Down through the centuries the tiny but strategically positioned Spike Island in Cork Harbour has been a monastic settlement, a fort and a prison. In 2010 it was taken over by Cork County Council and developed into a tourist attraction where visitors can now relive its fascinating history, writes Tom O’Neill.

Spike Island is located on the south coast of Ireland, in Cork Harbour and covers an area of 103 acres. Because of its fascinating history and the quality of its attractions, Spike Island is now a world class tourist attraction. The tour boat to the island departs from the tourist town of Cobh.

A Monastic Settlement
There is compelling evidence from the Annals of the Four Masters that possibly as far back as the 6th century Spike Island was used as a monastic settlement. The well-known Munster saint, St Cartage, also referred to as St Mochuda, established a monastery on the island.
Legend has it that after the saint cured Cathal, King of Kerrycurrihy, of his maladies of deafness, blindness and lameness, in gratitude Cathal gave extensive lands to God and Mochuda forever.
‘Inis Pic is a most holy place in which an exceedingly devout community constantly dwell.’ Extract from 12th Century Life of St Cartage.

Built to Defend an Empire
Prior to the American War of Independence, 1775-1783, Kinsale was the principal harbour on the south coast for the British Royal Navy. However, by the end of the 18th Century the naval facilities were dilapidated. It was decided to relocate the facilities to the much larger and already well defended Cork Harbour.

One of the existing forts in Cork Harbour, Cove Fort, just east of the town, was found to have been built in the wrong location. It was decided to close Cove Fort and relocate its cannon to temporary earthworks on the eastern side of Spike Island. This was the beginning of almost one hundred and sixty years of British military occupation of Spike Island.
Within a short time it was agreed that Spike Island was an ideal location for a fort and, beginning in 1779, the first permanent fort, called Fort Westmoreland, was constructed. It was armed with a battery of eighteen 24-pounder cannon. The fort was located on the eastern side of the existing fort.

The British military authorities were so impressed with the strategic importance of Spike Island that it was decided to build a much larger fort, also called Fort Westmoreland. The renowned British military engineer Colonel Charles Vallency was responsible for planning the new fort which covers 24 acres.

Construction began in 1806 and it took almost sixty years to build at a cost of approximately one million pounds Sterling. The original Fort Westmoreland was demolished.

The purpose of the forts in the harbour in time of war was to protect the naval vessels and shore facilities from enemy attack. The naval vessels in the harbour were required to keep the critical sea lanes off the south coast clear for their own forces while attempting to prevent enemy vessels using the same sea lanes.

The British-born South American explorer Percy Fawcett was based on Spike Island as an artillery officer from 1903 to 1906. He became famous after disappearing in the depths of the Amazon jungle in 1925, searching for the lost city of ‘Z’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own