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Spike Island is a small island situated on the south coast of Ireland and within Cork’s Lower Harbour. It offers an anchorage off an uninhabited island of major historical interest.

Spike Island is a small island situated on the south coast of Ireland and within Cork’s Lower Harbour. It offers an anchorage off an uninhabited island of major historical interest.

Set inside Cork’s Lower Harbour and nestled within its islands and banks, the island offers good protection from all conditions except a northeasterly where at high water it would become uncomfortable. Straightforward access is assured by Cork Harbour’s easily approached and well-marked harbour but the path to Spike Island is off the beaten path, is unmarked and requires daylight access.

Keyfacts for Spike Island
None listed

No fees for anchoring or berthing in this locationAnchoring locationJetty or a structure to assist landingHistoric, geographic or culturally significant location; or in the immediate vicinity

Restriction: shallow, drying or partially drying pierNote: strong tides or currents in the area that require consideration

Protected sectors

Current wind over the protected quadrants
Minimum depth
3 metres (9.84 feet).

4 stars: Straightforward; when unaffected by weather from difficult quadrants or tidal consideration, no overly complex dangers.
4 stars: Good; assured night's sleep except from specific quarters.

Last modified
August 3rd 2020

Summary* Restrictions apply

A good location with straightforward access.

None listed

No fees for anchoring or berthing in this locationAnchoring locationJetty or a structure to assist landingHistoric, geographic or culturally significant location; or in the immediate vicinity

Restriction: shallow, drying or partially drying pierNote: strong tides or currents in the area that require consideration

HM  +353 21 4273125      info@portofcork.ie      Ch.12, 14 &16
Position and approaches
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Haven position

51° 50.270' N, 008° 17.450' W

This is set on the head of Spike Island pier and the deep water channel can be found 30 metres off the head.

What is the initial fix?

The following West Passage southern entrance initial fix will set up a final approach:
51° 49.000' N, 008° 16.825' W
This waypoint is set at the southern end of the West Channel within Cork’s Lower Harbour. By keeping just east of the path of 329° (T) and westward of 326° (T) of the Christ Church spire, located at Rushbrooke on the west end of Great Island, the West Channel’s mile long lower section may be passed up to southwest end of Spike Island.

What are the key points of the approach?

Offshore details are available in southeastern Ireland’s Coastal Overview for Rosslare Harbour to Cork Harbour Route location. Details for vessels approaching from the southwest are available in southwestern Ireland’s Coastal Overview for Cork Harbour to Mizen Head Route location. The run up the Lower Harbour to Cobh Road is best described in the Cork City Marina Click to view haven entry.

Not what you need?
Click the 'Next' and 'Previous' buttons to progress through neighbouring havens in a coastal 'clockwise' or 'anti-clockwise' sequence. Below are the ten nearest havens to Spike Island for your convenience.
Ten nearest havens by straight line charted distance and bearing:
  1. Cobh - 0.7 nautical miles NNW
  2. Cuskinny - 1.3 nautical miles NE
  3. Cork Harbour Marina - 1.6 nautical miles WNW
  4. Crosshaven - 2 nautical miles S
  5. Glenbrook - 2 nautical miles NW
  6. White Bay - 2.4 nautical miles SE
  7. Drake’s Pool - 2.5 nautical miles SW
  8. Aghada - 3.1 nautical miles E
  9. East Ferry Marina - 3.3 nautical miles ENE
  10. Ringabella Bay - 4.1 nautical miles S
These havens are ordered by straight line charted distance and bearing, and can be reordered by compass direction or coastal sequence:
  1. Cobh - 0.7 miles NNW
  2. Cuskinny - 1.3 miles NE
  3. Cork Harbour Marina - 1.6 miles WNW
  4. Crosshaven - 2 miles S
  5. Glenbrook - 2 miles NW
  6. White Bay - 2.4 miles SE
  7. Drake’s Pool - 2.5 miles SW
  8. Aghada - 3.1 miles E
  9. East Ferry Marina - 3.3 miles ENE
  10. Ringabella Bay - 4.1 miles S
To find locations with the specific attributes you need try:

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Please use our integrated Navionics chart to appraise the haven and its approaches. Navionics charts feature in premier plotters from B&G, Raymarine, Magellan and are also available on tablets. Open the chart in a larger viewing area by clicking the expand to 'new tab' or the 'full screen' option.

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What's the story here?
Spike Island as seen from the south
Image: Michael Harpur

Spike Island is an island of about 103 acres that is situated in Corks Lower Harbour. It is located about 1 mile southward of Cobh and a ¼ of a mile from the western shore of the harbour. Originally the site of a monastic settlement, the island is today dominated by an British 18th-century starfort, renamed Fort Mitchel, that occupies about one-third of the island. The impressive fort structure was turned into a visitor attraction in 2016, in a project co-funded by Cork County Council and Tourism Ireland and it has since won many internationally prestigious tourism awards.

It is possible to anchor about 20 to 30 metres off the pier in excellent mud holding with 4 metres LAT. Vessels that can take to the hard can dry out alongside its old pier.

How to get in?
Spike Island overlooking the entrance to Cork Harbour
Image: Tourism Ireland

Convergance Point The run up the Lower Harbour to Cobh Road is best described in the Cork City Marina Click to view haven entry. The island, with a distinctive flat-topped appearance due to the presence of its large sunken fort, will be immediately seen when making an entrance into Cork Harbour. The harbour's main fairway then sweeps up to pass its eastern side where it turns to pass around its northern side between it and Cobh.

Despite this and the island appearing central in the harbour, the anchoring area off Spike Island cannot be approached from the main channel at low water. This is because it is fenced off by shoals on most all sides that prevent direct access from the main fairway:

  • • It is closed off at low water from an approach that passes south around the island by the Curlane Bank. This can be considered almost a prolongation southward, to within a ½ mile from Ram Point, of the Spit Bank. Curlane Bank dries in parts and has from 0.4 to 0.9 metres of water, its southern extremity lies westward of the port No. 8 buoy.

  • • It is closed off at low water from an eastward and northeastward approach by the very shallow Spit Bank. This is an extensive flat of muddy sand, gravel, and weed, that dries to 0.8 in places, that extends ¾ of a mile eastward from Haulbowline Island to the Pile Light on its eastern extremity and then southward to Spike Island.

Haulbowline Island Bridge with Rocky Island at it's centre
Image: Dennis Sheehan

  • • Likewise, Spike Island is fenced in from the north by Haulbowline Island and an approach from the west by Haulbowline Island’s mainland bridge that has a vertical clearance of 7 metres, between Haulbowline and Rocky Islands.

The West Channel commences half a mile northeast of the Owenboy River estuary
Image: Tourism Ireland

The Spit and Curlane banks are well covered at high water and the channel between Spike and Haulbowline Islands has no overhead obstructions so it is completely possible to approach over the banks and indeed circumnavigate the island with a sufficient rise of tide. However the Spit Bank has those unpredictable high points that have caused many a local boater to come undone. Enduring the Spit Bank's very special 'lean of shame' before the town of Cobh and all the fairway's passers by is best avoided if at all possible.

The only approach to the anchoring area that is available at all stages of the tide is from the south via the Lower Harbour’s West Channel. The West Channel commences a ½ mile northeast of the Owenboy River estuary that opens on the western side of the harbour above the neck of the entrance. The West Channel leads between the western shore of the harbour and the Curlane Bank, then the western side of Spike Island. Though unmarked the channel has a least depth of 2.1 metres and the majority has 3 metres or more.

Small boat southeast bound in the Lower Harbour's West Channel
Image: Michael Harpur

Initial fix location From the initial fix, that is positioned at the entrance of the West Channel, about a ⅓ of a mile north of Ram’s Head Spike Island, keep just east of the path of a baring of 329° T and westward of 326° T of Christ Church spire at Rushbrooke, and not St. Colman's Cathedral, on the west end of Great Island.

Christ Church - spire unlit position: 51° 50.900' N, 008° 18.790'W

The 329.5° T alignment of the Christ Church Spire and the eastern extremity of Fort Meagher on Ram's Head astern, as best seen on Admiralty Chart 1777, just skirts part of the shallows extending from the western shoreline so keep an eye to the sounder. Generally, all is mud in the passage and there is very little hard to hit should a vessel go off course.

When between Spike Island and the mainland on the east side, take a central path towards Haulbowline Island tending slightly east of centre at the north end to avoid the drying spit off Paddy’s Point. All the channels at thsi point will be readily apparent and steep-to. Continue north, with Haulbowline Island’s mainland bridge and Rocky Island well off to port, until the pier is bearing due east before turning towards the anchoring position immediately off the head of the pier.

Spike Island as seen from the west
Image: Dennis Sheehan

Haven location Anchor about 20 to 30 metres off the head pier in mud where 4 metres will be found. The cables and pipes around the island, as presented on Admiralty 1777 to the northwest and west of the pier, between Spike, Haulbowline and Paddy’s Point, have never been known to cause a problem for local vessels but it is best to stay clear of them and use a trip line.

In strong westerly or easterly winds, better protection will be found a little to the south, east of the mainland's Paddy's Point and west of Spike Island in the head of the West Channel. The shelter and mud holding is good, and the depth sufficient since the strong tidal currents always kept the boat in the middle, deepest part, of the channel. Expect some traffic of small boats - including the customs.

The head of Spike Island pier as seen from the west
Image: Dennis Sheehan

Vessels that can take to the hard may come alongside the pier that dries out a few metres beyond its head at LWS. The pier and pontoon are signposted for use by licensed passenger vessels. However the ferry only uses the north face of the pontoon and if this is left clear and unobstructed visiting leisure vessels are free to come alongside.

In all cases land by tender. This is possible at the pier or indeed possible at most points of the island. An alternative good landing is possible at the slip at the northeast corner of the island near a very large limestone warehouse.

Why visit here?
There appears to be no record explaining how Spike Island, in Irish Inis Pic, acquired its name. Presumably, it originates from the Atlantic heathland's characteristic gorse, Ulex Europeaus, that would have dominated the island prior to the development of the late 18th-century fortress. It still sprouts up wherever it can, spiky and resilient, and is one of the signature plants of Ireland's common coastal land and rough open space.

St Carthage
Image: Public Domain
The island was originally the site of a 7th-century monastic settlement. It was established in AD 635 by St Carthage (Mochuda) also referred to as St Carthach and was detailed in 'The Lives of Saint Declan and Mochuda'. St Carthage was born in Kerry and had already established a large and important monastery of over eighty monks at Rahan in County Offaly. There seems to have been some serious dispute with the local Chieftain and the well- established monastic group were driven out en-masse which led to them re-establishing on Spike Island. Having set up the monastery on Spike Island, he eventually set up another one at Lismor which became famous well beyond the boundaries of County Waterford, where it is located. Monasteries such this and the earlier abbey founded by St Ita in Cloyne became important early centres of settlement and trade and would have led to development in the harbour. After the monks departed the island was abandoned but trade continued nonetheless when it became a base for smugglers.

But all this was set to change when Cork Harbour replaced Kinsale as the principal Royal Navy south coast base during the turmoil of the 1770's of the American War of Independence. At the time Cork provided a key position to bolster the defence of Britain’s western approaches, guarding the entrance to the English Channel and maintaining the blockade of France. During this military build-up Cobh then started to rapidly develop as a garrison town and the island’s strategic position came into sharp focus. The British government purchased Spike Island in 1779 for defensive and military purposes and a fort was quickly built on Spike Island's high ground. This was named Fort Westmorland, after John Fane the 10th Earl of Westmorland then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and all the defensive structures were named Fort Westmorland during the time the island was operated by the British Forces.

Earl of Westmorland
Image: CC0
When completed, in July 1779, the British military quickly realised the strategic importance of Spike and decided to replace the old fort with a much larger structure. This begun in 1804 but left incomplete at the end of the Napoleonic War eleven years later. Nevertheless, progress continued with ranges of artillery barracks being constructed on Spike Island between 1806 and c.1830. The current 10-hectare (24-acre) regular six bastioned work, connected by ramparts and surrounded by a dry moat, outer artificial slopes and fortified gun emplacements facing the mouth of the harbour, was completed around 1850. When completed it was large enough to garrison 3,000 men, making it one of the largest fortresses of its type in the world. It also represented cutting-edge military technology at the time. Known as a 'bastion' or 'star-shaped fort', the star's points defend any part of the island as well as the fortress itself. The firepower it could deliver commanded the approaches to the outer and inner harbour and formed a triangle of defence with the twin forts of Camden and Carlisle, located on either side of the narrowest part of the entrance to the harbour.

Fort Westmorland was however destined to be used more as a prison than a fortress throughout its history. Following an upsurge in crime during the Great Famine (1845-52), the fort was converted to a prison in 1847 as part of the British colonial government's response to the rise in public disorder. A solid limestone building, capable of holding up to 2,000 prisoners, was constructed to house the "convicts" prior to penal transportation. By 1850 it held as many as 2,300 inmates crammed into its small cells when it had the dubious reputation of being the largest ever prison in either Ireland or the United Kingdom. It later gained the retrospective reputation of being "Ireland's Alcatraz". It was here in 1848 that the Irish Nationalist hero John Mitchell, political journalist and Young Ireland leader, was held on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. His classic Jail Journal was written during his time on Spike Island.

Fort Mitchell today
Image: Tourism Ireland

The prison closed in 1883 and but the island remained in use as a British garrison Fort. The facility was used as a prison again in 1916 when the captured crew of the ‘Aud’, a disguised German ship holding guns to be used in the Rising, were held there prior to being transferred to a camp in England. It became a prison and internment camp throughout the War of Independence when it held hundreds of Republicans and their sympathisers. The conditions under which the men were then imprisoned were appalling, even by the standards of the time. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the island remained as one of the so-called Treaty Ports and was handed over to the Free State in 1938. On its handover to the Irish State, the island's installations were renamed Fort Mitchell after its most famous former inmate.

Spike Island Prison Cell
Image: Kondephy via CC BY-SA 2.0

The Irish army and navy used the island and fortress over the next forty-seven years before, late into the 20th-century, it was used as a youth correctional facility known as 'Spike Island Prison', or just "Spike" as it was known nationally. On the 1st September 1985 it attracted some notoriety when inmates rioted and the handful of officers on duty were quickly overpowered as Block A. One of the accommodation blocks, caught fire and was destroyed during the riots and is known today as the Burnt Block. Rioting prisoners, armed with slash-hooks and knives, took control of the pier. A subsequent Dáil committee reported, "civilians, prison officers and the Gardai on the Island were virtual prisoners of the criminals". The Gardaí eventually were able to land in force and end the riot. This prison facility was subsequently closed in 2004 and Fort Mitchell was gifted to Cork County Council by the State.

Part of the 21 Gun Salute from Spike Island to mark the 75th Anniversary of the
handover of the Treaty Ports

Image: Best 36 CC BY 2.0

Today the small 103 acres that makeup Spike Island occupies a key geographic position and place in the history of Cork Harbour. Following a €5.5 million upgrade and enhancement project, Spike Island has become one of Ireland’s most successful recent visitor attractions. So much so that in 2017 it was named Europe’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards. The island is today dominated by the 200 year old 'star' shaped fort that is has its place in the nation’s historic struggle. Most of the rest of the island is grassland with some copses of Scots Pine along the north and west sides. Sadly, there are no over ground physical remains of the monastery today, although under the Planning Acts the western side of the island has been identified as having a 'Potential' archaeological site.

The fort is now a successful tourist attraction
Image: Kondephy via CC BY-SA 2.0

From a boating perspective, Spike Island offers another unique Cork Harbour anchoring location where a world-class heritage site may be enjoyed by a visiting boatman. Any visit to Cork harbour, would be remiss without a visit to this popular historical tourist attraction.

Fort Mitchell
Image: Tourism Ireland

What facilities are available?
There are no facilities on Spike Island save for the island pier to land at. Cork Harbour is a major yachting centre for Ireland and as such almost everything is available within the lower harbour area. The main concentration of services will be found at Crosshaven.

Any security concerns?
Never an issue known to have occurred to vessels that anchor at this secluded location.

With thanks to:
James O’Brien the Cork Harbour Marina owner and manager. Photographs with thanks to Informatique, Guliolopez, Best36, Neil Walker, shotsproof and Denis Sheehan.

Aerial views of Fort Mitchel

An overview of a Spike Island tour

A photograph is worth a thousand words. We are always looking for bright sunny photographs that show this haven and its identifiable features at its best. If you have some images that we could use please upload them here. All we need to know is how you would like to be credited for your work and a brief description of the image if it is not readily apparent. If you would like us to add a hyperlink from the image that goes back to your site please include the desired link and we will be delighted to that for you.

Add your review or comment:

Rodolphe Thimonier wrote this review on Jun 16th 2016:

In force 5 easterly winds, as I didnt feel like anchoring at the recommended spot, I anchored west of Spike Island (by 51 50.01N - 8 17.68W). The shelter was good, the holding in mud good, and the depth sufficient since the strong tidal currents always kept the boat in the middle (deepest) of the channel. There is some traffic of small boats - including the customs.

Average Rating: ***

Michael Harpur wrote this review on May 21st 2018:

Thank you Rodolphe.
I have added your observations into the main body of the text now.

Average Rating: Unrated

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