Some prisoners at Spike were ‘locked up for being poor’

Some prisoners at Spike were ‘locked up for being poor’

An aerial view of the Spike Island prison, which shut in 2004.

PRISONERS at Spike Island were mostly from “blackspots of disadvantage” and were essentially “locked up for being poor”, according to new research from University College Cork.

A team led by Dr Barra O’Donnabhain of the Department of Archaeology in UCC documented graffiti associated with the prison and found parallels between the backgrounds of the Famine-era Victorian convicts and the prisoners held at the modern prison until it shut in 2004.

Prisoners protesting during the riot at the prison at Spike Island in September 1985.
Prisoners protesting during the riot at the prison at Spike Island in September 1985.

“20th-century prisoners tended to write their names, their sentence and where they were from. You could see the same locations crop up again and again and they were blackspots of disadvantage,” said Dr O’Donnabhain.

“The Victorians developed the prison system as a means of controlling the poor and keeping power and wealth in the hands of the few.

“Many things have changed, but I wonder if in a couple of generation’s time we will look back at the prison system that we are operating today like we are now looking at the Mother and Baby Homes and the Magdalene Laundries,” he said.

“Will we see that the system is not always about justice but is also about how we, as a society, deal with issues of class, poverty and social exclusion? Spike Island is not just a place where we can go and be horrified about injustices in the past; it should also make us ask uncomfortable questions about what we are doing right now.”

“When we started this work, there was a big distinction in my mind between the famine-era Victorian convicts and the prisoners held here until the modern prison was shut in 2004. As the research went on though, I began to see uncomfortable parallels between the two systems.”

A riot at the prison in 1985.
A riot at the prison in 1985.

After an initial trial excavation in 2012, the Spike Island Archaeological Project has dug on the island for four weeks each summer. Each season, teams of up to 40 people – a mix of UCC and international students – have participated, living in the fort on the island.

While the island has a rich and varied past, the focus of the excavations was on its conversion in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, to a convict prison that operated until 1883. The island was used as a prison again in the 20th century.

Convict-related finds from the excavations included carved gaming pieces and burials from the prison cemetery. The gaming pieces give some insight into how convicts coped with long sentences and a harsh prison regime.

Gardaí in a truck damaged by rioters.
Gardaí in a truck damaged by rioters.

The team has discovered artefacts in areas where prisoners were housed and in the backfill of some of the graves in the cemetery, including a collection of hand-carved stone and bone objects. Some of the pieces of carved stone look like chess pieces while a hand-made domino tile has also been found.

“They say that life often imitates art and it seems to be the case here as these artefacts remind me of the rock-carved chess pieces in the movie The Shawshank Redemption,” said Spike Island manager, John Crotty.

Part of the reason for the high death rate on Spike Island in the early 1850s was the inadequate accommodation for prisoners, and the excavations have exposed some of the foundations of prefabricated buildings and stout wooden stockades.

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