Saturday, 18 June 2016


A new book by Cal McCarthy and Barra O'Donnabhain on the history of the Victorian convict prison on Spike Island constitutes a major addition to the body of knowledge about this institution and the prevailing social, political and economic conditions of the period. It is the culmination of a number of years' research, informed both by official historical records and on-site archaeological excavations and provides a comprehensive overview of the lives and times of an infamous penal institution. For almost four decades the Victorian prison on Spike Island was home to Ireland's most serious and notorious criminals. Established in the midst of one of the worst famines in global history, this huge facility became the largest prison in what was then the United Kingdom, dwarfing institutions like Dartmoor, Pentonville, Mountjoy and Kilmainham. High death rates during its formative years meant that many of its malnourished inmates were laid to rest beneath its sod. Yet Spike Island was to become a beacon of penal reform, influencing modern correctional systems in countries as far apart as the USA and Germany. Although Spike Island's position in Cork Harbour made it ideal for use as a prison, this is not a Cork story, but rather an Irish story, based in Cork, and one with a significant international dimension. Spike Island was the point where individual stories from all over Ireland were woven together. Moreover, its ripples were felt well beyond the shores of Ireland, as it formed part of a penal system that sent convicts right around the world. Even after transportation to Australia and other destinations ended, most prisoners were encouraged to emigrate to the United States upon release. The story told in this book is one that is, in turn, dramatic, shocking, touching and humorous. The life of the prison was vibrant, peopled by the unfortunate of society alongside those who committed serious, sometimes gruesome, crimes. This is the story of the establishment and evolution of the prison, the often fascinating lives of prisoners and staff and of a time when a renowned Irish fortress of British military power entered the annals of penal infamy. Too Beautiful for Thieves and Pickpockets: a history of the Victorian Convict Prison on Spike Island is published by Cork County Library and Arts Service and will be available to purchase from Liam Ruiséal, the Bantry Bookshop, O'Mahony's Booksellers, Kenny's of Galway ( and other good bookshops from 11th May 2016.
New Publication Re Spike Island

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