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Spike Island Characters


James grey was a Manchester born thief who would become infamous as the criminal 'Jack in the box'. Grey constructed a large wooden box with clever levers and hinges that meant it could be opened from the inside. He would climb inside his trunk, have a friend mail it to accomplices in Cork, Belfast and Liverpool, and while the box was en route he would climb out and pillage the carriage!

He stole jewelry, fine clothing and anything of value he could fit into his box before climbing back inside and on to his accomplices, leaving the mystified train staff to try and deduce how the goods were taken. His crafty thefts when unsolved for years until a lodger in his house read in the Times about a reward for some fine shawls, and those very same shawls were draped across the chair he sat on! The house was searched and police found his clever rigged trunk, and so in 1856 James Grey was arrested and sentenced to 4 years in Prison. He returned to Cork in a very different box, this time to serve his sentence at Spike Island, then the largest prison in Britain and Ireland and most probably the world.


Henry Sweers attempted escape from Spike Island in 1863 by swimming for the town of Cobh, which at 1800 meters was no small feat. But rough seas meant he only got half way and was forced to turn back. He was reprimanded with lashes and time in the Punishment Block, typical punishment for an escape attempt at the time.

Two months later he tried again and this time several boats were sent to intercept him and he was again caught, with more lashes and solitary confinement for his troubles. The Islands warders sought special dispensation to be able to punish him outside of the normal law, and it was decided he would wear heavy chains to deter another escape attempt, lest he sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Incredibly he was make to wear the chains every day going forward, and he carried his burden for a full 2 years before his eventual release, no doubt a relieved man as he walked out the gates of Fort Mitchel shy of his burden.


A well educated graduate of All Hallows College in Dublin.  He tried to live a high life he could ill afford as he couldn't keep down a job. 

He ordered clothes from a dame street tailor and paid a deposit with the rest due on delivery.  A porter name Mulholand was dispatched and en route he was met by Dwyer who gave out to him for being late.  He led him down an alleyway to a stable and going inside began to fumble in his pockets.  While Mulholland went to light a match, Dwyer pulled a pistol and shot him but only straight through the nose, and a struggle ensued. 

Mulholand called for help and when a policeman came Dwyer ran.  The policeman tended to the porter, and lighting a lamp made a grim discovery.  Dwyer had a freshly dug grave ready and waiting for the porter, all for some fine clothing.  He was sentenced to 20 years and spent most of his time at Spike Island. 


William Johnston was an inmate of Kilmainham gaol in Dublin when he escaped in October 1858, and following his transfer to Cork he escaped his confines yet again in January 1859.  He was supposedly caught drinking in a pub within days and on his return he was given his own private jailer who watched over him constantly and 2 separate cells, one for the daytime and one for the night. 

He was forced to sleep naked,his clothes kept in his day cell as a means to deter any further escape attempts.  This simple deterrent failed and on hearing a disturbance one night his personal guard looked in to his cell to find Johnston half way out a tunnel he had dug, as naked as the day he was born. 

He was sent to Mountjoy prison in Dublin and he made 2 further escape attempts there before being sent to Spike Island.  He was a marked man among the guards, a veteran by now of 2 successful and 3 unsuccessful escape attempts, and the guards were warned that he was 'plausible in his conversation and will endeavor to throw the officer off guard'.

Despite their attentions and Spike's Infamy as a difficult place for confinement, one October night in 1860 he was found to be missing from his cell along with another prisoner, James Dwyer.  He had removed the bars from their windows and fashioned ropes from sheets, used them to climb the high walls, crossed the ramparts and descended into the moat.  They escaped unseen over the walls and into the darkness of a stormy Spike Island night.  

The alarm was raised and by the shoreline guards found a ladder floating in the water along with 2 prisoner caps.  The assumption was that the 2 men had drowned in the rough seas that stormy night and the search was being called off for the night.  As they returned to the fort a guard tripped over in the darkness and on landing he found himself staring into the eyes of Johnston, as the 2 men were hiding under a nearby bush.  The ladder and caps were merely a decoy and they had planned to look for alternative means of escape.  

Johnston was stripped and lashed and put in an unfurnished cell in the punishment block, where he was a frequent visitor over the coming years as was regularly and inexplicable found with pen knives, iron bars and other escape paraphernalia in his cell.  The frequent punishments for his continued resistance didn't seem to stop him, but despite his efforts he never did escape from Fortress Spike and so he left in 1866 without having managed a 3rd successful escape attempt. 

He was sent back to Cork gaol from which he was soon released and he returned to his native Limerick a changed man.  Changed for all of 2 years, as he was again imprisoned for the theft of a coat and boots, a crime noone could understand at the time as he did not appear to be in any dire need.  

Aware of is reputation he was again stripped of his clothes every night before he slept, but true to form just 2 months after he arrived William Johnston again made a break for it.  He had managed to get hold of his trousers this time and once again he removed the bars from his windows and got to the yard below.  He somehow scaled the 30 foot walls that surrounded the yard and he vanished into the night, this time never to be heard from again inside an Irish prison.  William Johnston had made his third and final escape.  


Kelly was a Republican who murdered a British informer who had infiltrated the IRB, a man named Constable Thomas Talbot who was shot in an assignation style killing that drew huge publicity.  He had also been involved in famous Fenian trials of the time and he chose to remain in Ireland after them, so his subsequent trial aroused national interest.  The trial became a sensation when Kelly was cleared of murder after his lawyer Issac Butt argued that Kelly shooting the Constable did not kill him, but rather doctors removing the bullet did.

The authorities couldn't let an assassin get away with the famous murder of a spy, and so Kelly was held in Kilmainham before eventually being found guilty at a retrial of shooting with attempt to murder.  

He was sentenced to 15 years and served 8 months in Mountjoy before being sent to Spike Island, where fellow Republican John Tierney was also held. 

He served 2 years in the Punishment block before being sent back to Mountjoy, with the press reporting the awful treatment Kelly endured while in the block.  The reports highlighted the mere half hour a day of exercise Kelly was granted outside of his bare cell, and how Kelly was kept with a man whose face was half eaten by cancer with whom he was forced to share a drinking vessel, this at a time when the transfer of such diseases was not understood.  He had a special warder assigned who watched over him day and night and ensured he always labored long and hard, and reported of his food being served to him on the floor.

Ireland's most famous assassin was eventually released in 1878 but his health was broken, and on his release he described Spike island as being well known as 'hell on earth' among the prison classes.  The reporter who interviewed him said Kelly's recounting of his treatment made him ask 'Is Spike island in a Christian land'?  

He did not live long after his release, dying within 2 years of being granted his freedom.  The story of his treatment on Spike Island caused uproar and condemnation from all corners.  


Mitchel was born at Camnish, near Dungiven, Co Londonderry, on 3 November 1815. The son of a Unitarian minister and United Irishman, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, before entering a solicitor's office in Newry, Co Down. He later practised in Banbridge, Co Down. In 1836, he eloped to England with sixteen-year old Jane Verner, but was brought back in custody; they eloped again in 1837 and were married.

Mitchel began writing for The Nation, and when Thomas Davis died in 1845, Charles Gavan Duffy invited Mitchel to join the newspaper. He subsequently wrote masterly descriptions of the potato famine, contributed a life of Hugh O'Neill to The Library of Ireland, and edited the poems of Davis and James Clarence Mangan. In 1846, Mitchel and other Young Irelanders broke with Daniel O'Connell, rejecting the doctrine of 'moral force', and founded the Irish Confederation.

More impatient than Duffy, Mitchel soon left The Nation and the Confederation, and in February 1848 published the first issue of The United Irishman. It openly preached sedition to 'that numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property', and in May 1848 Mitchel was convicted of treason felony and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. He hoped his sentence would provoke an insurrection, but nothing more than a skirmish in Co Tipperary ensued.

John Mitchel was sent to Spike Island where he was greeted by the warder and advised he had been told to treat him with respect.  During his short stay on the island he began writing his Jail Journal, which would go on to become an influential text that highlighted the terrible conditions suffered by Victorian prisoners that did little to reform their behavior.  It sparked an outcry for change in prison conditions and objectives and changes that were implemented on Spike island in the coming years were used the world over and gained the term the Spike system.  

An original copy of the text is on display in Spike Island, open to pages referring to his Spike Island stay.  Mitchel was transported from Spike to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), where he escaped in 1853 to America and published his famous Jail Journal. In one entry, he welcomes the Crimean War believing an Irish rebellion can succeed only if England is preoccupied elsewhere. The sentiment influenced Patrick Pearse in 1916.

Mitchel launched several newspapers in America, and as editor of the Richmond Examiner championed slavery; he was imprisoned for several months after the Civil War ended. In 1867, he founded the Irish Citizen in New York, but angered Fenians by suggesting they should give allegiance to their new country. In 1875, he was returned unopposed as MP for Tipperary, but was disqualified as a convicted felon. Returning to Ireland, he was again elected, but died at Dromalane, Newry, on 20 March 1875 before he could be unseated.  The Fort on Spike Island is now named for the famous Nationalist and a room on the island tells his story with a video presentation and artifacts.  


Vallancey, Charles, General, was an antiquary, born in England in 1721 who designed and oversaw the initial building of Fort Westmoreland, now Fort Mitchel on Spike Island.

He entered the army at an early age, was attached to the Royal Engineers, became a lieutenant-general in 1798, and a general in 1803.  He came to Ireland before 1770 to assist in a military survey of the island, and made the country his adopted home.  His attention was strongly drawn towards the history, philology, and antiquities of Ireland at a time when they were almost entirely ignored, and he published the following, among other works: Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, 6 vols., between 1770 and 1804; Essay on the Irish Language, 1772; Grammar of the Irish Language, 1773; Vindication of the Antient Kingdom of Ireland, 1786; Antient History of Ireland proved from the Sanscrit Books, 1797; Prospectus of a Dictionary of the Aire Coti or Antient Irish, 1802.  He was a member of many learned societies, was created an honorary LL.D., and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1784.

During the Insurrection he furnished the Government with plans for the defence of Dublin.  Queen's-bridge, Dublin, was built from his designs and he played a large part in the completed military survey of the entire country with great detail given to the south of Ireland.  How he managed all of these accomplishments can only be guessed at, especially considering that he had 4 different wifes and 14 children!  

He died 8th August 1812 at the amazing age for the time of 91.  There are portraits of him in the Royal Irish Academy and in the board-room of the Royal Dublin Society.  In the light of modern research his theories and conclusions have not received the kindest of reviews, as his literary achievements did not scale the heights of his physical labors.  George Petrie says: "It is a difficult and rather unpleasant task to follow a writer so rambling in his reasonings and so obscure in his style; his hypotheses are of a visionary nature."  The Quarterly Review declares that: "General Vallancey, though a man of learning, wrote more nonsense than any man of his time, and has unfortunately been the occasion of much more than he wrote.  The Edinburgh Review says: "To expose the continual error of his theory will not cure his inveterate disease. It can only excite hopes of preventing infection by showing that he has reduced that kind of writing to absurdity, and raised a warning monument to all antiquaries and philologians that may succeed him."