Excavation work on Spike Island off the coast of Cobh in County Cork, Ireland has uncovered a previously unknown stone spiral staircase believed to date back to the 1790s.

The former monastic settlement dates back to the 17th-century and has had a fascinating and rich history. The low-lying island became an important part of the port’s defences, and saw various military fortifications being put in place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The island went on to be used as a prison during the potato famine and throughout the Irish War of Independence in the early 1900s, being dubbed “Ireland’s Alcatraz”.

While a tunnel which leads from the inner fortress to the outer moat was previously known to the island’s heritage team, the stone staircase was an unexpected find believed to be part of the original 10-acre British fortress that was built on Spike Island

Spike Island staircase
The staircase was recently discovered during work © John Crotty

The fortress’ tunnel and staircase originally lead to the top of the walls but became redundant after the structure was expanded. At 24 acres, it is still considered one of the largest military structures in the world. The team also discovered large animal bones and some half-filled wine bottles which are being dated. Having conducted many digs on Spike Island over a seven-year period, UCC archaeologist Barra O'Donnabhain was amazed by what was uncovered. “We have reviewed the original fort plans many times as part of research and it is incredible that this amazing find was unknown to us just waiting to be discovered. The 1804 plans and later drawings make no reference to the staircase, so it truly was a most pleasant shock to see this door leading off the chamber and beautiful stonework".

The unexpected find was made by the island’s maintenance and heritage teams while uncovering new areas as Cork County Council look to continue adding to the site. The island was hoping to grow its visitor numbers in 2020 after great interest since opening to the public in 2016.

SPIKE ISLAND staircase
Workers found large animal bones and half filled bottles of wine © John Crotty

“This stunning find reveals many interesting facts. Firstly the beautiful high quality craftsmanship and work that was undertaken, which showcases the highly skilled stone cutters that were working on the defences of Cork harbour in the late 1700's. The staircase also confirms that the first 1790 fort on Spike Island was swallowed up by the much larger 1804 fort, built to defend from the threat of invasion from Napoleon. The bottles of wine found at the bottom of the staircase suggest soldiers were disappearing for a sneaky drink during working hours into this out of the way tunnel, and were likely disturbed given that they left a large portion of the wine unconsumed!” John Crotty, Manager at Spike Island told Lonely Planet. More information on Spike Island is available at the official website.

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