(IMAGE: Con Manning, National Monuments Service)

An ongoing project by University College Cork (UCC) is revealing the living conditions of convicts imprisoned on Spike Island – a small island in Cork Harbour – during the 19th century.

Used successively as a monastic settlement, military fortification, and prison, the island has a rich archaeological history. UCC, under the direction of Dr Barra O’Donnabhain, began excavations on the island in 2013. They have largely concentrated on revealing evidence from the period when the 19th-century fortress was converted into a prison from 1847 to 1883, initially as a crisis response to the Great Famine of 1845-1852 when over one million died from starvation.

Their most recent excavations have uncovered a plethora of evidence from this period in the island’s history, including hand-carved gaming pieces that the convicts would have used to pass the time.

During its 36-year tenure, the prison saw greatest use in its earliest years, when the Great Famine struck the country and many men and boys were sent to the island for stealing food. By 1853, prisoners on the island numbered over 2,500. As this population grew, and living conditions became increasingly harsh, the number of deaths sharply increased as well, with records indicating that as many as 1,000 prisoners died before 1860.

To learn more about these prisoners, Barra and his team have been excavating one of the cemeteries on the island. With 35 burials revealed so far, many of them appear to have been buried with great care. Strikingly, some of the cheap pine coffins appear to have been painted to look like more expensive oak ones, which perhaps, as Barra suggests, was ‘a gift from one prisoner to another and a statement of their humanity.’

In addition to the 19th-century finds, other surprising discoveries were First World War training trenches, used by troops heading to France and Gallipoli. During the excavation of the cemetery, the team found evidence of chest-deep training trenches, and, at the bottom of one of these, two lumps of corroded metal that are the remains of dud grenades. For more on the project, visit www.ucc.ie/en/archaeology/research/projects/thespikeislandproject.

This article appeared in CA 345.

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