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Locked up for being poor: Spike Island finds pose ‘uncomfortable questions’ about modern prison system

7 Sep
Dr Barra O’Donnabhain: "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." Photo: National Monuments Service Photographic Unit.

Prisoners at the 20th century prison on Cork’s Spike Island were mostly from “blackspots of disadvantage,” according to finds as part of UCC-led archaeological excavations.

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

“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.

Video: Stephen Bean, UCC. 

“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.” 

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. 

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.

While excavating the convict cemetery, the team found evidence of a trench that had been dug during World War I to give soldiers the experience of trench warfare before they were sent to the front. After the convict depot was closed in 1883, Spike Island was returned to the British military who held it until 1938 when the island was handed over to the Irish state. During World War I, troops are known to have trained on the island before being sent to fight in France and Gallipoli.  An unexpected find at the base of the chest-deep trench were two lumps of corroded metal that turned out to be grenade blanks. 

The conclusion of this year’s excavations marks the end of one phase of cooperation between Cork County Council and the Department of Archaeology at UCC where the council has facilitated and accommodated the archaeologists while benefitting from the history they have uncovered.

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 built to make older barracks buildings more secure once they had been converted to prison accommodation.  Forced labour was part of the punishment regime, and the convicts were put to work removing tons of rock from what is now the open parade ground. 

“The fort would have looked very different in 1847 compared to what we see now.  You could not see from one end of the parade ground to the other as the rock of the original hill was still in place. This was all removed by convicts who spent the first 15 years effectively building their own prison.” 

“Every building would have been grossly overcrowded, even those that were not suited to housing prisoners. Maybe the worst were the two old ammunition stores that were converted into convict accommodation.  One of these, the Shell Store near the main entrance to the fort, house up to 100 juveniles – children aged between 12 and 16 – in three dank, almost windowless rooms.”

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF

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