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Ireland's Alcatraz

Locked up for years for stealing a handkerchief - Delving into Spike Island's dark past

The prison was intended only as a temporary response to increased criminality during the famine, but remained open for 36 years.

National Monuments Service Photographic Unit National Monuments Service Photographic Unit

BURIED UNDERNEATH THE beautiful landscape of Spike Island is a dark chapter in this country’s history.

In the Victorian era, and particularly when the Famine started, Ireland’s poor could find themselves landed with a prison sentence of seven years for stealing a handkerchief, an umbrella or a few potatoes.

The prison on Spike Island, sometimes referred to as Ireland’s Alcatraz, was opened as an emergency response to the Famine, Dr Barra O’Donnabhain, one of the authors of a new book on the prison, explained.

“In 1847 it was perceived that there was a rise in criminality. Starving people were stealing things, becoming homeless more frequently and, of course, homelessness had been criminalised,” he said. “Wandering beggars were seen as a source of something undesirable.”

Minor offences

The majority of men who ended up behind bars on Spike Island had been convicted of relatively minor crimes like thefts of small items like handkerchiefs, umbrellas, food, or livestock.

“By 1847 if you stole a shoe buckle or a handkerchief you could be technically convicted of grand larceny,” O’Donnabhain said - and the minimum sentence was seven years.

A small number of inmates were imprisoned for more serious offences like murder, manslaughter and even bestiality.

Life inside the prison was grim. It had only been intended as a temporary measure and had been constructed originally as a military barracks.

Some of the cells were built into the bastions of the fort. Those rooms were intended for 13 soldiers in peacetime and 26 in wartime. They crammed up to 40 convicts into each one of these dormitory-style rooms. It was always seen as unsatisfactory – they talked about the “evils of association” and there were concerns about prisoners ganging up on prison staff.



Over the 36 years of the prison’s operation, 80% of the 1,200 deaths occurred in the four years from 1850 to 1854. There was significant overcrowding over those four years, with more than 2,300 inmates in the prison in 1850.

O’Donnabhain explained that the diet in the prison consisted of a large bowl of porridge in the mornings, a pound of bread and pint of milk for lunch and a half pound of bread and half pint of milk for dinner – an attractive menu for the starving famine population outside.

BARA on Spike _SHBean (1) Dr Barra O'Donnabhain examining human remains.

There were 286 deaths in 1853 alone and while most were blamed on the famine conditions outside, and the poor health of prisoners on entering the facility, the author said the overcrowding almost certainly contributed. Deaths fell considerably to just two in 1858, once the overcrowding issue had been addressed.

Those who died in the prison were buried in a graveyard on the east side of the island, which was buried under many metres of earth in the 1860s.

While ostensibly done as part of the completion of the fortifications on the island, it also conveniently erased from memory a dark chapter in the island’s history.

The new book aims to shine a light on the lives of the people who imprisoned on Spike Island, as O’Donnabhain and his team at UCC continue efforts to establish the whereabouts of the graveyard this summer.

The book, Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets: A History of the Victorian Convict Prison on Spike Island, is co-authored by Cal McCarthy and can be found in Cork County Library or purchased here.

Read: Nowhere to turn: These Irish women killed their babies to avoid lives of scandal and poverty>

Read: Meet Ireland’s early 20th century female drunkards>

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