Home » Spike Island’s Republican prisoners – 1921

Spike Island’s Republican prisoners – 1921

TD’s, teachers, shirt cutters, cheese makers, farmers, dentists and more..

The Irish War of Independence raged throughout 1920, resulting in thousands of arrested Irish Republican prisoners and internees. This was more than Britain could suitably contain on the mainland, making additional incarceration locations essential. Spike Island had been hastily converted into a prison once before in 1847, during another period of emergency that was Ireland’s great famine. It was about to be put on notice once again, this time seeing Spike Island’s Republican prisoners.

The letter advising of the conversion from fortress to prison landed with a thud on the desk of the Commanding Officer, Spike Island on February 15th 1921.  He was to receive Republican prisoners and internees within a week.  The following day, Colonel Gregory of the Royal Garrison Artillery was informed he would be the camp commandant, responsible for the organisation and safe operation of the prison. 

This map from the period shows the approx layout around the time of the conversion.

Sixty men of the Cameron Highlanders were assigned to guard duty, where they would patrol the prison twenty-four hours a day as armed sentries.  Wire fences sprung up in the three areas identified to hold the men.  Searchlights were installed to sweep the area by night, creating a gauntlet of armed guards and detection points which any escapee would struggle to overcome.  An armed naval vessel was even procured to patrol the surrounding waters.  In a matter of days, the island fortress was transformed into a fearsome island prison. 

Notices appeared in newspapers, with the Freeman’s journal reporting on February 17th of the upcoming conversion and stating over five hundred prisoners were expected.  They suggested the choice of location was because the fortress was ‘…strongly fortified and is reported to be impregnable‘.  A later escape of twenty-five internees from nearby Kilworth Camp, Cork, of IRA members destined for Spike’s cells, seemed to reinforce the point that not all locations were equally secure. 

The Freemans Journal, 17th Feb 1921

The very first Spike Island Republican prisoners arrived on Saturday 19th February, just four days after notice was given of the prison opening, with the transfer of eight four internees.  Fifty came from Cork Male Gaol, thirty from Victoria Barracks, and four from Cork Military Detention Barracks.  Of the first batch to arrive, the majority were from West Cork, with Bandon and Clonakilty well represented.  The first cohort was a sign of things to come as men from Kerry, Clare, Cork City and towns like Timoleague were present. 

By the summer, rebels from almost every town and village in Cork filled Spike’s cells, as well as rebels from all the counties of the martial law area.  An incredible 1200 Irish Republicans would fill the islands cell before their release.

There were no women, nor would there be for the duration of the prisons opening.  Just as in the 19th century convict prison, Spike would remain a male only establishment as women were kept elsewhere. A great number of women were involved in the Irish revolutionary period in highly active roles, and many of them saw the inside of prison cells. (see book for recommended reading list). 

The rebels – who was among the 1200? Cork City Councillors   

Among the first eighty-four to arrive were a most unusual nine, who were members of Cork Corporation.  They had been attending a meeting on January 31st at which the elected members were to select a new Lord Mayor.  Cllr Donal O’Callaghan had succeeded Terence Mac Sweeney as Lord Mayor following the latter’s death from hunger strike in 1920.  He was proposed to continue the role despite being in America at the time.  British Troops burst into the proceedings and asked for the roll call of attendees. In their eyes this was an illegal assembly, and to be treated as such. 

They left to examine the document and in extraordinary scenes the waiting members broke into a round of song before completing the business of re-electing O’Callaghan as Mayor.  The troops returned and on calling for the councillors present to stand, nine of the eleven in the group did so and were duly arrested.  The men had engaged in no known violent act, yet they were sent to be imprisoned on Spike Island.

Image of Tadhg Barry from pamphlet by Timothy (Tadhg) Barry – 2011 

Among their number was Tadhg Barry, who was held on the island briefly before being sent to a camp in Northern Ireland.  By November of 1921 he was still interred at Ballykinlar Detention centre in County Down, where he looked forward to his release following the agreement and implementation of a truce between Ireland and Britain.  Some friends released before him were keen to wish him well, believing he would soon join them.  They were gathering to say goodbye on opposite sides of the prison wire.  As Tadhg stood biding them farewell a British sentry shot him dead, allegedly for refusing to back up from the wire.  His funeral was a huge affair, with Michael Collins insisting on taking leave from the peace talks in London to attend a mass in Dublin. 

Sadly, Tadhg was not the first or last prisoner to be held at Spike Island’s 1921 ‘Military Prison in the Field’ that would be shot and killed while incarcerated.

Sitting TD’s – Sean Moylan and Jim Ryan. 

The Cork Corporation nine were far from the only elected officials on the island.  Seán Moylan was a sitting T.D – Teachta Dála, or member of the Irish Dail, and also Commandant of the Cork No.2 Battalion of the Irish Republican Army when he was sent to Spike.  He led an active unit in the north of County Cork during 1920 and had risen to the rank of Officer Commanding the Cork No.2 Brigade.  Seán was arrested at Riordan’s farm, Kiskeam in possession of a revolver and grenades.  Further searches on the farm revealed a Hotchkiss machine gun which had been taken during a raid on Mallow military barracks.  Clearly involved in what the British deemed illicit activity and caught red handed, Seán was subsequently sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude, disregarding his participation in a government his captors did not recognize. 

Republican and Statesman Seán Moylan

He arrived on Spike Island in June 1921 but was granted early release in August to participate in the Dail debates on the terms of the proposed Treaty between Britain and Ireland, following the agreement of a truce June 11th, 1921.  How the soldiers confining him on Spike Island must have carried out the release order through gritted teeth, knowing they were releasing a confirmed and capable soldier who had faced them down in the field. 

Surviving the War of Independence, Seán Moylan, went on to a stellar political career, remaining in politics for almost forty years and serving at different points as the Minister for Agriculture, Education and lands.  He was also nominated for Taoiseach while serving as a Senator in the 1950’s. 

Seán had a friend in very similar circumstances on Spike Island in the form of Doctor Jim Ryan of Wexford, who was also a serving T.D at the time of his incarceration.  Jim had a strong Republican pedigree, having fought alongside James Connolly as the medical officer in the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising.  He was held in the University of revolution, Frongoch internment camp in Wales, after the rising and immediately took up arms when released.  He rose to become Brigade Commandant of South Wexford and was elected to Wexford County Council, serving as Chairman. 

Spike Island, 1921.

He attended the First Dail on January 21st 1919, and remained active on the political and military front until his arrest in September 1919.  He also secured early release from Spike by way of his status as T.D, and had the impressive distinction of serving in every Fianna Fail government from 1932 to 1965.  His family home was filled with Irish Nationalists and political influence, as he married Kerry woman Mairin Cregan. 

In a remarkable connection between the two and Spike Island, Mairin Cregan appears elsewhere in the Spike Island story. It was brave Mairin that traveled from Dublin to Tralee, County Kerry, carrying a violin case of arms and ammunition and information on the wireless technology required to communicate with the 1916 gun running ship arriving in Kerry, the Aud. She was trying to intercept a car full of volunteers that had set off earlier.  

The endeavor met with disaster when the car carrying the volunteers drove off a pier, and active Cumann na mBan member Máirín could do no more to achieve her own and the groups objectives.  The crew carrying the arms she intended to help land had served time in the very same island prison as her husband on Spike Island. It was a place Máirín very nearly ended up, had she been caught, along with fellow participants in the gun running plot, Con Collins and Austin Stack, who endured solitary time on Spike.  If the couple ever realized the coincidence, we shall never know.

While Jim was in prison on Spike Island, Máirín worked for the Sinn Fein government, carrying on the families’ nationalist ideals.  Jim’s sister, Mary Kate, married fellow T.D and future Irish President Seán T. O’Kelly, while another sister of Jim’s, Josephine, married future leader of the Fine Gael party, Richard Mulcahy. 

Máirín Cregan – Irish nationalist hero

In later years, Jim Ryan’s son, Eoin Ryan senior, and grandson, Eoin Ryan Jnr, became members of the Oireachtas, continuing a rich family tradition of public service to the Irish State.  Jim would survive his time on Spike Island to witness all of this, passing away in 1970 after a distinguished career. 

While Máirín Cregan became a journalist and wrote plays and novels as well as children’s books.  Her work was aired on the BBC and RTE, while her children’s novel Rathina won the Downey Award in the United States in 1943.

After the Spike military prison in the field opened on February 19th, the first unexpected shooting and tragic event to occur was a British suicide by one of the Cameron Highlanders tasked with guarding the rebels.  Lt Victor Bickersteth Murray was a platoon commander at Fort Westmorland at the time of the incident, which happened just over a week after the first prisoners arrived.  Such suicides were not entirely uncommon among soldiers posted away from home, with several occurring on the island in its time as a British base. 

An island aerial showing the scale of the fortress

The civilians –

Within that first week of the prison opening, five days after the first transfer, a further sixty-one internees arrived, the majority again arriving from Cork Male Gaol.  On April 15th, a special destroyer transfer brought eighty-five Republican prisoners from Bere Island, with some internees going the other way.  The prisoners and internees were now separated on the island, with the prisoners in the Northeast casemates compound and the internees in the A block and B block huts area.  By the end of June 1921, every cross section of Irish civilian life was represented on the island, as was every county in the martial law area. 

Michael Baylor of Cork City was a shirt cutter before the war began.  He was sentenced to fifteen years for conspiring to levy war against the King, possession of arms, and offences against Martial Law.  These were common charges among the prisoners at Spike Island, as was offences against the restoration of order in Ireland Act.  He arrived from Bere Island on April 15th, another island in County Cork tasked with holding rebels.  He remained on Spike until November 1921.  William Burke of Limerick City was just sixteen when he was sent to the island in June 1921, one of four sixteen-year-olds held on the island for offences against the restoration of order in Ireland Act (ROIR).  His trade of labourer was the most common occupation among the rebels. 

A selection of senior figures with the Military Prison in the Field, Spike Island, 1921. ‘The men behind the wire’.

John Dee was a twenty-seven-year-old farmer from Ballylongford, Kerry, when he was arrested for merely drilling, and being a suspected member of the IRA.  He was sentenced to three months at a summary court in Tralee, before arriving on Spike on July 06th.  Sentences like his were useful to temporarily deplete the numbers of the active IRA.  Michael Deegan of Kanturk, Cork, was a cheese maker.  William Dover of Villerstown, County Waterford, was a mechanic.  James Fitzgerald of Cork City was a traveller.  William McCarthy of Thurles, Tipperary, was a chauffeur.  Sixteen-year-old Michael O’Hehir of South Circular Road, Limerick was a carpenter, as was twenty-four-year-old Pierce Byrne of Wexford town. 

Roger Kiely of Millstreet, County Cork was a National School teacher, making his rebellious activities quiet the classroom story he could tell his students.  The Spike Island prisoner was one of the subjects for a famous painting by Sean Keating during the Irish revolutionary period, ‘The men of the south’.  Twenty-four-year-old Patrick O’Leary of Blarney, County Cork, was a medical student, whose training might have been very useful to the men he served with. 

Men of the South, by Sean Keating. Including Spike Island prisoner Roger Kiely.

For all of the internees, like twenty-six-year-old Maurice Conroy of Jenkinstown, County Kilkenny, no occupation was listed.   But the Spike Island prisoner list detailed occupations like dentist, politician, chemist, saddler, factory worker and farm hand.  From every walk of life they came to answers Ireland’s call, and fill Spike Island’s cells, making it the largest concentration of captured rebels in revolutionary Ireland.   

Those with most to fear –

All were considered dangerous prisoners and subject to strict incarceration conditions, yet some might have felt they had more to fear than others.  John O’Keefe of Clonakilty, Cork was a spritely sixty-six when he was arrested, the oldest prisoner on the island.  John had made a career as an engineer, but while others might have been thinking about retirement, John was busy resisting the largest Empire in the world.  Prison was no place for a man of John’s age but sharing a space with several of his fellow rebels meant he had the support his years and sacrifice deserved.  He survived Ireland’s Independence struggle and lived in the self-governing country he helped to liberate. 

Cornelius Conroy of South Terrace, Cork City, was another who could rightly fear his fate more than most.  The twenty-six-year-old had been employed by the British Army as a confidential clerk in Victoria Barracks, Cork when he was arrested.  He was charged with the trifecta of possession of arms, offences against Martial Law and levying war against the King.  On arrest he was taken to his place of employment, Victoria Barracks, and considering the levels of violence and atrocity that plagued the land, he could be forgiven for fearing he would be dragged from his cell by outraged former colleagues and murdered as a spy before any trial took place.  It might have been a relief to hear his sentence of fifteen years read out, as many before him accused of spying or treason were cut down by firing squad or hanged. 

A prison guard on Spike Island, 1921. Permanently armed and patrolled, the prison was far from a safe environment for the Irish Republicans, and two prisoners would die after being shot during its eight month operation.

Another man with a weight on his mind was Michael Duggan of Farmers Bridge, Tralee, County Kerry, who was just twenty-one when he was sentenced for several charges including attempted murder.  He was one of the few sentenced to Penal Servitude for life, so when he arrived on Spike Island on 18th June 1921, as the outcome of the war of independence hung in the balance, he faced an uncertain future.  Would he rot in British prisons for the remainder of his days? 

He wasn’t alone in this situation, as with him was Edward Punch of Limerick City, who had taken part in the Dromkeen ambush at which eleven RIC members were killed.  Having initially been sentenced to death, this was commuted to penal servitude for life, and on arriving at Spike Island he wondered what life had in store for him.

Poster from ‘Imprisoning a Nation’, a 2021 exhibition on Spike Island remembering the men held there in 1921. The island has a significant 1921 section showing handmade crafts, diaries and images of the Republicans.

While many could not know their future, there was merit in controlling the present as much as was possible.  Immediately after the first prisoners arrived, they set about creating order.  They were given a significant amount of freedom by their British captors, a wise move that avoided unnecessary conflict in a situation that was never less than a powder keg.  Housing 1200 proven rebels, each idealistic and motivated by their cause, was no small undertaking.  They were allowed to wear their own civilian clothing, and the handful of surviving photographs taken in Spike’s 1921 prison show smart trousers and shirts, braces and shoes, and even jackets and a range of hats and caps. 

This move avoided the inevitable uproar of expecting the rebels to wear prisoner uniforms, tarnishing them as the common criminal. The praise for this and many similar wise decisions should go to Camp Commandant Major C.F Kennedy, of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who earned the respect of many including an internee supervisor who stated he carried out his duties ‘with fairness and consideration’

Brian and Anne Wall, Midleton, seeing the digitized version of the Autograph book of their Grand Uncle. Daniel Dennehy, who was interned in Spike Island in 1921. Picture: Michael O’Sullivan / OSM PHOTO, courtesy Spike Island

There were some unavoidable formalities that had to be endured.  Reveille was sounded as a wakeup call at 7.30am daily, followed by clearance of their beds to make room for the day’s activities.  At 9am there was the first check parade of the day, when the men were counted.  This was repeated at 2pm and 4.30pm, as the soldiers’ turned guards endeavored to avoid the humiliation of admitting a prisoner had escaped.

Enormous efforts were taken to deter escape, and it was something of a sensation when three high profile IRA members effected a getaway. Tom Malone, Sean MacSwiney and Cornelius Twomey were the trio, Sean MacSwiney being the brother of former Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, while Tom Malone was under cover from his real identity as the RIC barracking attacking Sean Forde.

A tragic shooting occurred when prisoner Patrick White was shot by a guard while playing hurling in the square. The guard alleged he thought White, who was retrieving a sliotar from the wire, was trying to escape, but this is unbelievable given the location and circumstances. who allegedly believed he was trying to escape. Far more likely is the guard had heard that a Republican bomb had detonated in nearby Youghal that morning, killing several British troops. Revenge was easy against Irish prisoners, and his crime went unpunished.

Senior figures in the Irish Defence Forces salute the raising of the Irish flag, at Spike Island.

A second escape from the prison occurred just before it closed in November 1921, furthering embarrassing the prison authorities. There was even time for prison riots and a second tragic prisoner shooting and death.

These are just a small selection of the many Irish civilians who risked it all in the name of their nation, and found themselves on Spike Island. Read more stories in my book – link here:

REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:

Tom O’Neill – Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners 1921 – 2021 – The History Press. O’Neill’s exceptional research work confirmed the identity of the vast majority of those held on Spike Island, and its daily operation, making this a seminal work.

Florence O’Donoghue (foreword) – IRA Jailbreaks 1918 – 1921 – 1971 – Mercier Press

Spike Island . Freemans Journal. 17th Feb, 1921.

Murphy, William. Political Imprisonment and the Irish, 1912-1921. s.l. : OUP Oxford, 2014.

Moylan, Sean. Witness Statement of Sean Moylan. s.l. : Military Archives, 1953. WS 838.

Michael Bowles autograph book. s.l. : Spike Island musuem, 1921.

Maume, Patrick. James Ryan. Dictionary of Irish Biography. [Online] October 2009. https://www.dib.ie/biography/ryan-james-a7868.

Healy, Daniel. Witness Statement. s.l. : Bureau of Military History. WS1656.

Keating’, Jeremiah. Witness statement. 1957. WS 1657.

various, John Crowley -. Atlas of the Irish Revolution. s.l. : Cork University Press, 2017.

Hennessy, John (Sean). Diary – Spike Island and Kiilworth 1921. Spike Island : Now on dispaly – Spike Island musuem, 1921.

Malone, Tomas. Statement of Tomas Malone. /www.militaryarchives.ie/. [Online] [Cited: April 15, 2022.] https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0845.pdf#page=85.

Burke, Michael J. Witness statement. 1956. WS 1424.

(AUTHOR NOTE – There are dozens of Bureau of Military History held witness statements that include descriptions of what life was like on Spike Island in 1921, see their cataglogue and search ‘Spike Island’. There are also two dozen diaries written by the prisoners held on Spike Island – contact the island for copies)

Sean mcSwiney escapes from Spike Island. Nottingham and Midland Catholic News . 7th May, 1921.

Collins, Michael. Michael Collins letter to President Eamon DeValera. 16/07/1921. DE/2/304/6/1/(064).

To hear more about the April Escape from Spike Island, see here –

Follow:
Content may be quoted with credit and link. References in book or contact me, I love to discuss the subject. For further reading on the 1921 prison pick up a copy of Tom O'Neill's Spike Island's Republican Prisoners 1921.