‘Treaty ports’ handover recalled at Spike Island 80 years on

About 400 attend ceremony to mark day control of ports given to State in 1938

The 80th anniversary of the handover of the "Treaty ports" was recalled at a ceremony on Spike Island in Cork on Wednesday.

In 1938, with tensions mounting in Europe amid German expansionism under Adolf Hitler, Eamon De Valera successfully negotiated the return of the Treaty Ports – British naval bases Spike Island and Bere Island in Co Cork and Lough Swilly in Co Donegal – to Ireland.

The British base at Spike Island was the first to be handed over on July 11th, 1938, and the moment when De Valera was welcomed ashore on to the island by Col Paddy Maher of the Irish Army was recalled in Wednesday's ceremony, organised by Cork County Council at Fort Mitchell.

In blazing sunshine, some 400 guests heard Spike Island assistant manager and local historian Tom O'Neill set the context for the moment when the Treaty Ports were vacated by the British and the Tricolour raised to cheers from 40,000 onlookers in Cobh.

Mr O'Neill explained that during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, British delegates raised concerns that a newly independent Ireland would not have the naval capability to ensure adequate defence of the Irish coast and that Ireland might prove a gateway for an invasion of Britain.

Irish delegates accepted British concerns and the Treaty permitted Royal Navy warships to use the three ports in Ireland. They were each protected by coastal defence forts garrisoned by British soldiers – British enclaves in the newly formed Irish Free State.

The moment when De Valera, accompanied by Col Maher, inspected a guard of honour from the Irish Army was captured by press photographers on the day and a giant sepia enlargement of the print was on show today.

“Oh that Brexit might prove as easy,” one onlooker quipped.


In the crowd was the late Col Maher's grandson, Peter, who recalled that his grandfather, a War of Independence veteran from Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary, was Director Artillery in the Irish Army when he was sent to take possession of Spike from the British.

“My grandfather wouldn’t have been a man who would have revealed a lot and I wouldn’t be a nostalgic historical buff, but for me to come here today and see photos of my grandfather on the pier with De Valera and feel the moment through my association with my grandfather is just amazing.

“I have never been on Spike before but my own father, Brendan lived here because my grandfather was stationed here during the war, Mr Maher said. “So as a family we have a very strong connection with the island and it’s great to see that day when Ireland took possession of the island remembered.”

Up to 90 members of the Defence Forces took part in the ceremony, which was addressed by Mayor of Cork County Cllr Patrick Gerard Murphy and Cork County Council chief executive Tim Lucey, who expressed confidence that visitor numbers to the island would reach 100,000 within three years.

After the Last Post was played by bugler Catherine Hayes, the Tricolour was raised over Fort Mitchell. It was followed by a 21-gun salute, before the Band of the First Brigade played Amhrán na bhFiann and the Air Corps did a fly over to bring the ceremony to a close.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times