Spike Island – a slice of history on many fronts

Before we departed from Cobh we were keen to take a day trip over to Spike Island. Spike has a fascinating history but it also holds a strong personal connection for Paddy and his dad’s family because it was where Paddy’s grandad and great-uncle were posted during their service in the Irish Army. 

Uncle – Jimmy Cronin
Grandfather – the original Paddy Cronin

Due to its natural protection thanks to its shape and size Cork Harbour has always been an important tactical naval base and Spike Island was the keystone for its military defence. The town was a stronghold for the British Navy ever since the Napoleonic Wars. Cobh was also the major embarkation port for Irish men, women and children who were committed and deported to the penal colonies such as Australia and Spike for an extended time acted as a mass prison for these ‘convicts’. It remained a prison throughout the War of Independence. 

After the establishment of the Irish Free State, Britain retained control of three strategically important Irish ports one of which was Cork Harbour and consequently Spike Island remained a British Royal Navy stronghold until 1938. Paddy’s grandfather and great uncle attended (and raised the Irish flag) at the ceremony. 

After the handover the island remained an Irish navy base, prison and ‘correction centre’ until 2004. In 1985 an infamous incident happened where the prisoners managed to ‘escape’ to the island’s quayside and, finding that there was no boat to take them to the mainland, consequently broke back in to the prison with an abandoned JCB, set fire to their prison block, and climbed the roof of the main building before being re-captured! Brilliant!! The island is now a 103 acre museum. 

It has been great to visit sites like Spike Island and learn more about Irish history and the part Britain played in it. Although the pass-over of Spike was a peaceful and apparently jovial affair, I know the handover of most of the other Irish territory by the British was not so convivial! Since learning more about Irish history I feel a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t known much about it before. I have felt the same kind of feeling when visiting other countries on the trip such as Myanmar and Iran. I’m no historian and I know we can’t necessarily link the British occupation with the civil war that happened after – or everything that happened during the troubles – (the same is true for Myanmar and Iran), but I can’t help thinking had Britain not been so god damn greedy and arrogant in the first place, world history would look a lot more peaceful today. 

I bring this up now because visiting Spike Island was an important part of my learning about past British foreign policy. This has been a really important strand for me throughout the trip. Questioning what it means to be British in an international context, and my relationship with my home country when learning history through new perspectives; the other side of the lens as it were. I think we still have a terrible knack of glorifying and justifying the British Empire at home. I certainly remember being fed the positive rhetoric of the Empire in school – looking at a world map, half the landmass stained red, to show just how ‘powerful my country once was’. 

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that we Brits have a lot to answer for, and I don’t think we are very good at knowing the full truth regarding our past political actions abroad. I’m not justifying anti-British sentiment in any form – more that it’s our duty to understand our link to certain situations – such as why the border crossing between north and south in Ireland is such a sensitive topic for the Brexit negotiations currently or why it’s so difficult for Brits to get an Iranian visa. Visiting Spike Island and learning about Paddy’s grandad and great uncle was an invaluable milestone for me in all of the above. 

Week 1 – Roslare to Cobh

So off we went from Roslare and headed south to Waterford and the mouth of the river barrow where we crossed on a short car ferry to Passage East. We decided that the village provided a good spot to set up camp. We absentmindedly ignored the ‘no overnight camping’ sign because Paddy insisted no one would care and that the Irish all have a tendency to not do as they’re told anyway. I had been invited for a Skype interview scheduled for a few days time so Paddy offered to set up camp and cook dinner while I spread out over the picnic table and started researching and note taking. 

It was a stunning evening and we woke up early to another killer clear blue day. With a 6:30am start we were well on schedule to reach Dungarvan by mid-afternoon where we were meeting up with Paddy’s parents for dinner in a fancy restaurant called The Tannery. They had also booked us into the luxurious hotel opposite and we had a lovely evening with them. 

Sunset over Passage East
Early morning
Tasting menu at The Tannery

The next morning we needed to get to Cobh but after our lazy start a bus was needed to help us along on our way. We got dropped in Midleton just north of Cobh and Cork and met a friendly Dutch family who were also cycling around Ireland for three weeks. We would stop in Cobh for four days staying with Paddy’s uncle and aunt Ger and Christine and catching up and meeting lots of Paddy’s family. Cobh (formally known as Queenstown until 1920) is a lovely city, which sits on its own island (Great Island) in Cork Harbour -the second biggest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney). The town tumbles steeply down all the way to the water’s edge where a long high street runs the length of the town full of shops, restaurants, pubs and small fishing harbours. The harbour is so large and deep that cruise ships, car carriers and naval vessels are able to berth right alongside the town’s long quay. So the water is constantly bustling with little boats and slow moving cargo ships. The town is famous for it’s emigration legacy – it was Titanic’s last port of call before it’s infamous maiden voyage.

We had a fantastic time with Ger and Chris, they are super company and we enjoyed our evening sea swims and wholesome dinners. Chris owned her own hair salon for many years so I enjoyed a haircut on our first evening too. 

Statue of 17 year old Annie Moore and her brothers – the first immigrant ever to be admitted to the USA though the new administration centre at Ellis Island.

Feasting on Milly Filly dessert
Salon Chris

The next morning I had my job interview over Skype and we headed into Cobh where the internet speed is better. P’s aunt Miriam and uncle Danny had kindly offered their house up for me and after I was done Ger and Christine took us into town to take my mind off the ‘result’ later that day. Cobh town centre was heaving as the whole town was celebrating what has become to be known as ‘Australia Day’ – The day when the biggest Australian cruise ship docks in the harbour and 2000 Australian tourists pour out into the shops and pubs. At 4pm I got the call to say I’d got the job and with no further excuse needed we all piled into the local pub for a few ‘scoops’. Miriam and Danny joined us a bit later and it ended up being an hilarious night with much dancing to live music and Chris getting the whole pub singing… 

Outside the famed cathedral with Ger and Bren, Paddy’s friend from Dublin who just happened to be over visiting from New York.

Ireland Country No.24!!!! 

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my tardiness in posting our Irish blogs reflects any negative feelings about our three weeks there. On the contrary, it was possibly some of the best weeks we’ve had. 

Unfortunately mundane things like work and house viewings have prevented me sitting down to write up all my notes. And thank god I did take notes too because it has ended up being over two months since we disembarked from our French ferry (the ‘Oscar Wilde’) and pushed tandem into Roslare harbour.

Suddenly and for the first time we were in a country which was incredibly familiar to one of us and fairly new to the other. Apart from the holiday to Doolin in Feb 2013 on which Paddy and I first met, I have only ever visited Dublin. So I was delighted to have such an in depth opportunity to learn more about Paddy’s Irish heritage not to mention having time to spend with members of the extended family. 

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that I too have Irish blood running through my veins. That my great great great grandfather came over to London from Ireland to work as a weaver probably sometime in the mid 19th century has always been a source of interest for my dad’s family. We have been able to track our genealogy back this far but the tragic fire at the Dublin public records office in 1922 has meant we haven’t been able to dig any further.

For Paddy it was special to come home for this length of time and cycle through all his old childhood haunts – it is nearly a decade since he spent such an extended period in Ireland. The plan was to head to the south tip from Roslare, down through West Cork largely sticking to the coast with a few island hops in-between. 

Then to head back up the east coast hitting Doolin for a trip down memory lane before catching a coach from Galway back to where we started before our ferry to South Wales. Paddy acted as my official tour guide and there ended up being a few surprises along the way!! 

When most people think of Ireland they think of rugged coastline, green fields, mist & rain, Guinness in cosy pubs, traditional music, extremely friendly hospitality… and of course leprechauns! All of the above we encountered in abundance during our time there… even the leprechauns… 

It would be fair to say that I was more than mildly concerned about the weather. But we were incredibly lucky and enjoyed back to back sunshine for the majority of the time. It wouldn’t have been an Irish holiday without a few ‘grand soft days’ (misty, damp, rainy days) but they were few and far between and they added to the whole Irish mystical charm.