Dr Anna McKay

School of English

School of English


Dr Anna McKay’s research focuses on confinement and forced migration in the British maritime world. In the School of English (2021-2022), Anna is undertaking a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, British Prison Hulks, 1775-1875: ‘Wicked Noah’s Arks’? This project expands upon her PhD, an AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral project with the University of Leicester and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (2020).

Prior to her appointment at UCC, she undertook a Junior Research Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, London (2019-20) and a Caird Library fellowship (2019). At UCC, Anna has been developing various academic and public-facing outputs, including journal articles, book chapters and an RTÉ Brainstorm article on Irish convicts in Bermuda: The story of Irish convicts sent 3,000 miles from home to Bermuda (rte.ie)  


Twitter: @DrAnnaLoisMcKay          Web: www.anna-mckay.com


Project Outline: British Prison Hulks, 1775-1875: ‘Wicked Noah’s Arks’?

This project presents a new reading of decommissioned ex-naval ships repurposed as floating prisons by the British government, also known as ‘hulks’, from the time of their first use in England in 1776, to their disbandment in British overseas territories in 1875. Existing histories of punishment have been dominated by the ‘rise of the prison’ narrative, but my research makes a significant departure by foregrounding the experiences of prisoners. I seek to place hulks and the people connected with them in their wider social, cultural and global contexts.

Combining historical and literary research methods, my project interrogates an archival wealth of journals, letters, diaries and news media to demonstrate how prisoners, parliament and the public experienced and conceptualised prison hulks, labelled ‘wicked Noah’s Arks’ by Charles Dickens in the opening chapters of Great Expectations (1861). Assessing how individuals and groups constructed meaning from prison hulks is crucial to understanding a period characterised by intense political debate about crime, convict transportation and institutional reform. While imprisonment became a well-established element of punishment at the end of the eighteenth century, historians have typically overlooked prison hulks. My project contends that although prison hulks defied classification, occupying a grey area between ship and prison, they remained highly important carceral spaces. Nor did prison hulks exist in isolation: they were in fact one mode of confinement within larger, global networks of punishment and penal transportation across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Building upon my PhD research, my postdoctoral fellowship includes new case studies on Ireland and Bermuda, which will ultimately present a fuller, longitudinal analysis of convict hulks and their use in imperial settings. I am also exploring the impact of prison hulks upon public memory through analyses of news media and literary representations, alongside research which explores naval-penal intersections in greater depth. My outcomes include a combination of journal articles and book chapters, funding bids and public-oriented work.


College of Arts, Celtic Studies & Social Sciences

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