Spike Island opened as a prison for Irish Republican prisoners and internees in February 1921, while the Irish War of Independence raged and British Authorities was arresting more rebels than they could easily incarcerate. The number in custody exploded from 1500 to almost 4500 in the early months of 1921, aided by the declaration of Martial Law in an area that encompassed the six counties of Munster and Kilkenny and Wexford. Suspected rebels could be held without trial as internment gave sweeping powers to British forces.
Civilian prisons, military detention barracks and internment camps called into service struggled to cope with the demand. Such locations were at risk of escape attempts, from the determined men held inside the prison, and from their comrades on the outside. IRA leaders plotted to free incarcerated troops, particularly those of strategic value.
A suitable holding place for large numbers of prisoners was required, and Spike Island was called into detention service for the third time in three hundred years, having held convicts in the 1800’s and Cromwell’s prisoners of war in the 1600’s. But as soon as the Republicans arrived, they began plotting an escape from Spike Island.
The letter requesting a rapid transformation from Military base to Military Prison landed with a thud on the desk of the Commanding Officer, Spike Island, on February 15th 1921. The Island was to receive Republican prisoners and internees in a matter of days. 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. Sixty men of the Cameron Highlanders were assigned to guard duty, where they would patrol the prison twenty four hours a day as armed guards.
From there, things moved quickly. Wire fences sprung up in the three areas identified to hold the men over the course of the prisons life span. Searchlights and watchtowers were installed to sweep the area, creating a gauntlet of armed guards and detection points which any escapee would struggle to overcome. In a matter of days, the island and fortress was transformed.
The families living on the island received warning of the change and were issued military passes, so they could be identified as having legitimate business. Newspaper notices warned the public of the opening.
The island was on high alert and just four days after the letters arrival, the first eighty four rebels arrived. They would be followed by an unbelievable 1100 more, as the location became the largest such ‘Military Prison in the Field’ in the Martial Law area. The location was ideal, the Freeman’s Journal describing it as ‘strongly fortified, and reported to be impregnable‘. That designation did not deter the determined men sent to the island, who would try to escape by any means necessary. Some of those rebels had more reason than most to escape from Spike Island – in fact for some it was a matter of life and death.
Tom Malone, from County Westmeath was active early in the War of Independence and had escaped from British Authorities once already, breaking from Mountjoy Prison on 20th March 1919. He made his way to East Limerick where he began going by the name Sean Forde, so that if he was arrested for any new activity, he might avoid a longer sentence for his previous escape. His brother had inspired the name by taking the alias Michael Forde, highlighting the popularity of the ruse. Tom Malone knew the real Sean Forde, from Galway, was in America with his brother at the time.
It was a smart idea, but Tom was so successful in his efforts at attacking RIC Barracks in the region, that the name he had chosen for himself, Sean Forde, quickly made its way towards the top of Britain’s most wanted list. When he was eventually arrested for his activities on Christmas Day, 1920, and charged with attempted murder of an Auxiliary Policeman on Cork’s McCurtain Street, Tom faced a dilemma.
If he gave his original name, it might link him to his previous sentence and jail break, incurring an increased sentence. But if he gave his current alias, Sean Forde, he risked immediate execution, as he had become so notorious for his activities that a sentence of death would not be unusual.
He opted, under brutal questioning which involved breaking his teeth and burning his back with a hot tongs, to give his original name, Tom Malone, and stood trial only for the current known activity of attacking an Auxiliary. He must have thought his deception was in vain when he was sentenced to death for the attempted murder of the Policeman, but this was commuted to fifteen years.
After spending time in Cork Jail and Bere Island, Tom arrived to Spike Island on April 15th with mixed emotions. Such a sentence was hardly ideal, but he knew it could have been far worse if his new identify, as the RIC barracks attacking Sean Forde, had been exposed. He had to watch his step.
He barely had time to consider the possibilities when his identity was betrayed, in the most unfortunate circumstances. While in the safe confines of Mass on Spike Island, Tom had no idea that an internee who knew him as his alter ego, Sean Forde, was sitting in the opposite side of the congregation. Mass was the only time prisoners and internees shared the same space, occupying opposites sides of the religious theater. They often tried to fraternize with their friends to share stories and updates, an opportunity they were deprived of within the prisons walls.
The internee must have been surprised to see his friend Sean Forde sitting opposite, having had no news of his arrest. Little did he know of Tom Malone’s deception, which was so complete it even fooled his fellow Republicans. When Mass ended the internee tried to pass Tom some cigarettes, but was unable to do so among the throng of prisoners and soldiers.
He approached a British Officer and asked cordially if he wouldn’t mind passing the cigarettes to his friend, Sean Forde, but the officer looked confused. He did not see any person of that name, but made inquiries. The prison officer disappeared for a time, and its likely during this period he reported the strangeness of the incident to his superiors, who knew full well the name Sean Forde.
Fortunately for Tom Malone, the internee who had tried to pass him the cigarettes also reported the incident to his Commanding Officer in the intervening time, who registered that Forde was likely to be using an alias. He urged the internee not to identify Sean Forde, for his safety.
The guard returned for the internee in a casual manner, calling him to a place where he could see the prisoners parading in the fort, including Tom Malone. He asked him to identify this Sean Forde for him, so he could carry out the request. The internee played dumb, saying he must have been mistaken and could not see him.
It was a lucky escape for Tom Malone, but he knew full well, the walls were closing in. He had to find a way to escape from Spike Island.
While imprisoned word reached Tom that the British had arranged to send a man to Spike Island to identify him as Sean Forde, but Liam Lynch, Commander of the 1st Southern Division IRA, arranged for the man to be executed*. Unperturbed, the British arranged for his transfer back to Cork Jail where formal identification would take place. Persons familiar with the appearance of the wanted man Sean Forde were to be present, and Tom Malone’s double deception would be revealed.
Tom was determined to avoid this outcome, and with the help of the IRA leaders inside the prison, a plan was formed. An escape attempt was arranged that would involve the help of members of the Cobh IRA, the IRA Commanding Officers inside the prison, and a mysterious ‘Mr X’ liaising between the island and mainland. An island employee was taking great risks with their life, and the prisoners were careful not to reveal their identity.
The size of the challenge…
This kind of help was essential as the prisoners knew the challenges of a formal prison break under cover of darkness. If they broke out of their locked huts, they would find themselves in exercise yards lined with thick barbed wire. Armed sentries patrolled the areas outside, and they were authorized to shoot first and ask questions later. Machine gun posts were installed in high watchtowers on the forts walls. The forts internal walls would have to be scaled, no small feat given they were between twenty two and thirty feet high, and the drop on the other side was even higher on account of a raised inner fort level.
Searchlights swept the fort and perimeter by night-time in a scene straight out of Hollywood, including the area of the dry moat, which would reveal any escapee that had cleared initial obstacles. If they made it across the dry moat undetected, the wall surrounding the moat was another twenty foot obstacle, and outside it was the wide open Glacis, with nowhere suitable to hide.
As well as contending with trigger happy sentries, the then civilian population on Spike Island consisted almost entirely of British families, as Irish recruitment had dried up during the War of Independence. Whatever their politics, the residents were certainly loyal to their military husbands and fathers serving in the fort, and would not want to see them injured or in endangered. A breakout would be quickly reported.
The final hurdle for any escapees was unique to Spike Island, as it is Alcatraz, and Robben Island – that extraordinarily rare collection of island prisons in paradise locations. The escapee would have to swim a significant body of water to earn their final freedom. Even strong swimmers would fear the dangers posed by unknown currents in a strong tidal area, and having no local knowledge, any haphazard landing site put them at risk of recapture.
The icing on the cake at Spike Island was that during the period of the 1921 prison, an armed motor boat patrolled the waters around the island 24/7, with a crew ready to deal with any trouble from inside the prison, or escape attempts originating from outside. It was, to all intents and purposes, impossible to escape from Spike Island.
Knowing these difficulties, a plan was devised that first involved Tom Malone volunteering for maintenance work during the day on the exposed Glacis, outside the forts walls. The Glacis had been converted into a nine hole golf course by British Officers, as once again Irish prisoner labour was used to shape Spike Island.
On the morning of 29th April, a Saturday, Tom Malone was led out under the impressive archway of Fort Mitchel’s entrance to begin work on the course, cutting its grass with a lawnmower. With him were two important Republicans – Cornelius Twomey of Cork City, who had traveled with him from Bere Island to Spike Island, who was also serving fifteen years for his Republican activities. And Sean MacSwiney of Cork City, a T.D and none other than the brother of former Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, who had died on hunger strike the previous year. Sean was also serving fifteen years, and the trio represented highly valuable members of the IRA’s opposition to British rule, who were within sight of home.
The three men were accompanied by three guards, an armed sentry with a rifle, an unarmed Corporal and a Sergeant, who talked among themselves in idle fashion as befitted a Saturday morning in April. Little did the military men know, just a few hundred meters away, a boat full of Irish Republicans watched their every move, anticipating an explosion of action.
The mysterious Mr X had fulfilled his role and a company of brave Cobh volunteers secured a boat and set out under the direction of Comdt Michael Burke. He was joined by George O’Reilly, Frank Barry and Andrew Butterly, and the men sailed with a Union Jack tied to their vessel to avoid suspicion (accounts differ among the witness statements as to the boats occupants). They pretended to fish close the islands shores, an extraordinarily brave move for four IRA volunteers, to carry such a risky mission just a stone’s throw from an entire British Garrison.
With a British Naval Base nearby, Spike Island’s significant military presence, and British patrols sweeping the harbour, the men knew full well they were operating inside enemy waters. Incredibly, as their boat set off they collided with the launch ferrying soldiers to and from Spike Island, but there was no damage, and they were not exposed. They could breath again.
Tom Malone and his companions were working on the islands east side, above a flat area of ground then used as a cricket pitch. Out of sight of the sentries in the fort, they worked in silence, until it was time. They exploded into action. Having pretended the lawnmower was broken to gain use of a hammer, Tom Malone launched at the armed sentry with the improvised weapon, who fell to the ground under fierce blows. Malone said he heard in later years the guard was fatally wounded, and would later succumb to his injuries, though there is no evidence of this.
Con Twomey and Sean MacSwiney overpowered the Corporal and Sergeant, and with Malone’s help they tied them up and hide them in a hollow on the Glacis, the slope surrounding the fort.
Meanwhile the rescue boat had been brought into shore and the men raced in its direction, diving inside to join their rescuers. The plan was to head for Crosshaven where a car had been arranged, but disaster struck! Coming so close to shore, the engine had ingested seaweed, and it spluttered and struggled to propel them to safety.
They decided to aim for the nearest point of mainland, Paddy’s Block. As the boat limped away from the island, the worried men looked back to see two Officers emerge to play a round of golf, and they headed for the exact spot where the tied up sentries had been left. Spotting them, an Officer first blew a whistle then fired two shots in the air to gather attention. The alarm was well and truly raised, and the men now freed of their restraints disappeared toward the fortress.
Mere moments later they reappeared with a mass of armed guards, and spotting the boat, Tom Malone recounted the soldiers firing on the vessel from the considerable distance of the islands summit. Yet still the boat limped on.
The boat mercifully made its way to the mainland and the group raced for nearby Ringaskiddy, where they commandeered a horse and cart. The escapees were taken to Ballinhassig where they hid in a nearby dug out until the following day, before each returned to their respective areas.
During the transfer, Tom Malone met Liam Lynch and could not resist swapping his captured army rifle for a parabellum hand gun, the smaller handheld luger style weapon being much more suited to his rebellious activities. Having only escaped a matter of hours, his future intentions were very clear, and his fighting was far from over. He was granted a motorbike which he rode to Limerick, and was nearly ambushed by his own men who took him for the enemy.
Sean MacSwiney survived the War of Independence and went on to join the anti-treaty side in the Civil War, later in life becoming an elected member of Cork City Council, or Cork Corporation as it was then known.
Fellow escapee Con Twomey does not appear on any further arrest or casualty records, so presumably he survived the War.
The escape from Spike Island was a sensational success, earning praise for its daring and execution from such a highly secure location. It bolstered Republican morale at a time of high peril. That it involved the senior figures within the camp planning in secret, and a clandestine operation arranged with a brave local IRA unit in Cobh, and was all tied together and assisted by a mysterious figure who could come and go freely from the Island Prison, made it all the more mysterious.
There is no indication that the British every discovered the insider, who was so remarkably entrenched in the island set up that he was even offering assistance to the injured soldiers at the scene of the escape. It was revealed years later that the mysterious Mr X was in fact none other than Father Fitzgerald, a Prison Chaplain at Spike Island who was sympathetic to the IRA’s cause. The Priest took significant risks to aid the incarcerated prisoners, risks to his position, his standing, and his life.
It also felt like a significant victory to the prisoners and internees. In the daily diary kept by internee John Hennessy , he noted the incident as follows;
‘At 9 o’clock today Sean MacSwiney and two others made miraculous escape from here by knocking down their guard and getting off in a motor boat‘.
The escape from Spike Island led to no further work parties being allowed outside the fortress. In just a few months on July 11th, a Truce was announced between Britain and Ireland, and the three escapees could not be rearrested. The agreement of a Truce and beginning of negotiations were a staggering achievement that must have thrilled the hearts of all the prisoners. They had risked it all, and could now dream that their sacrifice would be worthwhile.
That a tiny island nation had fought an army many multiples its size, and forced to the table a nation Empire that had brutally extinguished its dreams of self determination for seven hundred years, was unimaginable.
However, for the Spike Island prisoners and internees who remained incarcerated while the details of the Truce were finalized, it was a slow wait. The remaining prisoners could only dream of joining their comrades, wishing for an escape from Spike Island. Prisoners came and went throughout the year, rebels like Sean (John) Collins, brother of the infamous Michael Collins, who was then the Director of intelligence for the IRA and Minister for Finance.
Michael suggested he would visit Spike Island to call on his brother, who had been imprisoned on the island since May 16th. It must have been an uncomfortable situation for both men, Sean knowing the peril his brother’s notoriety placed him in, and Michael fearing his own brother might receive mistreatment as a result of his status. In a letter to President Eamon DeValera dated the 16th of July, Michael Collins wrote;
“…Things and people here are splendid – everything going on magnificently, fine spirit, fine confidence…
I asked them for a permit to visit my brother on Spike Island. It was purely for family and domestic reasons. They said they could not be responsible for my safety in the Martial Law area, which means that they could and would be responsible for my non safety. The whole thing is an effort on their part to make us believe that they have irresponsible forces. My effort of course is the very contrary, and it will be seen later how I intend to make them responsible. With every good wish”.
There is no record of his wish being granted, and his brother Sean Collins remained on the island until early October before being sent to Cork Military Hospital in Victoria Barracks for treatment to rheumatic arthritis that plagued his hand.
The closure of Spike Island’s Republican prison, and release of all the prisoners and internees, would eventually come, and Ireland looked forward to a brighter future – save for a bloody Civil War that caused deep division, and economic stagnation during the depression of the 1930’s. There was one more unbelievable escape from Spike Island before the prison closed, in November 1921.
Spike Island became a topic of conversation in the Treaty debates, as the British were determined to hold on to the Cork Harbour forts and other strategic locations. Winston Churchill fought tooth and nail to retain a location he had visited in 1912, fully understood its strategic importance. He succeeded, and Spike Island remained a British Military base for another 17 years until 1938. But Ireland would successfully argue for and win the islands return in 1938, in a truly momentous state occasion.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
Tom O’Neill – Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners 1921 – 2021 – The History Press. O’Neill’s 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.
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).