First Prisoners Escaped from Spike Island on April 29th, 100 years ago, writes Tom O’Neill


During the Irish War of Independence, Spike Island in County Cork was the largest British military-run prison for republican prisoners and internees in the Martial Law area. During 1921, almost 1,200 republican activists were imprisoned on Spike Island. Most of the men were from the Martial Law area, Munster and counties Kilkenny and Wexford.

Prisoners were those imprisoned by Military Courts for their participation in republican attacks on Crown Forces. Approximately three hundred prisoners were held on Spike Island.
Internees were those imprisoned without trial for their suspected involvement in republican activities.
There were approximately 900 internees incarcerated in the internment compound on the island. There were no female prisoners on Spike Island.

The ‘Military Prison in the Field’ was opened on the 19th of February, 1921, and consisted of an internment compound and a prison compound.

On that day, the first eighty-four internees were transferred to Spike Island from the Cork Male Gaol, the Cork Military Detention Barracks and from the Brigade Cage in Victoria Barracks.

All the internees were accommodated in the North-East Casemates until the end of March.
On the 1st of April, they were moved into the ’A’ Block and into the ‘B’ Block which consisted of twenty-five wooden huts. This was in preparation for the arrival of the first republican prisoners from Bere Island.
Both locations were used as the internment compound until the prison closed. During the year, there were regular transfers of prisoners and internees in and out of Spike Island.

All the republican prisoners were transferred from Bere Island to Spike Island on the 14th of April.
They were accommodated in the North-East Casemates, which became the prison compound.

On the 29th of April, the first prisoners escaped from Spike Island. The prison chaplain, Fr Callanan, had conveyed the plans for the escape between the three prisoners and the Cobh IRA.
On the day of the escape, the three, Seán MacSwiney, brother of Terence MacSwiney, the former Lord Mayor of Cork, Cornelius Twomey and Tom Malone, volunteered to carry out maintenance work on the army golf course, outside the fort. The priority was to get 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 consisting of Comdt Michael Burke, officer commanding the Cobh IRA, accompanied by George O’Reilly, Frank Barry and Andrew Butterly headed from Cobh to Spike by boat.
When the boat reached Spike, the prisoners were in position. Suddenly, the prisoners sprang into action and Malone attacked the armed sentry.

He hit him twice in the head with a hammer and the sentry collapsed, fatally wounded. The other prisoners overpowered the two soldiers and the prisoners jumped aboard the boat.
The boat headed for Paddy’s Block near Ringaskiddy. Eventually, the boat reached the mainland, and the three IRA men quickly made their getaway.

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