John Arnold: Following in historic footsteps on my first visit to Spike Island

July 6 marked a very special day, says John Arnold. Here's why...
John Arnold: Following in historic footsteps on my first visit to Spike Island

The Irish Army at Kilshannig, Rathcormac 1922. Back row: Batt O Mahony, Rathcormac, Captain Denis Hickey Glenville, Jim Forde Glenville. Front Row: Paddy Daly, Bartlemy, Willie Cahill, Rathcormac, Moss Murphy, Castletownroche and Jack Egan, Bartlemy.

OCCASIONALLY one senses history all around, it’s not a burden or a weight but you just know that this particular spot has seen famous people in different times. These are people who have left their mark on the generations that came after them.

That’s how I felt at Hickey’s house in Badger’s Hill just outside Glenville. The home of Denis and Eileen Hickey was the setting for a family gathering on Tuesday night last. We sat at tables in a room where Michael Collins, Dan Breen, Éamon de Valera, Ernie O Malley and Liam Lynch had met a century ago.

For me it was the end of a very special day - well nearly the end! We had started in the morning shortly after ten o clock in the town of Cobh and ten hours later I joined with a group saying the Rosary near a Mass Rock at a river bank A day of memory and recollection and reflection too - a special scared day, last Tuesday July 6, 2021.

Just 100 years earlier on Wednesday July 6, 1921 the headlines in The Cork Examiner read ‘Irish Peace’ ‘General Smuts In Dublin’. Smuts, the South African diplomat, had arrived in Ireland to open negotiations with the aim of ending the War of Independence which had been waged since 1919 by the IRA against the might of the British Empire. On that very day, July 6, 32 Republican ‘prisoners’ were taken by boat from the Quayside in Cobh out to the Detention Centre at Spike Island. 

One of that group was Denis Hickey. Along with a group of his relatives I retraced his fateful journey on Tuesday.

In the townland of Badgers Hill in the 1700’s it is believed there once lived seven Hickey brothers. By the late 1800’s descendants of four of the brothers still resided there in four separate but neighbouring farmsteads. In one of these homes in 1880 was born Denis Hickey, the sixth of nine children born to Michael Hickey and his wife Abby nee Dinan from nearby Chimneyfield. After the events of Easter 1916 interest and support for the Irish Volunteers grew rapidly. Though in his 30s by then Denis Hickey answered his country’s call.

On January 6, ‘Little Christmas’ Day, 1919 a Volunteer meeting was held at the historic Bawnard House Castlelyons, home of the Kent family. Tomas McCurtain presided and Denis Hickey, representing the Glenville Volunteers, was appointed Company Captain. For the next two and a half years Captain Denis Hickey was on Active Service Duty as the War of Independence intensified.

Widow Kate Hickey lived a short distance from captain Denis Hickey’s home. Her husband had died young leaving her to rear six children. 

It was at Kate’s house we gathered last Tuesday evening and her home became the Head Quarters for the Fermoy IRA Battalion. 

Meetings, ‘councils of war’ and other gatherings were regularly held there. Captured British Army guns were ‘dumped’ here on a regular basis.

In September 1919 after the IRA attack near the Wesleyan Church in Fermoy 14 of the captured Enfield rifles were taken by Captain Hickey and buried in a ploughed field on Kate Hickey’s farm. At six o clock the next morning her sixteen year old son Patsy got an ‘early morning call’ at 6am and told to harrow the field to conceal all race of the hidden arms. In June 1921 Hickey was arrested by British Forces and charged with the heinous crime of ‘giving a false name’. For this misdemeanour the Summary Court sentenced him to three months imprisonment. He was held initially in Cork Gaol and on July 6, a century ago last Tuesday, he was taken by boat with 31 others to Spike Island to serve his sentence.

It was my first ever visit to Spike Island and I must say I was just amazed with it. 

Not just the sheer size of the fortifications, which have seen many transformations, but also the way it is now laid out, I was truly gobsmacked.

Earlier this year Tom O Neill BA, a Tour Guide on the island, published a magnificent book ‘Spike Island’s Republican Prisoners, 1921’. The book is truly a brilliant read with precise details of all those held on Spike, both as Prisoners and Detainees. Tom was our Guide on Tuesday and what an experience we had Spike Island oozes history and we really soaked it up. On our way up to Fort Mitchel - named for John Mitchel the Young Ireland leader who was held here before deportation, we passed the home of Nellie Organ. ‘Little Nellie of God’ as she was known, who was born here when her father was a soldier based on Spike.

Within the Fort we followed the ‘trail’ of captain Denis Hickey from his arrival in July 1921 until he was transferred to Maryborough, (Portlaoise) Prison in November of that year and released in December. We saw the cell where he was held as prisoner and the ‘boards on the floor’ bed, autograph books and multiple exhibitions on the War of Independence. The relatives of Denis Hickey were truly impressed at the story of Spike Island. There’s no doubt that it’s destined to become one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions in years to come.

In the afternoon as we took the ferry back to Cobh we were slightly quieter, perhaps a more reflective group. 

Until his demobilisation at the end of 1923 Denis Hickey served as a captain in the Free State National Army. In 1925 Denis Hickey bought 44 acres of land from the land Commission, part of the Penrose-Welstead Estate in Castletownroche. Two years later at Mount Melleray Abbey Denis Hickey then aged 47 married Hannah Mulcahy from Kilshannig in Rathcormac - she was 24 at the time. The couple had four children - Ina (Fitzgerald), Joe Hickey, Betty (Coffey) and Christine (McQuaid), both Joe and Christine are still alive and well.

When IRA Volunteer and Captain Denis Hickey died on St Valentine’s Day in 1956 he was 77 years old. He had served his parish and country well. An hour after we bade farewell to Cobh we were praying and singing at the graveside of Denis Hickey at Ardnageehy where generations of the Hickey clan are buried. Sixty five years ago on the day of his interment the customary volley of shots were fired. We had no guns on Tuesday but we gave a rendition of our national Anthem in his honour.

A visit to Doonpeter and St John’s Well and a walk along the Famine road added to the sense of occasion. Visits to Captain Hickey’s birthplace and the homestead of his mother followed before we dined at the one Hickey homestead in Badgers Hill still dwelt in I though of Collins and Dev and all the others who had gathered here a century ago - truly we were following in historic footprints.

The day’s events were planned by John Fitzgerald, a grandson of the Captain, before the gathering dispersed John thanked everyone for making a historic day so special.

Before I headed for home Denis Hickey took me on a tour of the surrounding countryside. We finished at the Mass Rock with the Rosary. On each and every single night at 8 o clock since the pandemic started in the Spring of last year locals gather to pray for those who need our prayers, for the country and the world. An unbroken sequence at a place their ancestors gathered in tough penal times. For me it was perfect end to a very special day.

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