Lonely Planet Writer

Explore the dark history of 'Ireland's Alcatraz' on a night tour

Whether you’re the kind of person that has an insatiable appetite for crime podcasts, or perhaps are more intrigued by the paranormal, Spike Island in Ireland needs to be your next port-of-call.

Spike Island, the former army station and prison located in Cork Harbour. Photograph by Alexander Campbell ‘Monkey’ Morgan/Independent News and Media/Getty Images

The former prison-turned-tourist attraction in Cobh, Co. Cork is once again offering night-time tours to visitors who fancy seeing what life was like behind bars before the facility closed in 2004.

‘Spike Island After Dark’ will take you through areas that “no day tour can go”, including the prison’s extensive network of underground tunnels and cells. You’ll even be able to experience life in solitary, as it once was for so many convicted criminals on the island. It makes sense then, that it regularly plays host to paranormal investigators, including Ghost Hunter International.

An aerial view of Spike Island. Image by Spike Island Management

Visitors will learn about the prison’s Punishment Block, once referred to as “Ireland’s hell”. Established in the 1850s, its sole purpose was to punish those in incarceration. During its 36 years in existence, it is believed that 1000 convicts died on the island, according to records. Some 900 prisoners are buried in mass graves on the island, as a result of the lowly conditions and overcrowding subjected upon them.

Formerly a monastic settlement, Spike Island has a long, rich history which many will be surprised – and perhaps slightly horrified – to learn about. Initially the largest prison in the British Isles during the Victorian period, it went on to be used as a prison and garrison throughout the Irish War of Independence in the early 1900s. On 1 September 1985, inmates rioted and, as a subsequent government committee reported, “civilians, prison officers on the island were virtual prisoners of the criminals”. The riot resulted in one of the accommodation blocks, Block A, catching fire, afterwards it became known as the Burnt Block.

A reimagining of events at Spike Island during the 1800s. Credit: Spike Island

Spike Island was named top European tourist attraction at the 2017 World Travel Awards for its other work in maintaining the island’s heritage. The next tour takes place on 22 June. You can find out more information about Spike Island After Dark at spikeislandcork.ie.