A new exhibition entitled ‘Imprisoning a Nation’, which tells the story of the 1921 prisoners held on Spike Island during Ireland’s War of Independence, has been opened by Mayor of the County of Cork, Cllr Mary Linehan Foley.
The exhibition, which is funded by Cork County Council’s Commemorations Committee and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and media, tells the story of the 1200 men held on the island for their Republican activities in 1921. Ireland was engaged in a bloody struggle for independence, and common law completely broke down in the 6 counties of Munster and Wexford and Kilkenny. The situation was so bad that the British authorities declared Martial Law, or Military Law, to restore order. Thousands were arrested and convicted of ‘levying war against the King’, while thousands more interred without trial. Many would see the inside of Spike Islands notorious fortress, which had been used as a prison during the time of Oliver Cromwell, and again during the famine years, when the fort became the largest known prison in the world, with 2300 convicts.
The exhibition contains a number of new artefacts donated by the families of the men held on the island. These include coins shaped into badges and pins, prisoner carved wooden artefacts, and there are several diaries and autograph books kept by the men. These detail what life was like for the prisoners and internees, and share their feelings towards the struggle, their incarceration and daily life. A stunning and fortunate new find was an old audio cassette recording, made in the 1980’s, of 1921 Spike Island internee Jeremiah Herlihy, who details daily life in the prison, and recalls the hunger strike and a prisoner shooting.
Commenting on the new exhibition, Mayor Linehan Foley said “It is wonderful to see the lives of these individuals remembered and retold, in their own words. The exhibition provides fascinating insight into the minds of these often young individuals, who were under tremendous pressure and danger, fighting for a cause they believed in”.
Chief Executive of Cork County Council Tim Lucey said “We are very proud to be able to support this exhibition through the Council’s commemorations grant, in this important centenary year. The new diaries, audio recording and artefacts are now in the safe hands of the islands heritage team, and can be enjoyed by future generations of Irish people”.
The exhibition is the culmination of over a decade of research by the island heritage team, and in particular historian Tom O’Neill who has worked on the island since the 1990’s. Regular enquires about the lives of the men held on the island in 1921 led Mr O’Neill to begin researching the details of the men held on the island, which is kept in locations like Dublin and London. After ten years of research, the names and imprisonment details of 99% of the 1200 rebels are now available to see on the island, searchable by name, county, trial and other details. A new book by Mr O’Neill, Spike Island Republican Prisoners, 1921, is just set to be launched, published by The History Press, and will be available on the island.
The exhibition ‘Imprisoning a Nation’ will run until the end of 2021 before it will join the island’s permanent ‘Independence’ exhibition, which details the road to Irish freedom from 1914 to 1922, and the islands role in that journey. Spike Island was used to train British troops in the early years of World War one, and the crew of the gunrunning ship the Aud were held there during the failed attempt to arm the Easter Rising. Organisers Austin Stack and Con Collins were also held on the island. The island’s use as a prison in 1921 is now well documented, and the island was an intrinsic part of the Treaty negotiations as one of three ‘Treaty Ports’, controversially retained by the British until 1938. Winston Churchill, who visited Cork Harbour in 1912, proclaimed the forts ‘the sentinel towers of the defences of Western Europe’, and fought tooth and nail to retain them in 1921, and again in 1938. He was unsuccessful on the second occasion, and Spike Island returned to Irish control in a ceremony held on July 11th, 1938.
Spike Island reopened on Monday 31st May after a long lock down, with tickets on sale from www.spikeislandcork.ie