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Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners in 1921


During the Irish War of Independence‚ the fort on Spike Island in County Cork was the largest British military run prison for republican prisoners and internees in the Martial Law area. During 1921‚ approximately 300 prisoners and 900 internees were imprisoned there. Most of the men were from the Martial Law area‚ Munster and counties Kilkenny and Wexford.

The ‘Military Prison in the Field’ was opened on the 19th February 1921. On that day, the first internees were transferred to Spike Island from the prisons in Cork city. On the 1st of April, the internees were moved to another part of the fort. This was in preparation for the arrival of all the republican prisoners from Bere Island on the 14th of April. During the year, there were regular transfers of prisoners and internees in and out of Spike Island.

On the 29th of April, three prisoners escaped from Spike Island. On that day, the three volunteered to carry out maintenance work on the army golf course, outside the fort. The priority was to get Tom Malone out, because the military authorities were not aware that he was the much-wanted IRA leader, operating under his alias, ‘Seán Forde’.

That morning, the rescue party headed from Cobh to Spike by boat. When the boat reached Spike, the prisoners sprang into action and Malone attacked the armed sentry with a hammer fatally wounding him. The other prisoners overpowered the two soldiers and the prisoners jumped aboard the boat. Eventually, the boat reached the mainland, and the three IRA men quickly made their getaway.

On the evening of the 31st of May, internee Patrick White from Meelick, Co. Clare, was fatally shot by a British Army sentry, while playing hurling on the parade ground. He was shot when he went to retrieve the ball, after it rolled under the barbed wire fence that surrounded the internment compound. He died of his wounds shortly afterwards in the prison hospital. It is generally accepted that Patrick White was shot in retaliation for an IRA bomb attack on the band of the Hampshire Regiment outside Youghal earlier that morning, which resulted in the death of seven bandsmen.

The IRA staff officers in the prison were constantly planning and arranging events to address the boredom of the men. These events included football and hurling matches, concerts and Irish language classes. Another successful pastime was making silver jewellery from coins that were smuggled into Spike; the jewellery regularly took the form of Celtic design.

Several surviving written accounts mention the importance of religion to the men, while in prison. Fr Callanan, the prison chaplain, celebrated mass daily for the internees, while prisoners were only permitted to attend mass on Sundays and holy days.

The men that were imprisoned or interned on Spike Island during 1921 represent a full cross section of Irish society at the time. The variety of occupations reveals the breadth of support for the fight for independence.

A hunger strike began on Spike on the 30th of August for unconditional release, it lasted four days and was then abandoned. On Sunday October 16th, the internees began rioting and breaking up their huts. When the British soldiers regained control, they forced the internees out into the dry moat where they endured three cold, wet days and nights without shelter. The internment compounds were uninhabitable after the riots.

On the night of the 10/11th of November, seven internees escaped from Spike Island.  That evening, the seven men went through a hole in the wall at the rear of ‘A’ Block, through the sally port and into the dry moat. In the darkness they made their way to the main pier, from where they could barely see a boat further out. One of the men swam to it and with a pocketknife, he began to cut the rope. The knife slipped from his frozen hands and he had to sever the remaining strands with his teeth. He pushed the boat ashore and the seven men piled into the boat and came ashore on the east side of Cobh. Because of the Truce, they could not be rearrested by Crown Forces for escaping from custody.

On the night of the 16/17th of November, the last republican prisoners were moved from Spike to Kilkenny Gaol and thirteen of them were part of the large group that escaped from there through a tunnel on the 22nd.  On the 18th of November all the internees were transferred to Maryborough (Portlaoise) Prison. The Spike Island ‘Military Prison in the Field’ was closed.          

All republican internees were released in early December 1921, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. All republican prisoners were released in early January 1922, when the Treaty was ratified.

By Tom O’Neill, MA

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