Spike Island Cork is famous for its use as a prison and military island, with its first prison appearing as early as the mid-1600’s. Three more jails followed across the next four centuries, one of them, the 1850’s famine era convict depot, becoming the largest prison in the world.
The star shaped fortress that began construction in 1804 took over fifty years to complete, taking its place among the worlds military elite. At 24 acres in size, it could hold two modern sports stadiums within its walls, being matched only by a handful of global military superstructures.
For all this epic endeavor, Spike Island had a far more gentle introduction to human occupation 1100 years ago, with the first recorded use being a monastery established in 635AD. The foundation of the monastery is attributed to Saint Mouchuda, also known as Mochuta or Saint Carthage (of Lismore), who founded a series of monastic sites in seventh century Ireland.
This was in a country undergoing a slow conversion from Druidism to Christianity, reluctantly swapping the old Gods for the new.
The future saint was reportedly walking southern Ireland when he came across Cathal, son of Aodh, the then king of Munster, who was deaf, dumb and blind. Cathal prayed to Mochuda for a cure to his many ailments, and Mochuda responded by making the sign of the cross over his eyes, ears and mouth to illicit a response.
A cured and delighted Cathal Mac Aodha bestowed Mochuda with extensive lands ‘for ever more’ which included Cathal Island, Rossbeg, Rossmore and ‘Inis Pich‘. From the Gaelic name ‘Inis Pic’, or Spike Island. Mochuda sent some followers to Rossbeg to establish a monastery there in his name, but he himself set off for Inis Pic to create the settlement.
Praise indeed for the Cork Harbour setting and a first formal community was established in the form of the Spike Island monastery.
The Cork Harbor location offered much of the mystique of an island location that 7th century monks found appealing, being away from the polluted towns of the mainland. Here they could seek solace and hope for a greater connection with their one true God, without the tempting vices of the towns and villages or meddling mainland Bishops.
Spike Island’s relatively close proximity to the mainland meant it did not endure the constant hardship of more remote island locations, like its distant monastic cousin Skellig Michael. Situated far off the Kerry coast, the island is famed at present for its inclusion in the Star Wars franchise and it certainly fulfills the tag of remote, rising as it does from the wild Atlantic, 13kms from the Irish shore. Its steep slopes and inhospitable peaks would have held little attraction for the earliest Irish farmers of the kingdom of Kerry, but they were like a flame to a monastic moth for a certain kind of Holy hunter.
While not as remote as the Skelligs, Spike island is not entirely spared the wild Irish winters, and the highest ever recorded gust speed on landfall in Ireland was at nearby Roches point, at the mouth of Cork harbour. Had Saint Mochuda sat shivering in such a tempest in a stone beehive hut or wooden wicker canopy on the battered island, he could be forgiven for wondering if his reward for curing King Cathal, and being granted Spike Island ‘forever more’, was a reward at all.
Perhaps this is what made Mochuda spend just one year on the island, leaving three of his loyalist disciples, the ‘sons of Nascon’, Goban, Srafan and holy Laisren, to carry on his work. They stayed with a large band of followers, around forty monks, to till the land, fish the surrounding sea, and ensure the community survived and thrived.
It is more likely that Mochuda left to tend to his other locations, operating a ‘pluralist Priest’ overseeing several sites. He founded and officiated over many Irish settlements, relying on trusted appointees to continue his work in his absence.
Whatever Mocuda’s reason for departing the island so soon, his zest for the monastic life and mission were not diminished. He set off for Lismore in county Waterford, some 50 kms away. Here he formed what would become perhaps the most successful monastic site in southern Ireland, which continued well beyond the sweeping arrival of Scandinavian Vikings.
That violent human storm spelt the end for many monastic sites dotted around the Irish coastline, and the Spike Island monastery is likely to have received a visit during the three recorded incursions into Cork Harbour in the 8th and 9th century.
On Spike Island, Mochuda’s three loyal disciples carried on his work with due diligence and dotage to their original founder, for a period of time unknown to us. Later descriptions would gush that
‘Inis Pich is a most holy place in which an exceedingly devout community constantly dwell’,
Seemingly his wishes were well honored.
Life on the island was likely pleasant for its first Christian dwellers. The islands 104 acres were enough to sustain a thriving farming community, while the waters around the island afford easy access to a marine diet. The forty plus souls who occupied the first monastery had ample work to keep them busy, and enough land and sea for sustenance.
They also had the desired exclusivity. Anyone lucky enough to have walked Spike Island by night will know the mainland seems far enough removed, across the frozen waters, to make the island a truly special place. Tranquil and distant from the worries of the world.
The remaining monks worked the island’s shoreline for its bounty, as was recorded in the Register of the Abbey of St Thomas. It references the gift of a ‘church of Saint Rusien‘ at Spike Island to the St Thomas’s abbey in 1178AD, and states the church was in monastic or religious hands until the reformation, which began in 1517AD. It states the Cork Harbour outpost ‘drew its tithes in oysters’, a favorable arrangement which shows the coastal harvesting work undertaken on the island.
An offer to pay your taxes with oysters would hardly be given much credence today!
The island had other strings to its bow, and while no traces remain today, the usual assortment of cottage industries found at other monastic settlements of the period are likely. Farming, fishing, weaving, cloth making and iron work were mainstays of such settlements, the labors and trades typical of the period.
While food production was likely the priority, after prayer time the production of goods which could be traded with mainland locals for essential items was useful, and the work meditative.
With the multiple roles required to sustain the island community, and the degree of separation afforded by the sea when the work was done, the island was a place of busy days and restful nights. A haven of peace, and solace and escape.
The perfect setting for a devout Christian who wished to be closer to the one true God, in thought, deed and prayer.
As to the exact nature and layout of the Spike Island settlement, we cannot say. Typical arrangements of the time had a square wooden Church surrounded by circular accommodation and storage buildings. Stone churches were very rare in the 7th century. No trace of the Spike monastery has ever been found to confirm this.
How a monastery large enough to support dozens of inhabitants can disappear, on an island as small as 104 acres, could easily be considered a mystery. That mystery is resolved in the knowledge of another reshaping of the island, one that took place over a millennium after the monastery was founded.
When the British Military arrived on Spike Island in 1779, looking to make safe the enormously important asset that was Cork Harbour, the work they undertook on the island was monumental and transformational. There was not a blade of grass or single stone went untouched, as two forts were built on the island in quick succession.
Cork Harbour was the main victualing (supply) port for the British forces fighting in the United States, so it needed protection. The 24 acre colossus that was started in 1804 stands tall to this day, with Fort Mitchel dominating the 104 acre island at the summit of a smooth, long man-made slope.
The epic engineering undertaking involved thousands of men, hundreds of horses and immeasurable tonnage of soil and stones which was dug out of two quarries on the island, and imported from the mainland.
It is very likely this work completely covered over the earlier monastic settlement and other early structures on Spike Island under several meters of soil and stone. Only the finest ground penetrating radar in the world has any hope of shedding light on the secrets of seventh century Spike Island.
The costs associated with finding the lost monastery at Spike Island are prohibitive, but the reasons for undertaking such a search increased dramatically in recent times.
A 1950’s re-evaluation and subsequent 1990’s review of an ancient religious document seemed to shed new light on the work of the islands mysterious monks.
A 7th century document, the ‘Libre de ordine creaturarum’, is a Spanish manuscript that describes God and his great plan for the universe in glorious prose. It is invariable described as ‘a work of magnificent conception’ and a ‘fascinating and multi-faceted treatise… revealing much about the milieu in which it was written’.
Praise indeed for the publication, so it was sad news for Spanish religious interests when new research asserted the respected document was not from Spain at all, but more likely of Irish origin.
Paul Grosjean said the document was ‘associated with the foundations of Saint Carthage (Mochuda)’, and cited some famous southern Ireland sites as likely sources. Taking up his work, Marina Smyth of the University of Notre Dame reported her findings led her to believe the documents references to tidal activity, and intimate knowledge of a harbour, were referring to the ‘coastal area of Cork harbour’ as a likely production source, ‘where a monastery said to have been founded by Saint Carthage was located on Spike Island’.
The implications of this are enormous, and if future findings prove their deductions are correct, it would suggest the monks in the Spike island monastery were engaged in work as scribes, crafting beautiful manuscripts in a formal scriptorium.
There would not be unusual in a monastery of the day, as many of Ireland’s monasteries played a part in the production of the great volumes of the age. Manuscripts were often not written in one location but moved around from monastery to monastery, each contributing their own pages and skills.
If the assertion is true, and a document as revered as the Libre de ordine creaturarum was produced on Spike Island, then a whole new chapter of Ireland and Spike Island’s religious history is yet to be written.
Marina Smyth of Notre Dame goes further, suggesting a famous scribe of 7th century Ireland, the ‘Irish Augustine‘, may have lived and wrote on the island. She urges caution here, and the need for further research, as an ever careful academic, but the possibility is not far fetched.
This puts an impetus on future excavations to find the former Spike Island Monastery, despite the many challenges presented by the later disruptive work of the British military. Their altering and shaping of the island means large areas are buried under many meters of soil and stone.
Surely the reward of finding a sacred scriptorium, hidden for over a millennium now, is worth the effort?
The monks who spent their entire lives on the island are also likely buried there in death. Yet no monastic burial site has yet been found. Who knows what precious fragments of manuscripts or parchments they cling to in death, holding on to their secrets for eternity?
There is also the possibility of finding manuscripts concealed when the Vikings made their murderous way into Cork Harbour, in the 9th century. Documents may have been rushed to preordained hiding places, or were abandoned where they were written. Have they sat untouched across the centuries, when the monk appointed to their safety did not survive the assault?
Spike Island was long thought to have been a quiet communal monastery, yet a site as important in Irish religious history as Durrow or Iona may yet be revealed. Who knows what treasures await under the centuries of farming, fortress and prison history that make up the soil of Spike Island Cork?
It will take deep pockets and endless patience, but Ireland’s religious history may need to be rewritten once more.
There can be no certainty for how the Spike Island monastery came to an end, or when exactly that end came. Only the Register of the Abbey of Saint Thomas suggests some form of operation into the 16th century. The Register used the oldest known sources of Anglo-Norman Irish information to compile its contents, in the late 1800’s.
If it is accurate, it suggests an extremely impressive near thousand year occupation by generations of religious practitioners, from the 7th century to the 16th. However, continuous occupation is extremely unlikely and would represent an astoundingly impressive feat, given the arrival of the marauding Vikings, who began raiding Ireland in the late 700’s AD.
Local Irish settlements and even other monasteries were not above raiding a religious outpost for its riches. It is more likely the settlement saw various degrees of habitation over the period, ranging from total abandonment to flourishing activity.
A 1774 map of the island shows the location of a ruined Church or religious building, a remnant perhaps of the monastic era.
There can be no certainty as to how and when the Spike Islands settlement sat empty and unused, its walls which had heard ten thousand prayers and whispers of worship now abandoned and silent. It is a fate shared by all the mystical monastic islands of Ireland, but they are remembered now in our museums and cultural institutions.
Perhaps that memory of Spike Island will be reshaped in the coming decades, with new archaeological excavation revealing millennium old secrets.