My mother was a Spike Island girl, it’s great to see it thriving

Spike Island holds fond memories for Trevor Laffan's family - his mother was born there and his grandmother was a midwife, who would travel in a launch in all types of weather to get to Cobh to deliver babies.
My mother was a Spike Island girl, it’s great to see it thriving

The tourist attraction of Spike Island, off Cobh, as seen from the air above Cork Harbour. Picture: Larry Cummins

THERE’S a very catchy statement on the Cork County Council-sponsored website for Spike Island, which tells you that in the last 1,300 years, it has been home to heroes and villains, captains and convicts, red coats and rioters, sinners and saints.

The islands impressive 104 acres have at one time or another hosted an Island monastery, an Island prison, an Island fortress and an Island home. If that doesn’t pique your interest, then nothing will.

Fortunately, I have been aware of this little island all my life because my mother was born and raised there.

She was born on Spike Island in 1934 and her mother was well known around the locality of Cobh and The Great Island because she was the local midwife.

She travelled in a launch from Spike, in all types of weather, to get to Cobh to deliver babies. She was known to most people as Nurse Carson and she delivered around 2,000 babies during her lifetime.

The family moved to Cobh when my mother was still a young girl and they lived on East Hill overlooking Cork Harbour.

For the rest of her life, she had an unrestricted view of Spike from her sitting room window and she always retained a special love for the place. I grew up looking at that little island and often heard her telling stories of her childhood there.

We were chatting one day, and she was lamenting the fact that she hadn’t been back there in such a long time, so in 2006, I arranged for a launch to take us over for the day.

As it happened, the guy driving the launch was also born and raised on Spike, so when we got there, the two of them walked ahead and talked about days gone by and remembered their old neighbours while myself and my father brought up the rear.

Many of the buildings were in a dilapidated state with windows broken and roofs falling in, and the entire area was generally overgrown. But as bad as it was, she got a great kick out of retracing her childhood steps. She had a great day and that’s why I was delighted to see the fantastic work that has taken place there in recent years and it’s great to see it open to the public as a major tourist attraction.

David Linnane reported in this paper some time ago that Spike Island beat the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace in the race to be named Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the 2017 World Travel Awards. Stiff competition also came from the Acropolis in Greece and the Coliseum in Rome, but the former prison and fortress came out on top.

More than 45,000 visitors went there in 2017 and they hope to raise that to 100,000 by 2020.

About €6 million, partly funded by Fáilte Ireland, has been poured into the refurbishment of Spike and its success puts it right up there with Titanic Belfast and the Guinness Storehouse.

I have no doubt that if my mother was still alive, she’d be a regular visitor too because there’s a lot to see and the place is steeped in history.

I remember looking over at Spike Island in 1985 when it was a jail and the prisoners had rioted — the place was on fire.

When the prison closed, there was little activity on the island until Cork County Council took it over and it’s great to see some life there again. The large number of visitors flocking there during the summer months are very welcome.

But not every island serves up a warm welcome to strangers.

Take the story of an American tourist who tried to land on a small island off India recently. North Sentinel Island is part of the Andaman Islands, deep in the Indian Ocean, and the Sentinelese tribe, believed to be only 150 in number, doesn’t want to have any contact with the outside world and is openly hostile to anyone who tries to get too close.

Outsiders are officially banned from going within three miles of the island, to protect the way of life of the natives and to safeguard them from 21st century diseases. But there is a suggestion that this particular American tourist was a missionary and was trying to make contact with the tribe to convert them to Christianity.

He ignored instructions from the authorities, and advice from locals, to stay away from the place.

According to police, he had tried to reach Sentinel island previously but failed, so this time he got a boat to bring him in close to the island and went the rest of the way on his own in a canoe.

Bt instead of being met with a holiday brochure and the offer of a tour, he was hit by a hail of arrows and killed.

The warning signs were there because in 2006, two Indian fishermen moored their boat near the island while they went for a sleep but the little vessel broke loose and drifted onto the island.

The fishermen were never seen again, and their bodies were never recovered.

The Sentinelese tribe is one of the last groups in the world to be untouched by modern civilisation and they should be left that way. It’s supremely arrogant for someone to think they can improve the lives of any tribe by introducing them to religion.

The authorities there respect their privacy and only observe them from a distance. The Indian Coast Guard flew over the island one time and the tribesmen tried to shoot down the helicopter with bows and arrows.

Spike Island, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. You’ll have a great experience and you won’t be attacked by the natives.

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