Idyllic childhood on Spike Island

Noel Mullen tells AEDIN JOHNSTON about his memories of growing up on Spike Island with his family in the 1960s — long before it became a tourist attraction.
Idyllic childhood on Spike Island

FREE TO ROAM: Children whose parents were members of Army and Navy personnel playing on Spike Island in September, 1958

IT was recently handed the accolade of ‘Europe’s Leading Attraction’, ahead of the likes of the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace. Spike island in Cork Harbour certainly has many stories to tell, many are well documented, but some are not so well known.

I recently met a man who spent his early years living on Spike and he shared a few of his unique experiences of his life growing up there.

Noel Mullen, who works in Coláiste Muire, Cobh, has very fond memories of his time there. His mother, Mary Quinlan, met his father Paddy Mullen while he was stationed with the Irish Army on Bere Island. He was then transferred to Camden and subsequently to Spike Island.

Noel, their fifth child of seven, was born in Cobh Hospital in 1956, and the family enjoyed an idyllic childhood living on Spike Island.

“We had everything on the island because it was an army base. We were never bored,” recalls Noel. “As we were army personnel’s children we had use of the facilities on the island. There was an area alongside the army canteen where we children could play billiards, snooker, rings and darts. We had use of the gym, handball alley and even a tennis court.

“During the summer months, when the weather allowed, we went swimming in a sheltered cove we called ‘the swimming pool’ which was close to the graveyard.”

Noel remembers the mothers bringing picnics and sitting on a cliff top watching their children as they waded out 30ft from the shore and swam in the shallow, sheltered bay.

“There was great freedom in those days,” Noel recalled. “If we came in before dinner our mothers would ask what were we back in for and to get out and play.”

ISLAND BOY: Noel Mullen, who lived on Spike Island with his parents and six siblings until he was 13
ISLAND BOY: Noel Mullen, who lived on Spike Island with his parents and six siblings until he was 13

Of course, they used to get up to innocent devilment also. Hunting and fishing were a big hobby for the boys. “Every house had a dog and we used to go hunting rabbits. These used then be skinned and cooked by ‘the mother’ as nothing was wasted.”

Noel recalled that the best place for fishing on the island was at night time down near the pier. The lights there drew pollock up from the inky depths which were easily caught.

One of his friends also had a pop gun which they used to try and kill rats at the army dump site on the island. In the autumn, slogging apples from Corporal Hogan’s orchard was a favourite activity.

“The only time we felt the need to make the boat journey to Cobh was for the Merries or the pictures,” Noel added.

There was a dance hall above the officers’ mess where they had showband nights for the adults at the weekends. Cobh residents frequently travelled over to these events.

There was also a band stand on the island where competitions were held between the Army and the Navy. At Christmas, a party was held for the children there, where Noel said they got the best of grub and minerals. This was a ticket affair and the children could invite their friends from Cobh to it. It was always a memorable occasion complete with Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and music.

The only transport on Spike at the time was on horse and cart driven by Sergeant Tobin. Noel and the sergeant’s son used to get up at 5am to catch the horse. They would then gallop around the island for an hour before bringing the animal to the sergeant for duty.

The houses they lived in were almost luxurious for the time and had an indoor toilet, which was unusual. They also had a range with an attached copper cylinder in the kitchen. This heated water which was stored in the copper cylinder and was used for drying clothes as well as for hot water.

They didn’t have fridges and Noel remembers his mother storing the milk on the windowsill outside the kitchen.

Each house had a vegetable garden and some chickens. Noel said they always had plenty and just purchased what food they needed on a daily basis from the Army canteen. He and his friends would know what time the officers finished their meals and would arrive to get the leftovers as they had the best of food.

There was also a national school on the island. The teacher, Mr Hurley, used to arrive by boat from Cobh to teach the children.

“We watched out for the arrival of the boat and prayed for bad weather so that we’d get a day off,” Noel admits. He also remembers how the teacher used to give them loads of work to do and then leave them to their endeavours while he went off to play a game of golf and have lunch with one of the officers.

The pupils used to go out to play and time it so that they would be back before the master returned to the school.

Students took a little bit of time off school when a shipment of coal arrived by boat to the island. A lorry was brought with it in order to carry the coal to the barracks. As there was a sharp incline up from the pier, the journey was extremely slow.

The older boys used to climb up on the lorry and throw pieces of coal off the back, where the younger boys were waiting with bags to pick it up. When finished they would then go to school and pretend they had been sick. The teacher, having inspected their hands and clothes, would give them a slap, knowing full well what they had been up to.

When the children went home, if they let it slip that they had received a slap from the teacher, they would get another one from their mother!

Noel recalled that if any of his seven siblings were being reprimanded at the table on the same night that he got the slap from the teacher, then it was he who received their punishment in order to make sure he behaved in school.

“The thing about growing up on an Army base is that you were let away with nothing,” he added. “Not only did your mother and father keep an eye on you but so did the rest of the adults on the island.”

He and his family’s carefree time on the island lasted until he was 13, when, in 1969, his father retired from the army and got a job in Irish Steel.

They moved to the ‘mainland’ of Cobh, where Noel still lives, but fond memories of an almost forgotten time of living on Spike are still with him.

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