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 trunk with clever levers and hinges that meant it could be opened and locked from the inside. He would climb inside his trunk, have a friend dispatch it to accomplices in Cork, Belfast and Liverpool, and while the trunk was en route Grey would climb out and pillage the freight carriage.

He stole jewellery, fine clothing and anything of value he could fit into his trunk before climbing back inside and on to his accomplices, leaving the mystified train staff to try and deduce how the goods were stolen. His crafty thefts went unsolved for years until a lodger in his house read in the 'Times' about a reward for some fine shawls.  The very shawls were draped across the chair the lodger was sitting on. The house was searched and police found his clever rigged trunk, and so in 1856 James Grey was arrested and sentenced to four 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.  See his full story here - > Characters - Jack in the box


Henry Sweers attempted to escape from Spike Island in 1863 by swimming to 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 punished with lashes and time in the Punishment Block, typical punishment for attempting to escape. 

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 Island's 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 harbour.

Incredibly he was made to wear the chains for the remainder of his sentence and he carried his burden for a full two years before his eventual release. No doubt shy of his burden he was a relieved man as he walked out the gates of Fort Westmoreland as the fort was called back then.


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

He ordered clothes from a Dame Street tailor and paid a deposit with the remainder due on delivery.  A porter named Mulholland was dispatched to delider the clothes and when en route he was met by Dwyer who gave out to him for being late.  Dwyer 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. 

Mulholland called for help and when a policeman arrived Dwyer ran off.  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.  Dwyer was arrested and sentenced to twenty years, he spent most of his sentence at Spike Island. 


William Johnston was an inmate of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin when he escaped in October 1858. Following his recapture he was transfered to Cork  from where he escaped again in January 1859.  Within days he was supposedly caught drinking in a pub and on his return to prison he was given his own private jailer who watched over him constantly in two separate cells, one for the daytime and one for  night. 

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

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

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

The alarm was raised and down by the shoreline the guards found a ladder floating in the water along with two prisoner caps.  The assumption was that the two men had drowned in the rough seas that stormy night and the search was called off for the night.  As he returned to the fort a guard tripped in the darkness and on falling he found himself staring into Johnston's eyes. The two convicts were hiding under a  bush.  The ladder and caps were merely a decoy while they looked for an 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 during the following 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 to escape. 

He was sent back to Cork Gaol from where he was soon released and he returned to his native Limerick a changed man.  Changed for all of two years, as he was again imprisoned for the theft of a coat and boots, a crime no one could understand at the time as he did not appear to be in any dire need.  

Aware of his reputation he was again stripped of his clothes every night before he slept, but true to form just two months after he arrived William Johnston made another attempt to escape.  He had managed to get hold of his trousers and once again he removed the bars from his windows and rached the yard below.  He somehow scaled the thirty foot walls that surrounded the yard and he vanished into the night. e was never heard from again inside an Irish prison.  William Johnston had made his third and final escape.  


Kelly was an Irish Nationalist Fenian who killed a British agent named Constable Thomas Talbot who had infiltrated the IRB, Talbot was shot in an assassination  style killing that drew huge publicity.  Talbot had also been involved in famous Fenian trials of the time and had chosen to remain in Ireland afterwards.  Kelly's subsequent trial aroused much national interest.  The trial became a sensation when Kelly was cleared of murder after his lawyer Isaac Butt argued that the shooting did not kill the Constable, but rather doctors killed him while removing the bullet.

The authorities could not let Kelly get away with killing their agent and so Kelly was held in Kilmainham Gaol before eventually being found guilty at a retrial of shooting with attempt to murder.  

He was sentenced to fifteen years and served eight months in Mountjoy before being sent to Spike Island, where fellow Fenian John Tierney was also held. 

Kelly served two years in the Punishment Block before being sent back to Mountjoy, with the press reporting the awful treatment Kelly endured while at Spike.  The reports highlighted the mere thirty minutes exercise a day Kelly was granted outside of his bare cell. Also 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 laboured long and hard. It was reported that his food was served to him on the floor of his cell.

Ireland's most famous assassin was eventually released in 1878 but his health was broken On his release he described Spike Island as being well known as 'hell on earth' among the prison class.  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 two years of being released.  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, 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 and were 1837.

Mitchel began writing for 'The Nation', 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 theLibrary of Ireland and edited the poems of Davis and James Clarence Mangan. In 1846, Mitchel and other Young Irelander's broke with Daniel O'Connell, rejecting the doctrine of moral force and founded a new independence movement,The Irish Confederation.

He would go on to write a famous 'Jail Journal' which he started at Spike Island, which has been described as one of the finest texts of Irish nationlism.  You can read his full story here - > Characters - John Mitchel



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

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 around 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. He published the following, 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.

You can read the full story of Charles Vallancey here - >  Characters - Charles Vallancey



Ellen Organ grew up on Spike island where she displayed an early interest in religion.  When she was sent to the Good Shepards in Cork city she became ill, and she begged the clergy to allow her to have Holy Communion.  Her precocious interest in God inspired the Bishop, and she received Communion at age 4, the youngest known recorded age.  When the Pope in Rome heard of her story, he said "This is the sign I have been waiting for", and he duly lowered the age of Communion from 12 to 7 for all Catholics worldwide, affecting millions.  There are calls to make her a Saint.  

Read her full story here - > Characters - Little Nellie of Holy God