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33 Kilkenny rebels held on Spike Island in 1921 named

Kilkenny rebels held on Spike Island named as part of new exhibition.

Aerial photograph of Spike Island

Spike Island is commemorating 100 years since the opening of a War of Independence prison on the island, which saw over 1200 Irish rebels held for their part in Irelands fight for freedom in 1921. The ‘Imprisoning a Nation’ exhibition will include new artefacts, new prisoner diaries and new stories on information panels. Also, part of the exhibition will be a recently discovered 1985 recording of a former prisoner, describing his time in the 1921 prison.

There were thirty-three men from almost every town in the county of Kilkenny held as internees on Spike Island during 1921. The internees included, Thomas Barron, Hugginstown; Thomas Cahill, Callan; William Cottrell, Inistioge; Laurence DeLoughrey, Kilkenny City; William Forrestal, Jerpoint Church; John and Richard Foskin, Mullinavat; Martin McGrath, Listerlin; Michael Shelley, Callan; and Timothy Hennessy, Threecastles. His brother Tom was killed in action in the Friary Street ambush in Kilkenny City on the 21st of February 1921.

A link between Kilkenny and the Spike Island prison also exists in the infamous escape from Kilkenny Gaol on 22nd November 2021. Over 44 prisoners escaped that night through a tunnel, and at least 13 had been held in Spike Island’s cells in the months prior. Some had only arrived very recently, and must have been delighted to discover the almost-complete escape endeavour.

Visitors can research the freedom fighters by name, town and county in the free genealogy section at the prison, part of the islands permanent ‘Independence’ exhibition which tells the story of the road to Irish freedom from 1914 – 1922.

Visitors are invited to come discover the story and history at Spike island this summer, as the men are honoured and remembered.

The History of Spike Island

On the 19th of February 1921, as the Irish War of Independence raged, a British Military run prison was opened in the fort on Spike Island, for Republican prisoners and internees. The bloody struggle for Irish Independence was seeing huge numbers arrested for insurgency activity, and the British needed extra space to hold them. Spike Island was again the answer to a spiralling British prisoner problem. The island had been used as a prison by Cromwell in the 1600’s, and as a convict prison during the famine years from the 1840’s.

Republican prisoners and internees were sent to Spike Island from the civilian gaols in Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick, and from the military barrack and camps in Bere Island, Buttevant, Cork, Fermoy, Kilkenny, Kilworth, Moore Park, Tralee and Waterford. In total men from eight southern counties were held on the island and at its largest the prison held over 500 men at any one time.

Prisoners were men arrested by Crown Forces and later charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by Military Courts. Internees were men arrested on suspicion of being involved in Republican activities and were imprisoned without trial. There were approximately 900 internees and 300 prisoners held on Spike Island during 1921. A new exhibition on Spike Island, ‘Imprisoning a Nation’, will tell the story of the men held there, which is due to open when Covid conditions allow in 2021.

Most of the men held on the island during 1921 were from Munster, Wexford and thirty-three from Kilkenny. All thirty-three Kilkenny men were held as internees on Spike Island. The internees included, Thomas Barron, Hugginstown; Thomas Cahill, Callan; William Cottrell, Inistioge; Laurence DeLoughrey, Kilkenny City; William Forrestal, Jerpoint Church; John and Richard Foskin, Mullinavat; Martin McGrath, Listerlin; Michael Shelley, Callan; and Timothy Hennessy, Threecastles. His brother Tom was killed in action in the Friary Street ambush in Kilkenny City, on the 21st of February 1921.

Not all the men would survive the prison experience on Spike Island, when on the evening of the 31st of May, internee Patrick White from Meelick, Co. Clare, was shot and killed by a British sentry while playing hurling.

During 1921 there were two dramatic escapes from Spike Island involving ten republicans. On the 30th of August, a hunger strike began for unconditional release, lasting four days before being abandoned. On the 16th of October, the internees began rioting and breaking up their huts, to force the British military authorities to release them. When the British soldiers regained control, they forced the internees out into the dry moat, where they endured three cold, wet, days and nights without shelter.

On the night of the 16/17th of November, the last republican prisoners were moved from Spike Island to Kilkenny Gaol. On the 18th of November all the internees from Spike Island were taken to Cobh and transferred by special train to Maryborough (Portlaoise) Prison. The Spike Island Military Prison in the Field was closed. On Tuesday 22nd of November, just days after Spike’s prison closed, forty-four prisoners escaped from Kilkenny Gaol, through a tunnel, and thirteen of them were former Spike prisoners.

Island historian Tom O’Neill said “We have been researching and planning for this commemoration for close to a decade, painstakingly tracking down the available information, much of which is now located in London. The period is an important part of the island and Ireland’s history, and we look forward to sharing it with the world”.

‘Imprisoning a Nation’ exhibition on Spike Island.

Imprisoning a Nation exhibition poster at Spike Island

To commemorate the lives of the 1200 men held on the island, Spike Island is launching an exhibition entitled ‘Imprisoning a Nation’. The exhibition will focus on the 1921 prison and the stories of the rebels held there are told in detail. The exhibition is an extension of the island permanent ‘Independence’ exhibition, which tells of the wider Irish independence ‘road to freedom’ from 1914 to 1921. The island was brought into the story of the 1916 Easter rising when the crew of the Aud were held there, a German gun running ship which was intended to supply the rising with arms and ammunition. The trilingual Aud exhibition, told in Irish, English and German, includes some original ‘Aud’ artefacts recovered from the seabed. The story continues to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1919 and culminates in the story of Spike Island’s 1921 prison and its approximately 1,200 republican prisoners and internee.

There are original autograph books, medals and other artefacts connected with the men held on Spike Island on display in our ‘Independence’ museum. Among our collection of autograph books is one that belonged to internee James Butler of Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny. All our autograph books have been indexed. It is now very easy to locate a name among all the books. There are also approximately one hundred and fifty photographs of the men held on display and the exhibition puts a real connectable face to the names. There are two very detailed databases available for use by our visitors where they can research the story of the men. One database for the internees, the other for the prisoners.

Couple using Spike Island database

2021 Centenary plans – To commemorate the centenary in 2021, It is planned to hold a principal commemoration during the June bank holiday weekend which is being funded by the Cork County Council Commemoration grant scheme, Covid conditions allowing. In addition, it is intended to commemorate the other events that occurred on Spike during 1921, including the escapes, the shooting of internee Patrick White, the hunger strikes, etc.

Quite a few of the families of the men are planning to hold their own special commemorations on Spike on the centenary of the date when their relatives were transferred to the island, and many have already been liaising with the islands heritage team to plan their special events. Families are expected from as far away as Australia to celebrate their connection to the island.

Island manager John Crotty said “The response from the public has been considerable with a large amount of people volunteering original autograph books, artefacts and information about their relatives. Many people have discovered unknown links to rebels within their own families, which is a credit to the island research team. We would encourage anyone with any artefacts, or a story connected to the island to contact us, so we can catalogue the details”. “We are very proud to give a voice to these Irish rebels, to share what it was that drove them to carry on the fight for so long, so that we could all live free”.

Spike Island Independence Exhibition

New book, ‘Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners, 1921.

The story of Spike Island’s 1,200 Republican prisoners and internees will be told in a new book by Tom O’Neill, ‘Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners, 1921’, which will be on sale from May. The author, who has worked as island historian having formally been a prison officer on the island, has compiled an extensive record of all these men, using primary source material from Irish Military Archives, original British Army records from the UK National Archives and prisoners and internees’ autograph books. The book describes the setting up of the prison, the escapes, hunger strikes and riots that took part there, as well as the fatal shooting of internee Patrick White. It also contains details of the arrest, charge, trial, convictions, sentences and transfers of the prisoners. The book contains approximately 180 photographs and drawings. This is the first comprehensive history of individuals and events on Spike Island, in 1921 to be published. It will be for sale in the Gift Shop on Spike Island where those interested can contact the island to have a copy sent out.

Spike Island continues to grow.

Mayor of Cork, Cllr Christopher O'Sullivan at the Independence Exhibition at Spike Island
Mayor of Cork, Cllr Christopher O'Sullivan at the Independence Exhibition at Spike Island

In July 2010, the island was handed over to Cork County Council to be developed into a tourist attraction, opening its doors in 2016 following a €6.5 million Euro upgrade. Since then, with the backing of owners Cork County Council and assistance of Fáilte Ireland, the wonderful heritage of Spike Island has been developed and expertly interpreted. Visitors numbers have grown from 27000 to over 81000 in 2019. Covid decimated numbers in 2020 with a 52% drop to 39000.

The island has a rich history including use a monastery in the 7th century and saw centuries of quiet farming life. The eyes of the world turned to the 104-acre outcrop in the late 1700’s when the British built the first of three forts on the island, built to defend the world’s largest navy and protect the world’s second largest natural harbour. The third fort started in 1804 is the 24-acre colossal that stands to this day, one of the largest star shaped forts in the world. That same fort became a prison during the famine years and its convict numbers swelled to over 2300, making it the largest known prison in the world and the largest ever in Ireland or Britain. When the prison closed in 1883 the fort continued its British military use right through to the opening of the 1921 prison, and beyond up until 1938, 17 years after Ireland’s Independence. In 1938 the island was handed from Britain to Ireland and it was occupied by the Irish Army until 1979 and the Irish Naval Service until 1985, with a military detention centre housing those sentenced by the military. A final prison operated from 1985 to 2004, this time a civilian prison mostly housing young offenders. Visitors today can learn about this rich history in several museums, exhibitions and original buildings, including the Gun Park where a comprehensive collection of original artillery guns and vehicle are displayed. Visitors can also walk the halls of the ‘Punishment Block’, the original 1850’s prison, and the modern cells built following a riot on the island in 1985.

The island is anticipating high staycation demand in 2021 as visitors shun risky foreign travel and rediscover their own heritage, particularly in this centenary year of Irish freedom.

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