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Ireland’s greatest prison escapologist

Escape from Spike Island prison seemed impossible, but that would not stop the daring. Prison escapes have long fascinated us, with incredibly popular movies like the Shawshank redemption and Escape from Alcatraz proving enduring hits. The art of escapology is such an attraction that magicians and illusionists have built careers on their performances.

While these acts are often smoke and mirrors, for a prisoner trying to escape from an actual prison environment the complications and risks of the endeavour are all too real.

In any prison the chances of escape are low, the odds firmly against the enterprise. Some locations are more difficult to escape than others, and the Spike Island prison of 1847 to 1883 fits this category.

It employed the standard practises of the age, like keeping prisoners chained in irons, locked behind layers of secure doors, forced to wear a conspicuous convict uniform and the presence of prison guards and high prison walls.

The Irish Alcatraz, Spike Island Cork.

But in the 19th century, prison authorities could employ other significant deterrents, like the threat of flogging if recapture occurred. Would be escapees also knew if they were recaptured, they could be hit with a much increased prison sentence.

At Spike Island, the guards also benefitted from the rare distinction the location shares with Alcatraz and Robben Island – that of being an island prison, where a significant body of water serves as a huge deterrent to escape.

These restrictions did not stop inmates from attempting escape, in a variety of ways. One such determined inmate was Henry Sweers, who not once but twice braved the Cork Harbour waters in 1863. Early in the year he broke from a work party and began to swim for the mainland, despite being secured in heavy manacles. He soon realised the dangers of such an action in the depths of winter, as the freezing rough waters saw him return to the islands shore.

He was picked up by the prison officers on the island and endured time in the prisons dark cells, where he could think about his actions. 

Prisoner manacles and ball – Alcatraz Island

Seemingly the only conclusion his thinking could muster was that he should give it another go, and so Henry waited two months before making a second attempt.  He broke from his work group and began swimming for the mainland, but he had been spotted before he even left the island.  A number of boats were dispatched and he was swiftly recaptured. 

His actions led to the creation of an agreed signal to warn the harbour of an escaping prisoner from the island – three loud cannon blasts in swift succession from the forts walls. 

His persistence left Spike Island’s prison governor with a dilemma.  How do you prevent a determined man like Sweers from swimming away to the beckoning mainland, when that was clearly his intent? 

The answer came in a formal request to the prison authorities that they be allowed to shackle Henry in exceptionally heavy manacles, weighting down his person so that if he tried to swim away again, he would sink like a stone.  The request was granted and Sweers appeared more metal than man, clanking around the island in his cumbersome outfit, earning him the title the chain man of Spike Island

He had to carry his load for two years and must have been an exceptionally relieved man when he walked out the doors of Spike Island’s prison, shy of his burden.  He had been convicted for stealing jewellery, but the chains he wore in prison meant he was never convicted again – or at least never caught.

Sweers was not the most subtle of escapologists and was never going to rival the greats of the age.  Neither was a convict identified only as Ryan who escaped from Spike Island but was recaptured.  His tale turned to tragedy when he was undergoing transfer from Mountjoy to Spike Island.  He impressively managed to slip his irons while enroute, but he followed this with the decidedly unimpressive action of jumping from the train while it travelled at speed between Mallow and Cork.  He was found badly managed and later died at Mallow hospital.

The Punishment blocks ‘dark cells’ on Spike Island – would be escapees served time in its dark cells.

There was one truly gifted escapologist inmate who found himself trying to best the guards at Spike Island.  Limerick native Dennis Hourigan can lay claim to being the greatest escape artist in Irish prison history, going by his multiple successful attempts. HIs first recorded break occurred as he awaited trial for the act of stealing three pigs. He was being held in Cork city Prison on a cold January day in 1859.

Unbeknown to his jailers, Dennis used bed sheets and a rope he had made while carrying out the tedious task of picking oakum, a common job assigned to prisoners of unwinding old rope to fashion a new one, giving us the expression ‘money for old rope‘. 

The Cork Examiner described how the strong and acrobatic Hourigan, then using the false name William Johnston;

“…jumped from a wall over thirty feet high, across a passage twenty feet wide, to another wall of similar height, and then dropped down a height of forty feet outside, exciting general wonder and admiration”.

The feat was all the more impressive given that this was his second prison escape in less than three months.  Dennis Hourigan had escaped from Dulblin’s Mountjoy prison the previous October, then using the name Denis Johnston.  He had been caught in the act while burgling a house and got into an altercation with the butler, which led to his arrest and sentence.

But the crafty crook had no intention of seeing out the jail term. 

Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison in the 1800’s.

After his daring escape he was returned to the same Cork prison a few days later, now a marked man.  Having embarrassed the authorities twice, they took the extraordinary step of assigning him a private guard to watch over him at all times. He was stripped of his clothing nightly so he slept naked and given two cells, one to work in by day and another to sleep in by night. 

The arrangement lasted thirteen days and the night it was due to end as the guards began to relax, an observant night warder noticed something odd about Hourigan’s clothing.  They sat in his day cell as usual but in a particularly tidy fashion, as if the inmate was preparing to go somewhere. 

The guard made a point of quietly inspecting his charge, peering around a corner into Hourigan’s cell he saw the inmate digging furiously at the cell walls.  He interrupted and found Hourigan was using a smuggled iron bar to fashion an escape hole.  The work was nearly complete, with a hole almost wide enough to accommodate the prisoner betraying his intentions. 

Dennis Hourigan was hours away from effecting a third consecutive jail break.

An area of tunnel under the forts walls on Spike Island. This intentional defensive effort was known as a ‘sallyport’- allowing defenders sneak out of the fort to flank an attacker. They were blocked up by Spike Island prison authorities and are in the process of being reopened.

He was sent to Mountjoy Prison to serve the solitary part of his confinement, and during his eight month stay he attempted two more escapes. 

Ireland’s most famous escapologist arrived at Spike Island in 1860 determined to complete a third prison break, but he was now a celebrity in public and notorious in penal circles.  Prison officers at the island were warned in advance of his ‘plausible nature‘, and ability to throw off the guards while secretly plotting.  They were told to use ‘great caution’ when dealing with the trickster, and resolved that Dennis Hourigan would not outsmart the Spike Island staff in the same way he had two other prisons. 

They were effective to a point as weeks passed and nothing happened. But it turned out Dennis Hourigan was probing and plotting, taking in his surrounding. In the end, it took him just two months.  A prison officer was doing his rounds early one morning, distracted by the trivial things in life before coming to Hourigan’s cell.  The presence of the celebrity escapologist encouraged more attention than a run of the mill convict. 

He turned the corner and his jaw dropped. Dennis Hourigan was not in his cell, and he had achieved the unthinkable yet again.  The guard stared in disbelief at the blank space the prison bars used to occupy in his cell window, somehow removed  The convict had slipped out the back of the prisons ‘A’ block complex on a dark and stormy night.


Spike Island’s ‘A’ block – built as soldier accommodation in 1804, it held prisoners in the 1800’s, 1921 and 1985.

The alarm was raised and every officer roused, as the prison went into lockdown.  Police stations in Cobh and the wider harbour were alerted.  Doors slammed, feet pounded corridors and the search party soon discovered that a second convict, James Dwyer, was also absent from his cell.  This time, Dennis Hourigan had an accomplice. 

Dwyer was twenty one years old and hailed from Fethard, County Tipperary.  He was described as short at five feet four inches, significantly smaller than Hourigan’s five foot nine. 

Hourigan had carefully analysed what it would take to escape the Spike Island set up, and deduced he needed an accomplice.  A person smaller than himself would bring more options, for who knew what unexpected obstacles they might encounter on their route to freedom.  It was a wise decision, and having identified Dwyer as able bodied, he educated him in secret on how to escape from his cell to join him in a daring break for freedom. 

Having exited their cells, they used their sheets as rope to help one another to scale the inner fort wall. On the other side they again used their sheets to lower one another the extremely uncomfortable fifty foot drop to the dry moat. The forts walls on Spike Island are smooth as ice, giving no foothold, a sheer dangerous drop.  The forts designers could not have envisaged that one day the work they crafted to deflect cannonballs and climbing attackers would actually deter escaping prisoners. 

The tall smooth walls of Fort Mitchel, designed to deter cannonballs but perfectly suited to deter escaping prisoners.

Once the pair made their way outside the fort, they had to evade the patrolling guards, and one serious deterrent remained. The body of water from the island to mainland, over a kilometre wide in places. But again the advantage of two men was clear, as they could row a boat or manage a flotation device far more efficiently than a solo occupant. 

For the third time in two years, and now at Ireland’s historic prison island, the fox that was Dennis Hourigan was outwitting the hounds once again.

The prison search team hastily made their way down the islands Glacis slope to search the coastline for any signs of the prisoners, having no idea when and how they made their escape.  It had been a wild stormy night, and each questioned the method or madness of choosing such a tempest.  The wind would have made the noise of escape less noticeable to listening guards, but it also made the water crossing far more dangerous. 

They inspected the shoreline for signs of escape while boats criss-crossed the waters, and a discovery was made.  A ladder from Spike Island’s stores was floating a good distance from the island, but well away from the mainland.  Nearby were two prisoner caps, bopping independent of their owners.  The news went around the guards – Hourigan had outsmarted only himself, and he and accomplice James Dwyer seemed to be drowned by stormy seas. 

The ladder they had procured might have served them well on the usually calm waters within sheltered Cork Harbour, but the night they had chosen turned on them.  The ladder would not support their weight sufficiently to get to shore. 

The significant distance from Spike Island to the mainland is evident in this image. The island to the immediate top right is Haulbowline, then controlled by the British Navy making it a far from ideal landing location.

The search at sea continued more in expectation of corpses than convicts, while on the island, the search carried on in case they had made it back to shore, dead or alive.  Hours passed, and prison guards checked increasingly unlikely locations, but as suddenly as one hiding hole was empty, the next was not. 

There, behind bushes and brambles, a guard was surprised to find Dennis Hourigan and James Dwyer, holed up like rabbits awaiting the next night and calmer seas to make their escape.  It transpired they had tried to use the ladder to escape but the waves beat them back, so they set the ladder and caps adrift in the hope their searchers would think them drowned.  They would knuckle down until they could try again the following evening. 

Their plot was minutes away from success, and it was the weather and not the wardens who stifled the plans of Dennis Hourigan. 

Hourigan saw the inside of Spike Island’s Punishment block for his trespasses, locked away from light and life for 23 and a half hours a day.   No more was heard from James Dwyer, but the unstoppable Hourigan found himself in the dark cells again and again during his incarceration. 

Typically he was caught with piece of iron or tin that he had secreted on his person, as well as other potential escape tools. Each time he would be sent back to the prisons dark cells to serve solitary confinement, but he never gave up his escape efforts despite the constant attention of the guards. 

He was determined to make it three successful escapes from three separate prisons, and his spirit could not be broken. 

A prison cell window on Spike Island.

He plotted and re-plotted but it was all in vain.   He endured six years of island incarceration, and it was a prison transfer that saw Hourigan removed from the island in 1866.  For all his efforts, he could not overcome Spike Island’s hold, and escape from the largest ever prison in Ireland and Britain eluded him.

He found himself back in Cork prison for a short period before his full release the end of that year, after eight years of incarceration, two successful prison escapes and several other attempts.  He returned to his native Murroe in County Limerick, to reflect on his time in prison and especially Spike Island’s dark cells, which must have left an impression on him. 

The rehabilitation process did not have the desired effect, as within weeks he was back in a prison for the seemingly needless crime of stealing a coat and a pair of boots.  The famous prison breaker was first behind bars in Limerick Prison, by his own volition for a petty crime. 

One could not help but wonder if he was there with a purpose? 

The Mitchel Hall and central area of the prison and fortress – Spike Island

The authorities would take no chances once again, and he was stripped of his clothes nightly to sleep in his cell naked.  Limerick’s finest would not be outdone – for a few years at least. 

In February 1869 Hourigan somehow slipped from his cell having somehow sneaked his trousers into his accommodation. He climbed out the tiny cell window from which he had removed the bars and across yet another prison yard towards freedom.  The thirty foot wall supposed to prevent escapes was scaled, and Dennis Hourigan completed his third and final Irish prison escape. 

He was never heard from again, despite a report of a man matching his description being captured in Manchester. Perhaps his best escape of all was avoiding recapture. 

A report in the Dublin news attributed escapes to Hourigan from Spike Island Convict Prison, Cork Gaol, Kilmainham, Limerick Gaol, Mountjoy Prison and also the Fermoy Barracks, and it is safe to ascribe the Limerick man the title of Ireland’s premier jail breaker.

While he never managed his Spike Island prison break, others would achieve the rare goal.

When the island became a prison for Republican prisoners during Ireland’s War of Independence, a daring April escape saw three high profile IRA get away by boat in a sensational endeavour. A second escape in November 1921 saw several men use a tunnel to break free, while a later jail break from the 1980’s prison was less impressive, given the lax security measures.

For all these other efforts, noone in Irish history can claim the prolific jail break record of Limerick’s Dennis Hourigan.

The route of the 1921 April IRA escape from Spike Island


For the complete history of the fortification of Cork Harbour and Spike Island see: Cal McCarthy – Cork Harbour – 2019, Merrion Press

For the complete story of the Victorian Prison on Spike Island – O’Donnobhain, B and McCarthy, Cal, Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets – Cork County Library – 2016. This author first encountered this character, and the majority of those associated with the Victorian Prison, in this seminal work.

The escape from the County Gaol. Cork Examiner. 10th January, 1859.

Attempt to escape from Spke Island. Cork Examiner . 19th October, 1860.

Reported Capture of Hourigan. Dublin Evening Mail. 08th July, 1869.

This story is from the upcoming publication 'Crafty Criminals'. References included in upcoming book or contact me, I love to discuss the subject. Content can be used or shared with credit to author. For further reading on the Victorian Prison see McCarthy & O'Donnabhain's authoritative 'Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets' - Cork County Library.