On Spike Island: the Irish ‘Alcatraz’ and the growth of dark tourism

The Gates of Fort Mitchel on Spike Island. Image: Kondephy/Wikimedia Commons.

Spike Island – the former fortress and prison off the coast of County Cork in Ireland – has been named Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards. The island beat off competition from Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Colosseum to win what is described as the “Oscars” of the travel industry. It is a win for the community and also a win for so called “dark tourism”, whereby travellers seek something a tad more macabre than the traditional trip to the seaside.

There is no doubt Spike Island has a fascinating history. Situated in Cork Harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in the world, it has been home to a monastic settlement, a military fortress and a prison. Since the fortress reopened to visitors in June 2016, it has become a popular tourist destination, attracting over 45,000 visitors this year.

Visitors travel by boat from the town of Cobh to the island where they can explore the star-shaped fort which was home to thousands of soldiers and prisoners from the late 18th-century until 2004. There they learn about the history of the island, from its place as a home to early Christian monks, through the key strategic role it played during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Era, to its reincarnation as an island prison in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

The growth of ‘dark tourism’

Spike Island is one of a growing number of attractions in Ireland that can be called “dark tourism” sites. Dark tourism is closely associated with death, suffering and the macabre. The concept is far from new – Madame Tussaud became famous in Paris during the French Revolution when she cast waxwork death masks of the guillotined and by the 1830s she was exhibiting waxworks of murderers in London.

Sites associated with death and suffering have long been commercialised. In my book, Blood Runs Green, I wrote about the public fascination with death, and particularly brutal death, in Gilded Age America. In Chicago in 1889, thousands of “dark tourists” paid a dime to visit the house where a man had been bludgeoned to death and a further dime to take away souvenir shards of blood-stained wood (no one seemed to notice that far more splinters of wood were sold than had been necessary to build the house).

Academic studies of “dark tourism” have tended to focus on sites associated with the holocaust – particularly concentration camps such as Auschwitz. But some research has been conducted on prison islands, notably Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, which was home to Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

Interior of the old shell store which tells the story of the transportation of prisoners. Image: Simon Hill/author provided.

Other studies looked at Alcatraz, the famous prison island in San Francisco Bay. Both sites have key dominant stories – the image of Alcatraz is dominated by Hollywood visions of the island prison, while Robben Island is most closely associated with the political prisoners of the apartheid regime. Both sites make efforts to expand the visitor experience beyond these narrow histories, but with limited success in the public perception.

Part of my role as the historical advisor for the Spike Island Project was to consider issues associated with representing incarceration, punishment and execution. History should be neither sanitised nor sensationalised. Dark tourist sites are often tempted to provide the gory details of executions, highlight escape attempts and focus on the brutality of jailers. But it is also important to consider the victims of crime and the ways in which their experience might be marginalised when sites focus on the sensational.

Our project identified four key narratives that would allow the social, political and military histories of the island to be told: Cork Harbour, the Island Fortress, the Island Prison and the Island Home. Our intention was not to privilege one theme or story, but to offer visitors a multi-layered experience that revealed a diversity of voices ranging right across the island’s past.

Tourism is a business and commercial realities are a factor in developing any tourist site. Sites need to make money and it is the responsibility of the design team to make the content as accessible and as interesting as possible. Unlike Alcatraz, Spike Island had few famous prisoners and has not been immortalised in Hollywood films. As the historian responsible for researching and writing the island’s story, this was a good thing, as it enabled me to tell the whole story of the island as a place of refuge, defence and of incarceration.

Visitors can wander through the remains of the island village and imagine growing up on an island complete with its own school, church, fortress and prison. They can walk the corridors of the prison and stand in the cold, damp cells. They can patrol the perimeter of the fortress and imagine defending Cork harbour from a flotilla of invading ships. These are the types of experiences that cannot be replicated in a purpose-built museum.

The ConversationThe challenge of telling complex and diverse stories in a compelling and attractive way is a considerable one and involves input from a lot of people. But I believe that Spike Island successfully treads the fine line between education, entertainment and sensation. It is neither exploitative nor does it shy away from its difficult past.

Gillian O'Brien is a reader in modern Irish history at Liverpool John Moores University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.