Burial of graves at Spike Island ‘hid evidence’ of mass deaths

Inmates at Cork facility included the homeless as vagrancy had been criminalised

The burial of a prison graveyard on Cork’s Spike Island “conveniently hid the evidence” of an astonishingly high death rate among inmates in the mid 19th century, according to new research on the site.

UCC lecturer Dr Barra O’Donnabhain and historian Cal McCarthy say the decision to bury the graveyard under many metres of earth in the 1860s raised questions about the treatment of prisoners on the island.

“Your risk of dying in prison was very high. There was a 12 per cent death rate in 1853. There were up to 2,000 prisoners and just one prison doctor,” they write in a new book.

“The doctor ran foul of the authorities and was accused of being drunk on the job. He was under huge stress and admitted to medicating himself with opium and ether. How effective could he had been?”


Spike Island was opened as a convict prison for men and “in its early years the vast majority of inmates were there for stealing,” said Dr O’Donnabhain.

“The homeless were also vulnerable to imprisonment as vagrancy had been criminalised.”

He said: “The burial of the prison graveyard conveniently erased from memory a dark chapter in the island’s history. The prisoners were weak from malnutrition. They were drinking water which had water pipes going in one direction and sewerage in the other. It was a public health catastrophe.”

With over 2,300 inmates in 1850, Spike Island was by far the largest prison in the United Kingdom as it was then constituted, dwarfing all other prisons in terms of prisoner numbers and holding over 2,000 men in overcrowded dormitory-style rooms was a recipe for disaster, according to Dr O'Donnabhain, co-author of Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets.

Of the 1,200 convict deaths that occurred in the 36 years of the prison’s operation (1847-1883), 80 per cent occurred in the four years from 1850-1854. Although general debility was commonly listed as a cause of death, and the high death rate was blamed on the famine conditions raging outside, the reality was that the prison was a “death trap”, he said.

“They were just getting bread and milk to eat and a little bit of meat at weekends. There was no concept of germs at this stage.”

When the numbers in the prison were reduced after 1854, the number of deaths fell from a high of 286 in 1853 to just two in 1858.

The dead from the years of high mortality were buried in a graveyard that was on the east side of Spike Island.

“The burial of the graveyard was ostensibly done as part of the completion of the fortifications on the island, it also conveniently hid the evidence.

“If you look at the skeletons they rate highly for non-specific indicators of stress. Their bodies were trying to cope with massive stress. The conditions were nothing less than Dickensian.”

The life of the prison was vibrant, populated by the unfortunate of society alongside those who committed serious, sometimes gruesome, crimes.

“Military barracks were converted to prison accommodation with up to 40 men crammed into rooms that had been designed to hold half that number,” Dr O’Donnabhain said.

Unlike the city and county gaols and the large English penitentiaries like Dartmoor and Pentonville, Spike Island was not a purpose-built prison.

In 1847, it was a half-finished fort when the government in London decided to use it as a temporary means of coping with the perceived rise in criminality that accompanied the Great Famine.

This is the first publication to come from the work of the UCC-based Spike Island Archaeological Project directed by Dr O’Donnabhain, which will continue its efforts to establish the whereabouts of the famine-era graveyard this summer.

According to Dr O’Donnabhain, the prison had an international dimension though from its inception. Spike Island was a hub for convict transportation.

“Irish convicts were transported to Gibraltar, Bermuda and Australia where they became sources of forced labour. As a sentence of transportation was the equivalent of a death sentence, the convict was not allowed to return to Ireland, even once they were freed in Australia.”

The mobility of the convicts is well-illustrated by the journeys of John Mitchel, after whom the fort is now named.

Convicted of felony-treason, Mitchel spent a couple of days on Spike Island in 1848 before being taken to Bermuda.

After some time there, he was moved to Cape Town where the British were attempting to start a penal colony. This plan was abandoned due to local resistance so Mitchel was moved to Tasmania from where he escaped and moved to the US.

An even greater journey was that undertaken by a 22-year-old English soldier named Langley Southerdon who had been transported to Western Australia for striking an officer.

Southerdon escaped by stowing away on a ship bound for Peru. He was discovered on-board and handed over to the British authorities in Lima who sent him to Spike Island.