Spike Island went from sleepy military outpost to epic island prison in October 1847, while the Irish famine raged. An explosion in convictions led to more prisoners than the jail or transportation system could handle. Spike Island was called into urgent action on a supposedly temporary basis. It would be thirty-six years before the last prisoner trudged the hill to the Spike Island Prison.
In that time, it had reached penal infamy, becoming the then largest known prison in the world. It is still the largest ever formal prison to have existed in Ireland and Britain.
It was a truly horrific place, particularly during its first eight years of operation. Stories of dark cells, drunken surgeons and hard labor abound. If just one story had to be offered to impart the injustice of that 19th century prison, and the wider penal system that filled its cells, that story must be the tale of fourteen-year-old Edmond Power of County Waterford.
The Ballykerogue boy was barely a teenager when he was convicted of his first crime in 1848, the audacious act of being homeless. That a boy of fourteen was homeless during one of the worst famines in human history is unsurprising. Regardless, the statue books made a criminal of Edmond, and set him on a path to ruin.
Waterford was hard hit as anywhere in Ireland during the famine of the 1840’s. It is likely Edmond was orphaned as a result. He was sentenced to two months in prison for his vagrancy, where he at least received food and shelter. For all the hardship of Ireland’s prisons, Edmond would not starve as was likely in the outside world.
The cruel nature of prison life was no place for a young boy, still forming his opinions on the world. He had no family or friend to show concern, making him a forgotten pawn in Britain’s game of Empire.
Another possibility is that Edmond’s parents abandoned him and emigrated during the famine, not an uncommon occurrence for desperate families. Children were deserted in the hope that the Poor Law Union would care for them. If their parents could find work abroad, they might return to be reunited in better circumstances.
First, they would have to survive the coffin ships where death rates on oversea voyages could reach 30%. Atlantic crossings were extended into freezing winter months and unsuitable ships pressed into service. Their final destinations also held dangers, the slums of America and Britain where jobs were scarce and work perilous. Some welcomed Irish emigrants with open arms, while others refused them work and welcome.
The chances of a renewal of acquaintances after such a separation were unlikely, highlighting the desperate decisions being made.
Whatever the reasons, Edmond was alone and found himself imprisoned a second time within a year of his first term. This time he advanced to stealing milk. He received a whipping on arrival to prison and again on release, deplorable treatment of a boy so young and in need of assistance. Unsurprisingly a third conviction followed as the causes of his criminality went unaddressed.
Edmond entered the Dungarvan Workhouse in 1851 after serving his latest sentence, on condition that he receive permission when he wanted to come and go. It was arguably little better than the prisons he had frequented, with food scarce and the work endless. Built in 1842 and first occupied in 1844, the Dungarvan Workhouse was designed to hold 600 occupants. By January 1849, 3000 souls were crammed into every corner.
His disappearance one day unannounced led to a fourth conviction and a month of hard labour. A matter of months later a fifth and final conviction followed for Edmond, this time for stealing a cow. This serious crime and fifth conviction saw homeless youth Edmond Power receive a sentence of ten years transportation. In three desperate years Edmond had gone from homeless child to transportable criminal.
The sentence of transportation increasingly meant a term in Irish jails, as the transportation system was grinding to a halt. Australia was refusing to accept more convicts. Even those that could be sent faced long waits, as increasing numbers caused delays in the system.
Edmond arrived on Spike Island as a damaged and destitute eighteen-year-old, a multi-conviction criminal of circumstance with no prospects and no sympathy for his plight. He understandably held nothing but anger for the symbols of the system that had incarcerated him.
The Island’s prison Chaplain, Reverend Gibson, described Edmond after meeting him;
“…a dark and sallow man, about thrity years of age, belonging to the County of Waterford”.,
He would tar him as
‘a strolling thief from infancy’,
a harsh assessment of a boy with no prospect of survival other than by nefarious means.
Power certainly received no sympathy from a notorious Prison Warder on the island, William Reddy, who had transferred to Spike from the single cell prison environment of Mountjoy.
The system in operation in Ireland at the time involved three phases of incarceration, starting with as much as nine months of single cell confinement in Dublin’s Mountjoy. Mountjoy prison had been designed by the prison designer of the age, Joshua Jebb, and opened in March of 1850. Its 500 single cells offered the desired solitary confinement.
There was no interaction with other inmates allowed during this first phase, to allow prisoners to contemplate their actions. Inmates had to wear a veil over their face during limited time outside their cell, in an attempt at sensory deprivation.
This first phase of their sentence complete, the prisoner would work as part of a chain gang in labour intensive projects, the type of which Spike Island could easily provide. Finally, they would be transported overseas, where they could work with some degree of freedom under government supervision until release.
This desired approach, formulated in the 1840’s, was blind to the fact that transportation was an ailing system, in its death throes. The attraction towards the system remained. When transportation did end in the 1850’s, the first two phases of single cell confinement followed by physical labour remained in favour.
The final phase of transportation was replaced with time in an ‘intermediate’ prison, like Lusk, north of Dublin. Here the men would labour in open prison conditions far more amenable than Spike’s convict cells, prior to reintegration to society, in an early forerunner of the parole system.
Spike Island Chaplain Reverend Gibson describes the system as follows;
“The prisoner is first crushed between the stone walls of a solitary cell, at Mountyjoy, where a little of the ‘mealy’ part of his nature appears outside the bruised and broken husk. He is then forwarded to the working prison of Spike Island to be ground, where a good deal of the ‘chaff’ is taken out of him. He is finally sent to Smithfield and Lusk to be ‘dressed’ for market”.
It was during this single cell confinement in Mountjoy that Edmond had encountered Warder Reddy, an encounter that would prove fatal. The strict taskmaster had upset a significant number of inmates with his behavior, many would later recount.
While claims by prisoners against prison wardens are not infrequent, and should be taken with a pinch of salt, the high number of charges leveled against Reddy suggests he was a bully among the guards, prone to the mistreatment of convicts.
Among those he offended was a friend of Edmond Power’s in the Irish prison system, Patrick Norris. Norris, who also hailed from County Waterford, was just sixteen when he received ten years for arson in 1851.
He was by all accounts a much meaner character than Edmond, described as having the;
“…vivacity of a rough haired terrier, was as mischievous as a monkey, and as full of tricks as a kitten”.
The two may have met during prison time in Waterford or elsewhere, but they certainly knew one another at Spike Island, to the detriment of Edmond Power.
While Edmond was considered mild mannered before he associated with Norris, the duo got into trouble frequently. Other convicts would identify Norris as the rotten apple of the pair.
Warder William Reddy was a stern taskmaster who was quick to punish the duos transgressions, falling deeply out of favour with the pair. Edmond saw the inside of Spike Island’s solitary cells numerous times.
By 1856 the boy of fourteen when first imprisoned in 1848 was an angry, broken man of twenty two.
He was deeply resentful of the authority that showed him no mercy. Edmond came to logger heads with Warder Reddy one evening when Reddy accused him of jumping about on a bed with Norris. Edmond claimed it was another inmate entirely, and despite a strong suggestion that Edmond was being honest on this occasion, Reddy documented the number of Edmond’s bed.
This was the precursor to some form of punishment. It appeared to be one mistreatment too many for Edmond, who was later seen complaining and plotting with Patrick Norris and several other inmates.
Norris allegedly said;
“I will settle with this long policeman if I get anyone to come along with me.”
To which Edmond Power replied
“I will go by Heaven along with you”.
Another convict later testified that he heard similar threats made by the men on another occasion. The die was cast, and William Reddy’s days were numbered. The punishment for both men’s tomfoolery did follow, being sentenced to three days in the island’s solitary cells on bread and water in complete darkness and isolation.
Those solitary cells were contained in the dark, desperate depths of the tunnels deep under bastion three, an area designed to hold the forts gunpowder which had been hastily converted in 1847. While any solitary cell is a place to dread, these cells were close to one hundred feet underground, where no light penetrated.
It was a place to which the warmth of the sun never penetrated. Edmond knew their cold confines all too well. The sentence incensed him.
While being removed to the cells, a scuffle broke out and Edmond later claimed he was injured by a warder’s sword. something the warders claimed was attributable to his resistance. For three full days the anger of both men stewed in dark cell confinement, years of mistreatment bubbling into a plan of action. Further enraging them, Power was demoted from second class prisoner to third class, and Norris was denied the chance to earn points for a month. Soon after release on the 26th of September 1856, both men were back in their dormitory, but they were not the same men. Revenge emanated from once soft eyes.
Warder William Reddy was in his usual poor form, taking a prisoner from Kerry to task for some alleged transgression. He entered the A block ward where both Edmond and Norris were in bed, and the warder engaged in general conversation with some inmates about the level of light in the room. On the request of an inmate, Reddy tended to the single oil lamp that lit the room, turning his back to the group to do so.
As he looked away, Edmond Power crept from his bed and walked the short distance across the ward, his hand cupping some foreign object. There were a few short steps in the life of man, but they had consequences that lasted a lifetime.
As Reddy inspected the lamp, Edmond Power raised an object high above his head and brought it crashing down with deadly force. The blow to the skull crippled Reddy who crashed to the floor. Edmond Power did not stand and watch. He had turned and walked back toward his bed in robotic fashion, climbing inside and hiding his weapon.
Stunned convicts watched on as Patrick Norris then entered the room and struck the prone William Reddy a second time. He quickly secreted something in the bed of a fellow convict, who protested loudly.
The noise and commotion caught the attention of nearby warden William Chapman, who pushed his way frantically through a crowd of gawkers to find Reddy laid out, labouring to breathe but alive. He grabbed and loudly blew his whistle and pandemonium erupted in the jail. Guards arrived from all angles, prisoners bolted to their wards, and prison Governor Hay was quickly on the manic scene as the night turned to mayhem.
While the commotion went on about him, Warder Chapman cradled Reddy’s head and noted a significant soft area on one side, indicating a fracture. As he held him, William Reddy began to breathe deeply, and suddenly breathed his last, dying in the arms of his colleague. A moment of silence engulfed the room, the enormity of the situation evident.
Governor Hay was incensed and roared for the guilty men to be identified, but no convict took the bait, each remaining silent. He ordered that the murder weapon be found, and summoned the two convict warders for the block, prisoners who were given responsibilities in return for special treatment, to be interviewed.
The convict warders quickly gave the names Norris and Power and both were seized and led away for interview. A quick search also found an iron bar under the bed of innocent bystander John Power, who was dragged away despite the protests of his fellow inmates.
While the interviews were underway the atmosphere in the prisons enormous A block, capable of holding over six hundred men, became incendiary. Rather than taming the convicts, the violence of the incident and seeing innocent fellow convict John Power roughly dragged from his bed drove the men to rebellion. Requests for calm and obedience were met with anger and derision, and not an ounce of sympathy was expressed for murdered William Reddy as tempers reached fever pitch.
The moment passed without further incident, a dark night on the island prison ended in an odd, eerie silence. Sleep was in short supply.
The following day both Edmond Power and Patrick Norris sat in the solitary cells.
Reverand Charles Gibson recalled visiting Power and wrote of Emond’s ‘complete shock’ when he relayed the news to him that William Reddy had died. It seems improbable that Power could not have known this, or that the blow he inflicted could prove fatal, yet that Priest was convinced it was not his intention to kill the Warder.
Reverend Gibson was so convinced that he made a strenuous effort to save the lives of the men when they stood trial. Gibson suspected their intention was to attack and injure Reddy for his trespasses, and not fatally strike the frustrating warder. He believed the lack of intention should spare them the ultimate punishment for their crime, with the hangmans noose still in regular use.
Their intentions mattered little, and both Edmond and Norris were sentenced to death. The judge felt he had little choice in the matter, as he summarized;
“You took offence against him (Warder Reddy), you meditated revenge against him, and you openly threatened that you would take revenge on him. About a week after this transaction you had an opportunity, and you seized that opportunity …
How can I characterise this diabolical act. It was not done in the heat of blood or sudden passion, but upon deliberate premeditation on your parts. The malignant feeling was working in your minds, and you sought this opportunity to wreak your vengeance upon Reddy.
There is but one sentence that I am able to pronounce by law upon you. It is not in my power to mitigate that sentence. It may be in the power of His Excellency the Lord Lieutenant to do so, but I must warn you against cherishing any false hopes on that subject, for I feel persuaded that under the peculiar circumstances of your case, any hopes on that subject must be disappointed, if you entertain them. I think there is no pardon for you at this side of the grave”
He duly sentenced them to death, but the judge’s prediction was to prove incorrect. Just twenty four hours before it was due to be carried out, the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life, which by 1856 generally meant life imprisonment. This was an unusual step in Victorian era Ireland, but a vocal newspaper campaign had suggested it was the right course of action, echoing the sentiment of the islands prison Chaplain.
Norris was overjoyed with the news when he received it, but the more sensitive Power’s reaction was strange, as relayed by Reverend Gibson;
“Power, the man who struck the fatal blow, was stunned and stupid. The pale smile with which he welcomed me was a like a moonbeam on the face of a corpse”.
The unlikely reprieve was in line with an increasing realisation of the unfair situation of many of Irelands alleged criminals during the famine years. Many were serving double digit sentences for crimes as trivial as stealing bread, milk and other crimes of survival. In the midst of a famine where such decisions determined life or death, were they really deserving of such harsh sentences? The answers may seem obvious to us now, but 19th century justice grappled with the question.
Edmond Power had committed murder in 1856, which for many meant his punishment was death regardless of his circumstances. Yet others saw the seeds of his murder were planted by the mistreatment he suffered in the eight years leading to the event. Was Edmond Power truly a murderer, or was he made one, by circumstances far beyond his control? A tree twisted by an ill wind.
For all the apparent joy in avoiding the death sentence, the reality of a life in prison now faced Edmond Power. He and friend Norris were sent to Mountjoy where Reverend Gibson went to see the men whose lives he had helped to save. He found the visit did not go as he had hoped.
Seeing Power suffering the gravity of a life sentence, he pondered;
The murderer was seated on the floor, picking like a bird at a piece of bread. When I saw the change which a few months of solitary imprisonment had produced, and marked his blank pale face, without a ray of hope, I reproached myself with having done him and his companion in crime an injury, by saving them from the gallows.
“There they lie buried,” I soliloquized, “inside the walls of the jail. The latter part of the Judges sentence has been carried out at all events”.
Gibson need not have been concerned that his act was not the benevolent action he intended. Around 1881, Edmond Power was given the grace of freedom to enjoy his last days on this earth. He was still relatively young after starting his sentence as a teenager, being less than fifty years old.
By this point he had served an incredible three decades in prison. He could at least look forward to a reasonable number of years of life, which he would have to spend living abroad as a condition of his release was to leave Ireland. This may have been a nod to the sensitivities of the widow and family of William Reddy, as the whole affair was a balancing act for the authorities. Power’s eventual early release risked accusations of being overly lenient to a convicted murderer.
Power had improved himself in prison as he grew and matured, leaving behind the broken soul that Reverend Gibson saw in the months after beginning his life sentence. Visiting him some six years into his sentence, he found a growing boy who was on the way to becoming a man;
“The expression of Power’s face is greatly changed. It has lost the heavy and stolid appearance of the ox. He looks less muscular and more intelligent. He has less of the brute and more of the man. He is now what is styled a “wardsman,” a high position among prisoners. He knew me at once and showed me his books. He has learned to read and write and seems to take an interest in the improvement of his mind.
I did not, on this occasion, regret that I had aided in saving his life”.
Some would argue that his approximately twenty-five years served was not suitable justice for his victim, William Reddy. Others, that a boy driven to such a demented condition by a decade of mistreatment at the hands of the state should never have seen the inside of a prison cell. Let alone spend three decades confined within one.
It can be argued that all were victims, and the true guilty party, the British Penal System, was the one that deserved to stand trial.
It never would, and one can only hope that Edmond Power saw past the injustice of the hand he was dealt, as he lived out his days away from his birth county of Waterford, the only ever notion of a place he called home.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
For the complete story of the Victorian Prison on Spike Island see – O’Donnobhain, B and McCarthy, Cal, Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets – Cork County Library – 2016. This author first encountered this character and the prisons history in amazing detail in this seminal work
William Fraher (Author), William Whelan, Bernadette Sheridan, Seosaimh O Loinsigh. Desperate Haven: The Poor Law, Famine, & Aftermath in Dungarvan Union. s.l. : Dungarvan Museum Society , 1996.
Moran, Gerard (NUI Galway via RTE). What happened to children during the famine. www.rte.ie. [Online] April 2022. https://www.rte.ie/history/2022/0331/1289607-what-happened-to-children-during-the-famine/.
McMahon, Cian T. The Coffin Ship. s.l. : New York University Press, 2021.
Union, Board of Guardians of Dungarvan Poor Law. Dungarvan Poor Law Union Meetings. 1850. BG/DUNGN/4.
The Spike Island murder. Cork Examiner. 18th March, 1857.