ON the exact day 72 years after the British handed back an island in Cork harbour another historic handover took place there which will ultimately see Ireland’s "Alcatraz" turned into a major tourist attraction.
On behalf of the Department of Justice, Minister for Social Protection, Éamon Ó Cuív, yesterday handed over the Spike Island to Cork County Council, which intends to exploit its rich heritage for tourism.
Mr Ó Cuív said he was personally delighted to set foot on the island as in 1938 his grandfather, Éamon de Valera, stood there as the national flag was raised on it for the first time — on the occasion the Treaty Ports were handed back to the State.
"It’s important to remember that for many Irish people this island was their last stop before they were shipped to other parts of the world. Some of the story of our Irish diaspora started its journey from this island and it’s my hope that their descendants will return here to see where their own individual family journeys began," said Mr Ó Cuív.
He toured the island yesterday, along with a number of dignitaries, including Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, county manager Martin Riordan and the Mayor of County Cork, Cllr Jim Daly.
They were given a detailed guided tour by Tom O’Neill of the Irish Prison Service who outlined its incredible and varied history.
A Monastic settlement was established on the island in the 6th century by St Carthage. Three centuries later it suffered Viking raids, while by the 12th century the Normans had taken control.
Between 1652 and 1659 the island became a prison from which Cromwell sent more than 50,000 men, women and children to work as slaves in British plantations in the Caribbean.
The use of Spike Island as a holding and deportation centre continued right up until the 1880s, with the island home to as many as 2,000 prisoners at a time during those years.
The building of Fort Westmoreland was completed in the early 1800s.
The island served as a British army base from 1883 until the outbreak of the War of Independence, when it once again was used to house rebels and convicts until the signing of the truce between British and Irish forces on July 11, 1921.
Spike Island was used to house young offenders in the 1980s and was the scene of a famous riot by inmates in 1985, which resulted in the destruction of the residential blocks in the fort. The prison was finally closed in 2004.
Cllr Daly said that the handover of the island represented the culmination of a long campaign by local people.
County manager Martin Riordan said the master plan would be published next spring.
"We have already received proposals from a number of interested parties about developing tourist activities on the island. So we can see the demand that exists to use the island. We hope to have made considerable progress before the end of the year," Mr Riordan said.