At 5:00am yesterday morning Peter Molloy headed off on his 26-mile walk along the coast of Dublin Bay from Bray to Howth. In aid of Waterloo Uncovered. Peter followed the trail of the remaining Napoleonic era Martello Towers. We joined him at Dalkey and walked with him to Blackrock. Very aptly to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo a coastal mist and drizzle accompanied us along our journey. Peter is an encyclopedia of Napoleonic knowledge. Standing at Tower No. 11 (now the James Joyce museum) at Sandycove, just beside the famous 40 Foot, we looked out over the bay. the mist tainted our view, but the sound of a fog horn indicated a ship. Some 200 years ago a sentry would be thinking: is this Napoleon.
Sadly, a lot of the towers are gone; the Dublin area alone had nearly 30: the cannon fire must have been devastating to any ship caught in the cross fire. Many areas are void of any clue that a coastal defence ever existed: for example, Dún Laoghaire used to have two towers. Those that do remain are still formidable platforms. Today however, they are part of the landscape. At Seapoint the tower was surrounded by people swimming in the sea. Well done to Peter Molloy and Waterloo Uncovered. Hopefully we will be seeing more of him in the future.
During the Second World War a vast range of forts and military defence installations were constructed across the European war zone. These included, for example, the German Atlantic Wall that stretched from Spain to Norway, which was laid out to guard the coast against an Allied invasion, or the British defence system built to defend the country against a possible German attack. Here an equally extensive range of gun emplacements, anti-invasion obstacles, and forts were constructed in coastal, estuarial and inland positions. During the same war time period, the Irish government built only a single large-scale military installation: Fort Shannon on the County Kerry side of the Shannon Estuary. The Irish government was concerned that an invasion force could strike up the Shannon to Limerick and quickly reach the interior of the country.
Coast Defence Artillery
As Ireland took a neutral position in the war, it was felt that
such an attack could originate from Germany or Britain. The government established
a number of coastal defence forts around the coastline around the same time,
but these were essentially the nineteenth century structures that the British
authorities had kept under the Anglo/Irish Treaty. The forts were handed over
to the Irish government in 1938. When World War II broke out the coastal defence
installations became vital to the defence of Ireland’s deep-water ports. There
were five Coast Defence Artillery installations in the Southern Command and two
installations in the Western Command. Manned by the Artillery Corps, Coast
Defence Artillery Detachments were deployed as follows:
Forts Westmoreland, Carlisle and Templebreedy in Cork Harbour, Co.
Cork. Fort Berehaven in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork. Fort Shannon on the Shannon
estuary, Co. Kerry, from 1942.
Forts Dunree and Lenan in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal. Armaments
varied between installations. They included some 26 coastal artillery pieces:
9.2”, 6”, 4.7”, 60-pounders with a number of naval 12-pounders and Hotchkiss
3-pounders. The forts and their guns were manned 24/7 all year round. They had
a primary role of the defence of the respective harbour. Furthermore, these
harbours were deemed ‘controlled ports’. This gave Coast Defence Artillery a
secondary role of ‘Control of Examination Anchorage’. This meant that all ships
entering the harbours had to be searched and deemed ‘Safe’ by the Examination
Service. The Coast Defence Artillery installations were supported by the Corps
of Engineers Coast Defence Company. Headquartered at Fort Camden in Cork
Harbour, the unit consisted of 232 all ranks. Its main task was the engineering
support of the coastal defence installations and the provision of seventeen searchlights.
The engineers were deployed to all coastal installations except Fort Lenan
which had no searchlights. The installations were further augmented by
detachments of the regular Army, Local Defence Force and the Marine Service/Marine
A five-acre site near Tarbert in Kerry was chosen for the new Coast Defence Artillery installation to be named Fort Shannon
In 1941, it was decided that the Examination Service for the Shannon estuary, based at the port of Cappa on the Clare side, would need artillery support. A five-acre site near Tarbert in Kerry was chosen for the new Coast Defence Artillery installation to be named Fort Shannon. It was to be armed with a battery of 6” guns, a machine gun platoon and a searchlight detachment. Commandant Mick Sugrue came from Fort Carlisle (now Fort David) to assume command and oversee the construction. Gunners were dispatched from Kildare Barracks and the Cork Harbour Forts. Land was bought and leased. Communication by day and night across the estuary was assured by the building of Look Out Posts (LOPs), and augmenting these with wireless and telephone. Thus, Loop Head, Kilcraudaun Head and the Examination Service on the north shore were linked with Doon Head, Scattery Island and Fort Shannon. Close liaison was maintained with the Harbour Master at Limerick, who held a naval rank of Lieutenant Commander. He was responsible for movement of all shipping in and out of the estuary. Fort Shannon was not a fort in the strict military sense, but a pair of coastal defence guns positioned at Ardmore Point, overlooking the Shannon estuary, a short distance down river from Tarbert. The site is roughly oval in plan, set on a broad ledge high above the estuary, with the largely undefined boundaries swinging along the southern inland boundary. The terrain rises sharply from the water to an approximately level position – although it could easily be scaled in an assault – and rises slightly again a little further inland; with a farm-style gateway on both the east and west sides.
The site for the fort was, however, carefully chosen. Ardmore Point projects into the estuary and faces downstream to cover a point where the width of the navigable channel is limited between Scattery Island on the north bank and Carrig Island on the opposite side. Consequently, an enemy vessel seeking to pass between the islands is forced to present its bow, or front, directly to the fort so that it can engage only its forward armament in an attack. Today Fort Shannon is very overgrown with trees and shrubs. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify the main military elements. The two-gun emplacements can be seen overlooking the estuary: one near the east side of the oval, the other in a more central position. West of these is a pair of searchlight enclosures near the river edge, with the Power House and Communications Building on the higher level behind, while three machine gun pillboxes can be seen stretching along the curved southern boundary. The Power House and Communications Centre is a single story domestic looking stone built building with a galvanised steel hipped roof and four large rectangular windows facing the estuary. The doorway to the interior is on the landward side.
The two-gun emplacements in the centre of the site are the most obvious features of the fort. Each consists of a gun chamber, behind which an underground passageway provides a link to the magazine. The gun emplacements in both cases were built with mass concrete sides and roof, inside which the gun chamber was open to the estuary, except for a low parapet behind which the gun was positioned. Overhead a heavy metal beam remains built into the underside of the roof, which allowed the gun to be manoeuvred into position on its mounting that still remains. There are two stores at the rear of the gun chamber with the entrance to the magazine access passage between. The dogleg route of the access passage leads to the magazine. This was also provided with an external concrete stair leading to ground level near, the doorway to the magazine chamber. The inclusion of the dogleg was presumably to minimise the force of a blast from an artillery or air strike, on either the gun chamber or the magazine. Both magazines were of mass concrete construction and were completely underground. They were given no windows, but each had small roof apertures to provide some degree of ventilation. During the construction period it seems as if the top soil of the site was stripped away and once the concrete structures were completed the soil was returned to partially cover the sides and roofs of the emplacement and magazine for camouflage purposes.
Both guns were 6” Breach Loading (BL), Mk VII, coastal defence
guns, manufactured by Vickers between 1902 and 1903. Although the manufacture
of these guns’ dates from the early twentieth century, they were the standard
British coastal defence weapon of the period and remained so for the duration
of the war. Initially each of the Shannon guns was supplied with 120 rounds and
it took a ten-man crew to load, operate and fire each gun with a capacity of
eight rounds per minute. Today the Shannon Fort guns are no longer present, but
seem to have been transferred to Fort Dunree Museum in Co. Donegal where they
have been partially restored and are on display.
The two anti-aircraft searchlights were housed in a pair of flat
roofed concrete structure, each with a wide aperture that allowed the searchlight
to be directed across and down the estuary. The positioning of the lights would have
provided sufficient scope to illuminate any would-be attacker attempting to
sail up the estuary, under the cover of darkness. Today the concrete structure,
the rusted metal drum of the lamp, and the parts of the concrete housing is all
The three flat roofed mass concrete pillboxes placed on the raised ground around the landward perimeter overlook the site. Each of the boxes is set into the ground with a square plan a small entrance doorway and narrow vertical slot on each of the four faces. The purpose of the pillboxes was presumably to provide machine gun cover against a direct assault from either the river or the landward side. In the case of an attack, the defence capabilities of Fort Shannon would have been restricted, not least by the limited stock of ammunition held. Furthermore, the rate of fire of the two guns would have been slow and the concrete structures would not have been sufficient to withstand a concentrated bombardment.
Called into action
Throughout the Emergency years the gunners and engineers of Fort Shannon guarded their posts. The only shots fired were during practise. Its personnel were called out on one occasion however. According to an article on Coastal Defence Artillery in An Cosantóir, November 1973, by Commandant J. E. Dawson and Lieutenant C. Lawler, the men of Fort Shannon went to the rescue of the Merchant Vessel E.D.J. after it went aground near Cappa during a gale. Thankfully no lives were lost.
The fort closes
The fort experienced only a limited lifespan. It was abandoned at the end of the Emergency in 1946, when Commandant Mick Sugrue evacuated the fort on 31 May, 1946. Only a small skeleton crew remained behind for a short period after. Today the fort lies abandoned and derelict. Whatever wooden support buildings that originally existed have now disappeared. Fortunately, a restored example of the Fort Shannon gun-types can be seen in Fort Mitchell (Fort Westmorland) Museum on Spike Island, while in Grey Point Fort Museum in Co. Down, a pair of similar guns is maintained in working order, one of which was successfully test fired as recently as 2014. Nevertheless, Fort Shannon remains an important feature of Irish military history and today the dilapidated and neglected state of the site reflects poorly on the authorities responsible for its upkeep. This is particularly so, when contrasted with other similar fortifications around the Irish coastline, such as the museums at Fort Dundee, Fort Mitchell and Gray Point Fort, where restored and heavy and light weaponry are clearly and attractively presented to visitors.
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
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
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
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):