Independence day - 1938
Ireland secured freedom from Britain in 1921 with the signing of a truce after a hard fought and bitter War of Independence. There were difficult conditions attached to the truce which were the painful price of freedom. The most famous was the seperation of Northern Ireland and its six counties into a region loyal to the United Kingdom, but another concession insisted upon by the British was the retention of what became known as the 'Treaty ports' at Bere Island, Lough Swilly and Spike Island. The supreme military importance of Spike Island was not lost on Winston Churchill who had visited the island on an inspection trip to Haulbowline in 1911, as the then head of the admirality. During World War one Cork harbour was a vitally important base for the American destoryer fleet when they joined the war, with as many as 35 destroyers being supported by many other military vessels. Churchill fought tooth and nail to retain this vital military location which added hundreds of kilometers to the capable defences of Britain. He was succesful in 1921 and a British military presense remained on the island for another 17 years.
A trade war broke out between Ireland and Britain during the 1930's and then President Eamon Devalera negotiated a settlement. This included the return of Spike Island and its fort from British to Irish control, a condition passionately opposed by Winston Churchill who described Spike Island and the other treaty ports as;
"The sentinel towers of the defences of western Europe".
He was overlooked and July 11th 1938 was set as the handover date. An Irish army contingent sailed to the island and saw the British flag lowered. The event is recalled here in a 1985 interview with Lieutenant Colonel Jack Griffin. Eamon Devalera refused to travel to the island until every single British solider had left, his time in English prison cells likely weighing on his mind. He travelled to the island with a delegation in the evening and watched the tri-colour raised over the island and Cork harbour for the first time. Ireland grew just a little larger in size that day but infintely larger in stature, and the return of the island without a shot being fired was hailed as a great act of diplomacy by DeValera. The return of the island not only boosted national pride, it also saved Cork harbour from the menance of German bombardment with the outbreak of World War 2. The military asset was far from the protection of the RAF and it would have made an easy early target for destruction by the Lufwaffe. Cobh and Cork harbour was also part of an invasion plan of Ireland drawn up by Germay entitled 'Operation Green', where fast moving launches would quickly land 10000 men and move inland. Had the fort remained in British hands the justification for such an invasion may have been far more prevalent.
A crowd of 40000 had gathered in Cobh and their cheers filled the harbour in an event fondly recalled by those who attended. A letter below details the event from the perspective of one of the attendees on the day;
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You needn’t bother answering this letter now but I thought I would write and
tell you all about the forts while it is all still fresh in my memory, not of course
that I could ever forget it as long as I live.
Well I’ll begin at the beginning. I had my mind made up not to go to Cóbh at
all but to listen to it on the air, but as I was coming thro’ town and saw all the
flags flying and all the Guards around the Hotel my Irish blood rose and I got
the urge to follow the crowd to Cóbh, so when I got home I coaxed Popa Long
to come with me and we got the 7.15 bus to Cóbh and just as we reached
“The Beach” the “Joise-de-joie” (or what ever they call it) was fired and we
jumped out of the bus and ran in along thro the gate and just as we got in the
Tricolour creapt up the flagstaff in Spike Island and in all my life I never before
felt anything like the sensation I got when that flag went up. All the crowd
(40,000 people in Cobh) roared as loud as their lungs could go, the jumped,
clapped and waved their hats, even as I think of it I could still break my heart
crying. I was grand. The pipers on the mainland then played the National
Anthem and there was no more to be seen then only the flag flying over the
harbour. There was just a lovely breeze there and it used allow the flag to
open its folds and then it would lift up itself and wave! By this of course the
other forts had their flags flying too-but they are not to be seen from Cóbh.
However there was a boat going out around the forts and off we went on that.
We went out past Spike and could see the soldiers putting the field guns in to
the moate etc. Such a welcome change for Spike then we could see the two
flags on the forts and as we got nearer you could clearly see the green, white
& orange in them. Just as we were passing Spike Island on our way back 3
soldiers came out and took down the flag for the night. So we saw it going up
& coming down for the first time. That was at 9 o clock to the dot it came down
& also the other two forts came at the same moment.
Almost at once Dev’s launch came to Cóbh & we really thought somebody
would be drowned before the night was out. The people just roared & clapped
themselves into a frenzy over time. He went on to Midleton then & we came
home. I got home about 11 oclock and rushed into my light frock & off with Ina
& myself to the Victory Ceilidhe in Arcadia.
We got a lovely seat just opposite the bandstand & when the poor man did
come I thought the crowd would tear every stitch off him. Vivion was with him
in uniform & also Rory a young fellow of about 16 years. A lovely child. Also
Devs Aide-de-Comp a nice man. I never saw anything like the reception he
got and he smiling all over like a cat in a tripe shop. He made a small speech
The whole day was the most exciting, interesting and thrilling day ever spent
in all my life. On Cobh people just hugged themselves & everybody else, and
shook hands all round with each other.
The greatest triumph of the day was to see the Tricolour flying over the “Royal
Cork Yacht Club”. Seamus Fitzgerald ordered of Mr Daly that it should be
flown and the latter said he didn’t want any trouble so he would fly it and one
ould so and so resigned because of it. I saw it with my own eyes & it brand
new and all the other ones were dirty & old. Great satisfaction this.
I’ll close now but we must go to Crosshaven some night.