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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
silentalex88 File photo
# Cork
Many prisoners on Spike Island may have been from 'black spots of disadvantage'
Spike Island initially became a convict depot in 1847.

PRISONERS AT THE 20th-century prison on Spike Island in Cork were mostly from “black spots of disadvantage”, archaeological excavations have suggested. 

Spike Island initially became a convict depot in 1847. By 1850, over 2,000 convicts were detained on the island. The prison then shut down a number of years later in 1883, when the last of the prisoners were relocated to the mainland. 

The British Army manned Spike Island through the 1920s and into the late 1930s and some Republican prisoners were held there.

However, almost a century the island became a prison yet again. Between 1985 and 2004 the prison was used for holding young offenders. According to a website about the island, many of those held in the prison were “joyriders” convicted of stealing and recklessly driving cars. 

After an initial trial excavation in 2012, the Spike Island Archaeological Project has dug on the island for four weeks each summer. Each season, teams of up to 40 people have participated, living in the fort on the island. 

The focus of the excavations was on its conversion in 1847, at the height of the famine-era, to the convict prison that operated until 1883. 

Convict-related finds from the excavations included carved gaming pieces and burials from the prison cemetery. The gaming pieces give some insight into how convicts coped with long sentences and a harsh prison regime, according to the researchers. 

A team led by Dr Barra O’Donnabhain of University College Cork documented graffiti marked on the walls of the modern prison and found parallels between the backgrounds of the Famine-era Victorian convicts and the prisoners held at the modern jail. 

The researchers discovered that the prisoners at the modern jail tended to write their names, their sentence and where they were from on the walls. 

“We noticed the same addresses if you like, kept popping up. Some of them were very generic, but it was usually inner-city social deprivation black spots that were showing up on these,” O’Donnabhain said.

“When we started this work, there was a big distinction in my mind between the famine-era Victorian convicts and the prisoners held here until the modern prison was shut in 2004,” he said. 

O’Donnabhain, however, noted that as the research went on, he began to see the “uncomfortable parallels” between the two systems.

I was really struck by how being better off, if you like, being from the middle class is a real protection in our society today about being in prison. Over time I began to see the Victorian prison and the modern prison as really being reflections of the same thing. 

BOD with artifact Stephen Bean, UCC Dr Barra O'Donnabhain with one of the artefacts found at the site. Stephen Bean, UCC

Other insights from the research

While O’Donnabhain found that the social classes of the Victorian-era and modern prisoners were similar, he noted that the living conditions varied. 

The researchers noted that there was inadequate accommodation for prisoners of the Victorian-era.

Forced labour was part of the punishment regime, and the convicts were put to work removing tons of rock from what is now the open parade ground. 

However, O’Donnabhain said that the modern prison rooms had televisions in later years and it had full cell sanitation, which many Irish prisons didn’t have at the time. 

The team also discovered artefacts in areas where prisoners were housed and in the backfill of some of the graves in the cemetery, including a collection of hand-carved stone and bone objects. 

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