Spike Island Cork is an unparalleled repository of Irish history. Nowhere else on Irish soil, and very few sites worldwide, can claim the same depth and breadth of historical endeavour. Fewer sites still are fortunate enough to have that history still intact, tangible in the form of Victorian era prison cells, epic 18th century military fortifications and centuries old social housing.
There is a darker side to the history of this island that is not shared with day visitors. Only those who have braved the island on one of its ‘After Dark’ tours will know this past. It is a history of vicious murders, mass graves, paranormal sightings and ghostly goings on.
Since the island opened to the public in 2016, after its final prisoners left in 2004, dozens of sightings have been reported. Some have even been photographed, and you can see those photographs in this article.
Ghost hunters and paranormal teams from all over the world have visited the site as its fame spreads, from American duo Sam and Colby to Television behemoths the Discovery Channel. Have a read for yourself and judge the validity of the stories surrounding the ghosts and paranormal activity of Spike Island Cork.
For those of you who do not know the island, a brief summary is useful. The island has an ancient history that includes a Monastery in the 7th century. It was a place of mystical monks and remote worship, where the walls heard ten thousands prayers over the many centuries the monks lived there.
Leap forward one thousand years through Irish history, and the first of three prisons arrived on the island. This first incarnation in the 1600’s was more a holding depot for prisoners of war than a formal prison, as Irish prisoners were sent to the Caribbean Islands and early American Colonies by Britain’s ruthless Oliver Cromwell.
What followed in the 18th century was a furious period of military endeavour, as France threatened British security. The first of three military fortifications was constructed in 1779 as Britain fought in the American War of Independence. The surrounding Harbour of Cork was a vital British supply line, critical to war efforts. By the time a third fort was started in 1804 the same concerns remained, and were perhaps even more pressing, as Napoleon rampaged across Europe. The motivation was there to create a military behemoth, one which still stands tall to this day.
The fort, now known as Fort Mitchel, is twenty-four acres in size, able to fit two modern sports stadiums neatly within its walls and is nearly as large as the Pentagon. It cost billions in modern terms to construct and is very likely the largest military structure in Ireland and Britain, and the most expensive building in Irish history. The British Army would occupy the island from 1779 to 1938 and later the Irish Defence Forces.
During their time, strange stories abound. There is a record of a British solider firing at a phantom ghost, a figure in military uniform that is reported several times, earning the nickname ‘the gaunt gunner‘. Ask the locals who this could be, and they will point to one of the several suicides by British service personnel between the late 1800’s and early 20th century. While suicide is a tragedy pervading all walks of life, the island seems to have had more than its fair share.
In the mid-19th century another truly epic undertaking arrived on the island, and it is from this undertaking that most paranormal activity is associated with the island. A prison was opened during the desperate Irish famine, and that prison quickly expanded to become the largest prison in the world at the time. In fact it is still the largest formal prison that has ever existed in Irish or British history.
Prisoners were held in every available building in some truly horrific conditions, with new buildings added like an Iron Prison and a Timber Prison. In 1858 work started on the ‘Punishment Block’, a horrific space of 28 dark and cold solitary cells. Inmates were kept chained to the wall by their neck and hands, and had to wear a black frieze outfit covering them head to toe, including a hood hiding the face with slits for the eyes.
Before this, the solitary cells were at the back of a series of cavernous tunnels, deep underground beneath the forts walls where no light penetrated. The prison earned the title ‘Ireland’s hell’ in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and it was cursed by all who heard the name.
Over 2400 inmates were crammed inside the prison at its height, and the death rate was appalling. The cramped conditions and high number of dangerous inmates led to 12% dying in the worst year for fatalities. Today, two mass graves dot the island – one of 300 souls, and another much large with between 900 – 1000 souls, lying in unmarked graves. They were victims of a cruel time and place, and the period is a dark chapter in the history of Britain’s occupation of Ireland.
It is little wonder then, that there are stories of ghosts and paranormal activity at Spike Island.
Amazingly, two more prisons would follow the Victorian era prison. One opened in 1921 for Irish Republicans who were fighting Britain in a bloody and ultimately successful War of Independence, and another opened in 1985 which did not close its doors until as recently as 2004. Less than twenty years ago, prisoners were walking the corridors and occupying the island cells.
There were even some famous inmates – The General, Martin Cahill, is probably Ireland’s most notorious 20th century criminal, responsible for high profile crimes.
Adding to this incredible military and penal history, there are centuries of social life on the island – residents who were the families of the soldiers or prison officers, allowed to live a unique island family life. At its largest, over three hundred people called the island home. There were cottages, a church, a school and pop up industries – all the making of quaint Irish social life.
All in all, with this huge history it is no surprise that Spike Island is called Ireland’s historic island.
With such a dark past, it is also no surprise that the island has gained a reputation as the most haunted location in Ireland, with several visitor sightings and experiences since it opened to the public in 2016.
Residents who have lived on the island have seen things they cannot explain, going right back to the time when the British occupied the island. The aforementioned story of the ‘gaunt gunner’, the ghostly figure of a British solider, was sighted on at least three separate occasions across the decades – this Discovery Channel production ‘Legendary Locations’ plays out one of those scenes;
In modern times, visitors have photographed strange things. Like the occasion when photographer Shea Wolfe snapped this image in an empty cell while attending a start-up business event on the island in 2016.
Shea had his own camera with him, a high-end model he uses regularly. He was touring the prison cells of an area notorious for activity – the A / B class main cells, which was used to hold prisoners in the 19th century, 1921 and in the late 20th century. Standing in an empty cell, he took a photograph, but initially noticed noting unusual.
It was only later when he looked back, he saw the image looked like this;
There is no obvious explanation for the strange shape that Shea captured. There was no one there to cast a shadow, and nobody in the way of the lights. Some have commented to say it has the shape of a monk with a distinctive hood. It is just one of several examples of the ghosts and paranormal activity of spike island in this particular cell block.
Even a former prison guard has a story to tell.
He was working in the prison during the 1980’s and 1990’s when a truly troubled individual was incarcerated there. This individual would later be released and go on to commit a horrific triple murder.
While incarcerated, the future murderer complained often of being visited by a ‘black entity‘ in his cell. The prison officer thought no more of these reports at the time, correctly assessing he was dealing with a troubled individual. The eventual release and awful crime the man would commit suggests he was not given the care he truly needed.
This is not the first or last case at Spike Island where there was a failure to address the real issues behind an individual’s crime.
Another visitor who had an experience was on one of the islands ‘After Dark’ tours in 2018, which are a popular way to visit the island. Instead of the tour by day, with its necessarily sanitized content suited to families, the adults only night tour can take visitors on a fully guided experience through the cells blocks, lit up by candlelight. The guides can also share the true stories of the murderers and criminals who have been held on the island, and the detail of their crimes.
On one of these tours, a visitor snapped the following image of an empty cell block. But on review, they immediately noticed something unusual…
On closer inspection of the image and zooming in and brightening the shot, clearly something is in the hallway? But the area was empty at the time, and it certainly does not have the look or shape of a person?
Yet another visitor took the original image below, also shot in 2018, of what was supposed to be an empty hallway lit up by candlelight. You have to look hard, but at the right angle you can see bars to the left of the image denoting the hallway of the cell block.
Reviewing the image, it appeared something was blocking the light from the other candles in the hallway. Yet no one was there?
When the visitor opened the edit tools on their phone, and brightened the image, this unusual shape appeared? There was no person in the way of his camera, and certainly no one in the dress or shape that appears in this image? This remains unexplained.
Once again, in the same A/B class area known to many as the abandoned jail, the following image was snapped in 2019. There is clearly something in the image, but the height and shape is inexplicable. The roof in the building is not particularly low, meaning this object has to be over eight feet tall to fill the frame of the camera and hallway like that.
Is it another example of ghosts and paranormal activity on spike island?
Again, using the basic lighting feature on a phone reveals the shape in more detail. Remember, there was no one else in the hallway when the picture was taken, so the results are a complete surprise to the visitor…
If these images frighten or scare you, please accept my apologies and know that they scare me also! I know the tour guides who were present when these incidents occur, and I have conversed with many of the photographers. Having done so, there is no reasonable way to explain what is going on in these pictures, and no denying that the areas feel ‘strange‘ to inhabit, beyond the obvious strangeness of being in an abandoned cell block.
That A / B class cells on Spike Island, or the ‘abandoned jail’ as most visitors and staff call it, does have an extraordinary aura to it, with most images of paranormal activity on Spike Island taken within this space. This is hardly surprising when you consider it held prisoners three times across three centuries, in the 19th, 20th and 21st century.
Even staff have not escaped the activity that occurs there.
One Spike Island staff member was doing routine cleaning in the block, leaning over with a dustpan and brush to capture some dust. She was suddenly pushed over, tumbling to the floor. She half laughed and was half angry that a colleague would mess around in this forceful way. When she turned around to confront her colleague, there was no one there. She went to the hall but could see no one exiting. She stood alone in an old empty cell block, with no explanation for what had interfered with her.
Needless to say she made a sharp exit, and never went back inside. Staff generally enter the block in twos, aware of the stories of what has gone before them.
Another staff member recalls walking the long corridor of the block and hearing her name called, but turning, found herself alone – she recounts the tale in this RTE interview…
If it helps any person troubled by such talk, I would state that despite conversing with literally hundreds of former residents, service personnel and prison officers in the researching of my books on Spike Island’s history, I have not found one person with a bad word to say about the island.
Even people like ‘Eddy’, who recalled the disturbing sight of a ghostly British soldier walking the pier with just a torso, and no lower half!
Not one single person has reported a feeling of anger, or danger or bad will against them, regarding the ghosts and paranormal activity of spike island.
Tens of thousands of visitors come every year and report nothing but a sense of wonder at the incredible history and location – they are saddened and intrigued by parts of the prisons past, but delighted by the rich social story, the impressive military endeavour, and the islands’ central role in the Irish freedom story.
It seems if there are remnants of what went before on Spike Island – and if such things can occur, there is nowhere more likely – then they exist on the island with a sense of apathy, and no bad feeling for those that come after. You can visit in confidence.
But spare a thought for the 1300 poor souls who never left the island, if you do go there interested in the ghosts and paranormal activity of spike island.
May each and every individual who lost their life on the island rest in peace.
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