Cities / Towns Visited: 75
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 13,860
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,524,223
With an early tour booked, and a bit of a drive to get to it, we were up and out the door early, giving ourselves plenty of time to make it to our destination, which, for this morning, was the harbour at Cobh, just south of Cork. This historic port used to be named Queenstown during the English reign of the country, and is noteworthy, amongst other things, as being the last place the Titanic docked before heading out across the Atlantic and towards its doom. We weren’t going just to visit the harbour though, we were going to catch a ferry out to the speck of land that sits in its bay; Spike Island.
When we arrived we found that the traffic hadn’t been as bad as we’d expected, and thus we spent a little time just admiring the bay before stepping onto the boat. Before we knew it, we were hopping off and meeting up with the guide. This island is thought to have originally been home to a monastery in the 7th century, but it’s more modern life began as a military outpost and artillery fortification in 1779. This was prompted by France and Spain joining the American Revolution, and the British empire needing a safe harbour from which to protect and deploy ships from for said war. Later the island was used as a prison and depot for criminals prior to penal transportation to Australia and other British colonies; then, later still, was used to hold prisoners during the Irish War of Independence, followed by running as a youth correctional facility up until 2004. The island itself has only been open to tourists since 2015.
Despite the biting wind we made our way along the path, and up to the star shapes fortifications, as our guide regaled us with the history of the island, including the small, tight-knit community which lived and worked here up until fairly recently. Outside of the walls sits a small jumble of houses, and the remains of a church and small school which sustained the former residents.
As you walk through the gates into the fortress the first thing that strikes you is just how enormous the space is; made even more prominent by the fact that the central area is relatively empty, including a lush grassy area and a paved space which even includes a helipad. The large cell block style buildings which skirt the edges almost all date from different periods, which gives the place a somewhat slapdash appearance. Two of them are completely gutted on the inside now, one of which was the result of a fire started during riots which broke out here on 1st September 1985, which suspiciously fell on the evening prior to an inspection of the facility, and resulted in the destruction of most of the important prisoner paperwork.
After the guide pointed out the infirmary, and punishment blocks, she led us into the heart of the fortified walls to the six inch gun emplacements with look out over the mouth of the bay. They truly are both impressive and intimidating in their size and power, yet, luckily, they have never been needed to be fired in defence of the town.
At this point we had some free time to explore at our leisure before having to catch our return ferry. Grabbing a quick lunch at the cafe, we were soon scaling the fortress walls for a view out over the bay, then stepping into the punishment block to see the rather macabre isolation cells. A few of them have figures placed in them, which you can only see through the spy hole, including one man chained up to the wall, and a young offender who had been stripped down to his underwear, as they were if they were violent, or seemed likely to be suicidal. It really was quite the depressing scene. Surely no good can come from psychologically torturing an already disturbed mind; no one has ever been rehabilitated into ending their life of crime by being treated like some kind of sub-species; you cannot teach a person to be humane by being inhumane to them.
The adjacent building holds a display on the prisoners exiled to the penal colonies, including a rather confronting giant cage filled with prisoner figures. I’m all for crime and punishment, but something just doesn’t seem right about shoving people (many of whom had only committed minor offences like petty theft), into the confines of an overcrowded ship and forcing them to be transported to the literal other side of the world. I know there are quite a few rags to riches stories of men who were sent to Australia and, after serving their time, were granted a small scrap of land and became rather wealthy in the lucky country down under, but for each of these there are countless stories of men who died of disease and malnutrition on the ships, or from the harsh conditions of a land so very different from their home, with no infrastructure. You learn about the convicts in history class in Australia, but it’s something else to stand where they stood before they were torn away from their home and their families, often with no hope of ever seeing them again.
With a little time still to spare, we ducked into the building which holds a number of old tanks and cannons, before making a final stop at the newer wing, which was the last to close, and thus is set as you would expect a modern juvenile detention centre to be furnished, that being more spacious and better equipped than the older prisons we had been visiting of late. They even had a display of some of the art made by a number of the old inmates. It was interesting to see what these convicted young men had created when given the opportunity to express themselves, and it’s certainly not as dark and moody as you would expect.
Our time was rapidly approaching its end, and we scurried back to the ferry. The visits to the island are blocked into specific time slots, which I’m sure makes it much more manageable for the staff, and ensures that the facilities aren’t over exerted, but it does make it all feel very rushed, as there are many things we didn’t get to see due to the time restriction. Alas, it was what it was, and before long we were back on the mainland. With a moment to spare, we took the opportunity to quickly send a package of keepsakes home; a feat much less troublesome now that we were back in the land of native English speakers. We then wandered back past the stunning gothic cathedral that is St. Coleman’s, before tumbling into the car.
We had initially planned on just heading straight on to our next accommodation, however the previous night’s hosts had told us that we should make the trip down to Ireland’s most southerly point; Mizen Head. Figuring we were up for a little adventure, and considering we were already going to head all the way to the north of the island, we headed off. Now for all of you have never had the experience of driving on rural Irish roads let me paint you a picture of what we were headed through. They are basically almost all single lane roads, so thin that you can only mildly comfortably drive a small car down them, and glacially slowly pass oncoming traffic by either playing chicken until someone backs up to the nearest shoulder or drive way, or inching past each other whilst simultaneously attempting to avoid hitting the other car, or the stone wall that lines your other flank. To make this entire endeavour even more exciting, seemingly every single one of these roads is lined with thick brambles of blackberry bushes, which scrape their thorns down the side of the car with almost the exact same pitch and spine tingling affect of nails on a chalkboard. All in all its not the most pleasant experience, to put it politely, but most people tend to be pretty courteous, and all of the locals give a friendly wave as you pass. Regardless, there is no other option if you wish to make it to most of the stunning places Ireland has to offer, and from the countryside to the attractions everything seems almost otherworldly in its picturesque quality.
Nothing proved this to us more than the sight we were rewarded with when we pulled into the car park of Mizen Head. As we stepped out of the car, we were met with a rather chilly breeze and an unencumbered view of the Atlantic ocean. With nothing between us and Morocco there was something energising about breathing in such vast open spaces; something soothing about having my personal space extend out further than I could even see. It felt like we were a part of something bigger than us to be standing at the southernmost part of the country, knowing that in a week or so we would be at the other end.
Having basked in the quiet of this country’s base for just long enough, we peeled away and hopped back in the car. Setting off down those minuscule roads we realised that we were severely running low on petrol. Mildly panicking at the fact we were somewhat off the beaten track and the likelihood of finding a petrol station was slim, we eventually coasted into a tiny town and noticed random bowsers at the side of the road. A rudimentary investigation found us filling up in the most rural country situation ever; that being we filled up, then went into the pub next door to pay. With the crisis averted we trundled on to our accommodation. Arriving later in the evening than we had hoped, we found ourselves with no desire to cook and decided there was nothing for it but a pub meal. However, as was want to happen, we were in the middle of nowhere and as we walked into the local pub, with every single local eye glaring at us as we weaved in towards the bar, we were soon informed that the kitchen had closed at 7. There was something unsettling about the idea of everyone being fed and watered by such an early hour, but then I guess the rural community often runs on a different schedule. With nothing else for it, we grabbed a quick pizza from the shop down the road, and it wasn’t long before we were collapsing into bed.
As I thought upon our day, it was hard not to let my mind settle back in the cells of the young offenders, and of the artwork they had made. In some, you can see pain and anguish in their brush strokes, whereas in others there seems to be much more hope expressed. We often associate criminals with a mindset far removed from human, and yet here, on paper, sit the marks of very real, very human emotions. I truly believe that 99 percent of people are inherently good, and that it is, in fact, their circumstances which dictate the goodness of their actions. Most of the time we simply look at the what of the crime and not the why. Whether that why is reasonable or not, does not make it any less of a reason. Almost all crimes are committed as a result of something which has negatively affected the perpetrator; for example, a lot of petty thieves are from poor upbringings, are trying to make ends meet, or are suffering from a crippling addiction. Obviously their methods are not strictly moral, but when you look at it, their actions are not surprising. Almost all murderers and rapists are suffering from untreated mental illness, were bought up in an abusive household, or were otherwise abused in their lives. When you scrape the surface of crime it becomes glaringly obvious that if we were to take a portion of the tax payer money we spend on the prison system and we were to funnel it into the mental health service; affordable and accessible addiction treatment schemes; and proactive programs to address domestic abuse, not only for women, but also for men; we would, in fact, significantly decrease the amount of funding needed to house criminals. We could remove the cause instead of just treating the symptoms; we could prevent the wounds instead of having to clean up the mess of broken people; we could halt the cycle before it even begins.
Perhaps if we encouraged more art within prisons we could begin to further understand the motives behind the actions, and perhaps we could offer a positive outlet for the negative emotions which instigated them. We need to stop assuming people did bad things because they are inherently bad people, and begin asking why they acted in such a way. That’s not to say crimes should go unpunished, and I believe wholeheartedly that we are all responsible for our actions despite our hardships, but a little empathy will surely allow us to see that it is unfounded to expect perfect people in an imperfect world, and it is unwarranted to expect unbroken people when we implement broken systems. We see the crime, and are so blinded by the pain that their actions inflicted, that we fail to stop and analyse their pain which triggered the act in the first place. In a world where men are taught to funnel every emotion into anger, and to suppress all others; in a world where men speaking out about their abuses, their pains, or their struggles is seen as weakness instead of strength; in a world where these emotional artworks seem to paint a picture we’ve never seen before; does it still surprise you how many men end up behind bars? Does it surprise you how many men take their own lives? Their actions are often abhorrent, cruel, and immoral, but are they truly surprising?