known in military circles as one of the largest examples of a star shaped fortress anywhere in the world. It was the island penal use that led to a dramatic event in the last 1600’s – the explosion of the gunship Breda.

In the mid 17th century, the island was associated with the operations of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland. It became a holding depot for his vanquished foes, during a violent campaign that saw many transported, sent overseas.

By the turn of the 17th century, the island was briefly in the ownership of an Arnold Joost Van Keppel, who had advanced to become Page of Honour to William of Orange around the time of his battles in Ireland. Following William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne, Van Keppel was among the beneficiaries of new lands, which included Spike Island.

The island would soon be sold to the family of William Smith of Ballymore, Cobh, making for a more familiar name in the ownership records.

Spike Island – Its shores used for holding prisoners during the 17th century

It was because of these circumstances in the late 1600’s that an event transpired off the coast of Spike Island, one that shook the island to its foundations.

The impressive 72-gun warship Breda sat close to the island’s shoreline in October, 1691, with approx 400 souls on board.  The vessel was supporting the forces engaged in the mainland struggle.  Within its hull were 160 Jacobite prisoners, men of the Limerick and Cork Garrisons who had recently surrendered. The plan was to exchange them for English prisoners held in France. 

It is possible the prisoners had been held on Spike Island at some point, if the practice begun by Cromwell decades before continued to this point. Their incarceration just off the Islands shoreline, in advance of transport overseas, lends itself to this possibility.

The island would continue to be used for transportation overseas well into the 19th century.  

A painting by John Cleveley of a 72 gun ship of the line – HMS Devonshire

A compliment of some 240 soldiers and crew made up the remaining souls on board the Breda, men like Captain Barrett.  The large vessel sat in the sleepy waters of Cork harbour one October evening, awaiting its departure. The soldiers aboard went about their sentry duty above decks, while below deck, the prisoners sat contemplating their fate.

A cry went out on deck. 


on board the ship. 

Definitely not something you want to hear when you are chained and bound in the hull of a floating firebomb. 

The prisoners heard shouts and frantic dashing to and fro, as the ship’s crew fought the blaze.  They prayed they would not be roasted alive, paradoxically rooting for their captor’s. 

Sure enough, their prayers were answered, but not in the way they had wished for.  The fire spread to the ship’s magazine and its cargo of gunpowder ignited, producing an enormous explosion so loud it echoed across Cork harbour.  The gunship was torn asunder, killing hundreds in an instant. More drowned in the cold waters. The vast majority of the crew of the Breda, and its prisoners, succumbed to a watery grave.

The particulars of the sinking of the Breda

The shocking explosion of the gunship Breda was the talk of the mainland, as the coming days brought rumours that the fire was no accident.  There were suggestions it had been set deliberately by Captain Barret, who presumably wanted to take revenge on the ships Jacobite prisoners.  News of their intended prisoner swap and subsequent freedom for his enemy may have angered him and his shipmates. 

His intention was hardly to kill the majority of his fellow soldiers and crew, and he may have envisaged a swift evacuation of the ship when the fire was reported. This would leave only the Irish prisoners on board to die. But fire is unpredictable, and the ship was quickly consumed, its dangerous gunpowder making for an explosive cargo.

If the accusation is true, then Captain Barrett must be the first and most prolific mass murderer in the annals of Spike Island. A person responsible for murdering some 160 from his enemy’s ranks, and involuntarily killing hundreds more of his own comrades.  

No motive is clear, and the rumours must be assumed to be just that, malicious tales and gossip.  The likelier explanation is that an accidental fire broke out on board, got out of hand, and reached the gunpowder, resulting in the loss of so many lives and a large military vessel.

The truth lies at the bottom of Cork Harbour.

Cork Harbour in the early 18th century, soon after the explosion of the Breda

With their conquest of Ireland complete the Williamites and their military fleets eventually moved on. Their gunships weighed anchor and set off for their next engagement.  Merchant vessels were again the dominant sight in the harbour, and this allowed another activity of the age to return to Cork harbour with gusto – that of piracy. 

Pirates would become a familiar sight and story in the region for the next one hundred years, particularly in West Cork, which became a pirate base to rival any in the world.

Read about the pirates that troubled Cork Harbour here – The pirate and smugglers of Spike Island Cork.


Brunicardi, Niall. Haulbowline, Spike and Rocky Islands. s.l. : Fermoy Eigse books, 1982

Simms, K. Danaher and J.G. The Danish force in Ireland 1690 – 1691. Dublin : Stationery Office for the Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1962.

Shipwrecks on the County Cork coast – up to 1810. https://mizenhead.ie/. [Online] Comlan OMahony & Tim Cadogan, 05 2020. [Cited: 14 April 2022.] https://mizenhead.ie/guide/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/B-19-Shipwrecks-of-the-Co.-Cork-Coast-by-Colman-OMahony-and-Tim-Cadogan.pdf.

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