The Guns of Spike Island
By Wesley Bourke
Photos by Ken Mooney
Published in Summer 2017 edition
In the last 1,300 years Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, has been host to a 6th century Monastery and a 24-acre fortress that became the largest convict depot in the world during Victorian times. The island’s rich history has included monks and monasteries, rioters, captains and convicts and sinners and saints. Today the island is dominated by the 200-year old Fort Mitchel, the star shaped fortress which became a prison holding over 2,300 convicts. Now a magnificently restored visitors centre the fort is open to the public all year round. The fort is also home to Ireland’s largest collection of restored artillery. Superintendent Spike Island, Tom O’Neill (a retired Reserve Defence Forces officer and Prison Officer), gave us a guided tour around Spike Island’s defences and their artillery collection.
When Tom advised us that we’d need the entire day to see the restored fort, we thought he was kidding. Spike Island is an experience like none other in the country. Your journey starts at Kennedy Pier, in Cobh, where you embark on a ferry. The trip across for us modern day tourists is one of beauty. The estuary of the river Lee is full of stunning scenery and all kinds of wildlife. Once inside the walls you are immediately taken aback by the sheer size of the fort. On the ferry over it is difficult to grasp the scale. Inside, you can only imagine what the fortress must have been like when full of soldiers and bristling with artillery.
As a natural deep-water port, Cork has been a tempting strategic target throughout history. Due to threats by the French in the 18th century, it was decided to improve the fortifications of Cork Harbour. Spike Island, at the mouth of the estuary, acts as a natural gun emplacement. A pre-existing fortification existed on Spike Island, but a more modern fort was needed. In 1789, building work began on a stone-built fort designed by Colonel Charles Vallancey. It was named Fort Westmoreland in honour of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmoreland and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1789 to 1794.
“The star shape allows the defenders in the fort to fire over all parts of the island, making the whole island an effective kill zone for anyone who dare enter”
With the threat from Napoleon, fortifications in the harbour were further enhanced. The next construction began in 1804. The six-bastion star shaped fort was completed by the mid-19th century. The fort was designed to stop enemy vessels in their path and defend itself from landing attacks. The star shape allows the defenders in the fort to fire over all parts of the island, making the whole island an effective kill zone for anyone who dare attack. Flanking galleries further allowed the defender to pour musket and artillery fire into the ranks of a landing force that got close enough. The fort is surrounded by a dry moat. If troops landed, they couldn’t see the moat. Facing them was a raised slope called a glacis. Advancing in the open they would have been cut to pieces.
This fort was originally armed with 29 24-pounder guns, two 12-pounder guns and twelve 6-pounder cannons. Along with howitzers and mortars it was a formidable obstacle in any belligerent’s path. As technology evolved so did the artillery on the island. When excavations were taking place in the fort, three old smoothbores were recovered, later restored and are now on display.
Supported by other forts – Carlisle (now Fort Davis), Camden (now Fort Meagher), and Templebredy, it is no wonder no one ever dared attack Cork. Fort Camden and Fort Carlisle were built at opposite sides of the harbour entrance during the period of the American War of Independence, Templebredy was built in 1910, at the back of Crosshaven facing out to the sea. If an enemy vessel managed to get through the entrance, straight in front of them would have been the guns of Spike Island. The fort was of such strategic importance that the British First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, later called the island ‘The sentinel tower of the approaches to Western Europe’.
By the turn of the 20th century the fort was armed with breech loading rifled guns. The 6-inch Mk VII gun, together with the 9.2-inch Mk X gun, provided the main coastal defence throughout the British Empire, and later Ireland, from the early 1900’s until the abolition of coastal artillery in the 1950’s. When the fort was handed over to the Irish Free State in 1938, it was renamed Fort Mitchel after the Nationalist hero, John Mitchel, Mitchel, who was a prisoner on Spike Island in May 1848. As Tom took us around the restored bastions, he told us that that Spike was armed with the 6-inch guns. The 9.2-inch were mounted on Templebredy and Fort Davis. Unfortunately, there are no 9.2-inch guns left in the country. However, Spike Island has two beautifully restored 6-inch guns. Grey Point Fort near Belfast also has two, former Irish Army, restored 6-inch guns. The 6-inch guns had a crew of 9. It could fire Lyddite, HE, and Shrapnel 100 lb shells. With a rate of fire of eight rounds a minute, it could engage targets up to13,400m (light charge) or 14,400m (heavy charge). The 6-inch guns at Spike were originally mounted out in the open. Interestingly, during the early 1940’s, the Irish Army moved the 6-inch guns on Spike into underground emplacements. This was some undertaking. The most logical reason for this was to protect them from aerial or naval bombardment. Today on Bastion 3 where the 6-inch guns used to be, are a battery of four QF 12-pounder 12 cwt guns. They are still in working condition and are the Irish Army’s saluting battery for Cork Harbour.
As part of the restoration, the underground emplacements have been completely restored – along with 6-inch guns. The underground emplacements include: crew quarters, a Battery Observation Post, and gun emplacement. The Battery Observation Post gives you a clear view out to the mouth of Cork Harbour. From here the officer would have worked out the distance, elevation and range of the enemy target.
The Gun Park
Spike Island is also home to a unique collection of artillery pieces. The collection traces the use of artillery in Ireland from the 1700’s up to the present-day Irish Army. Some pieces you will be very familiar with, including the Bofors L/60 and L/70 40mm anti-aircraft guns, and the British Ordnance QF 18 and 25-pounders. Others such as a 17-inch anti-tank gun and a 4.7-inch coastal gun are one of a kind examples in Ireland. All are kept out of the elements in the Gun Park.
The earliest artillery piece in the collection is the 12-pounder cannon. It is one of Spike Island’s oldest artillery pieces. The crest of King George III on the barrel dates the piece to the late 1700’s. Designed as a naval gun, this piece was used for coastal defence. This is indicated by the presence of a breeching ring at the rear of the gun, through which a strong rope was passed and fixed to either side of the gun port opening to control recoil when the gun rolled back upon firing. This is one of three such cannon on Spike Island. They were used as bollards on the pier and were removed in circa 1999, restored and mounted for display. The 7-inch Rifled Muzzle Loading Cannon on display represents the progression of artillery technology, with the introduction of rifling grooves cut into the barrel to impart spin and stability to the shell while in flight. Dating from 1865, three of these massive 7-inch guns were mounted on Spike Island, one on each of the three bastions facing Cobh. The introduction of breech loaded guns rendered them obsolete.
“A one of a kind and the envy of the artillery community is the QF 4.7-inch coastal gun. This gun was made by the Elswick Ordnance Company of England. Spike Island’s 4.7- inch dates from 1910, is one of only two known surviving examples in Ireland”
The QF 12-pounder was originally designed as a shipboard naval weapon, also used for coastal defence. Batteries were positioned in Forts Carlisle and Camden, providing protection against torpedo boats and covering the Cork Harbour minefield. The thickly armoured shield provided protection for the crew operating in open gun emplacements and is considered extremely rare. A one of a kind and the envy of the artillery community is the QF 4.7-inch coastal gun. This gun was made by the Elswick Ordnance Company of England. Spike Island’s 4.7-inch dates from 1910. It is one of only two known surviving examples in Ireland; the other is at Fort Dunree in Co. Donegal. This rare gun has been the subject of an extensive restoration project and must be among the best-preserved examples of its type in the world. Luckily the brass fittings and breach block were still in the Irish Army stores. ‘It was originally thought that the guns were from Bere Island. However, the Fortress Study Group found that the 4.7-inch was originally bought for the Irish Army in 1940, for a gun emplacement in Galway Bay. The emplacement was never built and the guns were put in storage. How many were brought in is unclear.
The Bofors anti–aircraft guns are very much at home in Spike. During the Emergency years (1939 1946) anti-aircraft emplacements were built on Spike. In later years, the 4th Air Defence Battery was also based on the island. The Bofors L/60 pm display is one of the very guns that served on Spike from 1980 – 1985. Another rare artillery piece in the collection is the Ordnance QF 17-pounder Anti-Tank Gun. Developed in World War II to counter new and heavily armoured German tanks, the 17 pounders proved a battlefield success. The 17-pounder served with the Irish Army from 1949 to 1962. It too is fully restored.
Spike Island visitors centre is only open two years. In that very short time the team on the island has done incredible work. The artillery collection on the island is an aspect of Irish military history that has not been written about that much. At one time gun emplacements and forts with their coastal artillery dotted the coastline well into the 1950’s. One by one the forts were no longer used and the gunners’ story was forgotten.
Gun by gun and barrel by barrel, the team on Spike Island is preserving and retelling that story. The management on Spike Island are most grateful to the Department of Defence and members of the Defence Forces for their outstanding support in the project. They are also very fortunate in having a dedicated team of volunteers working on the guns and in the museum.
There are many more fascinating stories to come from Spike Island including the Aud Exhibition and that of the prisoners who were there. Watch out for more on Ireland’s island fortress.
Spike Island – Cork Harbour Ferries depart from Kennedy pier Cobh, which is right in the town centre next to Titanic Cobh. Tickets can be purchased from the kiosk on the pier, or save money and book online. Online booking is highly recommended during the busy summer months to secure you preferred sailing and avoid disappointment. Open year round for pre-booked tour groups of 15 or more, contact Spike Island for booking. Regular sailings for walk up passengers (advance online booking recommended):
For pre-booking call: 021-4811485
E: email@example.com to book
For sailing times from Kennedy pier
please check: www.spikeislandcork.ie/visit