Ireland’s Alcatraz – Spike Island


Why visit Spike Island?

At the World Travel Awards in 2017,  Spike Island was named Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction for 2017.     Even more astonishing,  it beat incredible competition-  including the Great Wall of China and Mount Kilimanjaro – to come in second place behind Machu Picchu in the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction category.   So there must be something there worth seeing!


Where is it anyway?

Spike Island is situated in Cork Harbour on Ireland’s south coast.   It lies just off the Victorian town of Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’).   One of the largest natural harbours in the world,  in 1912 the ill fated Titanic was moored out past the island awaiting the last 123 of its passengers before departing for New York.


DSC_2212(Cobh,  Co. Cork)


dsc_2231.jpg(Spike Island viewed from Cobh)


Getting There

The trip could be managed from Dublin but it would be a very long day with a 3.5 – 4 hour train journey or 3 hour drive from the capital each way.   It makes much more sense to use Cork or Cobh itself as a base.

From Cork city,  trains depart on the hour and the journey takes 24 minutes.   Its a 25 minute drive and there is plenty of free parking  – allow 20 minutes to park and walk to the ferry dock.    The car park on the way into town is also popular with camper vans.


DSC_2243(There’s a nice walkway from the car park to the jetty)


Tickets and Tours

Kennedy Pier is right in the town centre.    With only one boat in operation,  it is advisable to prebook if you can to get your tour of choice.   We arrived in Cobh at 11.45am for our 1.00pm trip so were hoping for an earlier crossing.  There was nothing available until mid afternoon but we were happy to wander and have lunch.  However, several visitors without bookings had to leave disappointed and that apparently is a daily occurrence especially in high season.



Tickets are available at the pier and cost €18 (adult) €10 (child) €45 (family).   Ferry travel is included in the ticket.   Once on the island jetty,  some visitors head off to do their own thing and the rest may be split into smaller groups by the awaiting guides.   (There is also an audioguide available).

On the short walk up to the actual prison,  the guides regale with facts and stories about the island.  Once inside the complex,  you are brought to some of the main attractions.   The tour lasts about 75 minutes and then you have time to explore on your own before heading back to the boat.   A total time of 3.5 hours is recommended to allow for the boat trips,  tour,   a walk around the island and a snack in the restaurant if you didn’t bring a picnic.




The trips are seasonal.   In March, April and October they operate at weekends and then run on 7 days per week from May to September.   They also offer after dark tours.

There is a cafe and toilets on site as well as some picnic facilities.


History of the Island

The earliest known accounts are from the 7th century when there was a monastic settlement on the island.

1600’s -during Cromwell’s campaigns it was used as a holding centre for the transportation of 1000’s of displaced Irish people to the West Indies.

Early 1800’s  – a fortress was built to protect the harbour from British enemies in western Europe.

In 1847,  at the height of the Great Famine,  it was serving as a prison again.  At one stage,  with 2300 inmates,  it was the largest prison in the world.    1000’s of prisoners were transported from the island to Australia and the Americas.   Most inmates were imprisoned for relatively minor crimes – many for stealing food.  Conditions were horrendous with up to 40 adults to a room.   During the famine years an estimated 1200 inmates died.  It was thought they died from starvation but its now believed that prison conditions killed them rather than the famine itself.   Archaeologists believe that there are up to 1000 bodies beneath the embankment on the east side of the island.

In 1883 the prison closed and the island reverted to military use.

It was used as a prison and internment camp during the War of Independence (1919-1921).

In 1922 with the foundation of the Irish free State,  the British were allowed to retain the use of the island.

It was handed back to the Irish State in 1938.

For the 4th time in its history,  it served as a prison from 1985 – 2004.   This time it was to house up to 120 civilian prisoners -many of them convicted joyriders (driving dangerously in a stolen car).   When the inmates rioted due to overcrowding and poor conditions,   new facilities were provided including more suitable 4 man cells.

In 2004 the prison closed and inmates were transferred to other facilities.

The island reopened as a tourist attraction in 2016.


On the Ferry

The boat trip lasts about 10 – 20 minutes depending on the tides.   It offers great views of Cobh with the Cathedral dominating the skyline.   On the way back you will pass ‘Heartbreak Pier’ where 123 passengers departed on tenders to join the Titanic which was moored further out.   44 of those passengers survived the sinking of the ship.



DSC_2200(Heartbreak Pier)




On the Island


The fortress was constructed in such a way as was barely visible to approaching enemy troops.




You can stay with the guide or wander off yourself.




You pass cottages up along the hill that once housed families of those stationed on the island as well as islanders who made this place their home.




Groups are small and the guides are brilliant.




Still not much visible as you climb the hill.




The entrance to star shaped Fort Mitchel






Mannequins bring  the prison to life.




The size of the parade ground is unexpected.







You can visit Victorian cell blocks as well as the newer cell complex of the 1980’s.





There are military museums and exhibition halls.






On the ramparts,  you can examine the guns or just admire the views across the harbour.




You can walk around the island.











Close to the jetty is the remains of the abandoned village which had its own schoolhouse and church.






While you’re in Cobh


Take a stroll along the waterfront,  past the fishing boats,  to the Victorian band stand on the promenade.







Climb up to St Colman’s Cathedral.  This piece of neo-Gothic architecture,  which took 47 years to complete,  is worth the effort.




While you’re up there, have a look across at Spike Island and the harbour.




Visit the ‘Deck of Cards’ – a hill of colourful Victorian houses.




The Titanic Experience is housed in the original White Star Line offices.




At Cobh Heritage Centre you can learn about the 2.5 million Irish people who emigrated from Ireland via Cobh.





Annie Moore was the first emigrant ever processed at Ellis island (New York) on January 1st, 1892.  This statue of Annie and her brothers stands outside the Heritage Centre.



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