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Spike Island from Cobh | © William Murphy/ Flickr
Spike Island from Cobh | © William Murphy/ Flickr
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This Prison Island Has Been Named Europe's Top Tourist Destination

Picture of James Hendicott
Updated: 2 October 2017
A former prison off the coast of County Cork, in the far south of Ireland, has been named Europe’s top tourist attraction, in an intriguing decision by the World Travel Awards, hosted in St Petersburg on 30 September 2017.

The victory, astonishingly, also makes the site the third consecutive winner from the island of Ireland, following the impressive Titanic Exhibition’s victory in 2016 (the infamous liner was built in Belfast, prompting the city’s unofficial tourist motto: “Titanic, built by the Irish, sunk by the English”) and by Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse in 2015.

Spike Island is a 103-acre near-circular island off the southern Irish coastline (more specifically, it sits in Cork harbour) that’s been occupied since the 6th Century. Once home to an isolated monastery, the island was later adapted into a military fortification, with a temporary defensive structure put together in the 1770s. With Ireland a part of Britain at the time, the island became an important restocking port during the war of American Independence, particularly as other European nations became involved in the conflict.

The Irish Defence Forces during a 21 Gun Salute on Spike Island
The Irish Defence Forces during a 21 Gun Salute on Spike Island | © Irish Defence Forces/ Flickr

The modern-day fortress – known as Fort Mitchel – was built in the early 19th Century as a strategic defense in the heart of Cork harbour. It housed political prisoners during the Irish War of Independence. British forces set up the site as what became known as an ‘Irish Alcatraz’, with political dissidents held within its walls.

Despite IRA (Irish Republican Army) prisoners being released from the prison after the succession of Ireland in 1921, the fortress itself remained in the hands of Britain until 1938, when Irish revolutionary (and later national leader) Eamon De Valera was present to see the island finally ceded to Ireland.

More recently, €5.5 million ($6.5 million) has been invested in turning the spot into a thriving and much-heralded tourist attraction. In 2002, it still had a population of 60 people (the number was as high as 2,300 in the 1850s), and prisoners continued to be housed here until 2004, when the last of the modern-day inmates were evacuated. Nobody currently lives on Spike Island.

After the prisoners departed, the island was handed to Cork City Council for free for the purpose of developing a tourism site, having previously been assigned as a possible location for yet another prison redevelopment. It’s hard to beat an island for prison safety, but Spike Island’s intriguing history had more to offer.

Fort Mitchel entrance on Spike Island
Fort Mitchel entrance on Spike Island | © Kondephy/ Wikicommons

Following redevelopment, current visitor attractions include the chance to see the prison cells as they were in 1985, or far earlier when you visit the Victorian-era children’s prison. You can explore the outhouses of Fort Mitchel, itself once the world’s largest prison, and examine the guns that once made this a defensive bastion.

There’s also the island’s village to explore, including its football pitch, beach and golf course. The historical relics include John Mitchel’s in-depth memoirs in the form of a ‘jail journal’ and the shocking conditions of the punishment block.

A more dramatic experience is on offer on the ‘after dark’ trips, where visitors get a chance to explore the full, dank, fetid conditions of the prison at its worst. There are tales of murder, of ghosts and of unmarked graves.

Spike Island’s competitors for the World Travel Award title were far better known locations, including the Acropolis in Athens, Buckingham Palace in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but this newcomer took home the award.

“We beat off the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower and more to win the highest award a tourist site can win,” Spike Island announced on their Facebook page. “We also became the first ever site outside of the capitals to win this award.”

To visit the island, you can take one of two daily ferries departing at 12 noon and 2 p.m., returning 3.5 hours later (this excludes the additional after-dark options).

The daytime tour includes ferry trip time (approximately 15 minutes each way) and a one-hour tour of the island, after which you’re free to wander around the various sites, explore the coastline or visit the cafe until the return trip.

Boats depart from Cobh, the east Cork town that also has Titanic connections (it was the last stop on that fateful journey before the iceberg collision), a more than worthy tourist stop in its own right. Expect the award to see a huge rise in visitors; tours to Spike Island only began in 2015, and many locals are yet to discover it.

Spike Island from Cobh
Spike Island from Cobh | © William Murphy/ Flickr