State Papers: Curragh alternative to Spike Island after riot

In 1985, Fort Mitchell used to house offenders due to shortage of prison places elsewhere

A proposal to hold offenders in the Curragh Army camp, considered after the riot on Spike Island in September 1985, had the advantage that prisoners believed they would be shot if they attempted to escape, newly released State papers show.

The documents, on the Office of the Taoiseach file, also show the move was resisted by then minister for defence Paddy Cooney, who warned the last time the Curragh was used for civilians, it was a dumping ground for “psychopaths”.

Fort Mitchell, a military camp used by the Navy, was based on Spike Island in Cork harbour. In March 1985, under pressure for prison space, the government decided to use it to house offenders.

A note on the taoiseach’s file, dated March 13th, from the Department of Justice, says in 1982, the prison population was 1,235, but had grown to 1,700, not counting 350 offenders on “special leave” who “ought still be in prison”. The growth was partly attributed to “joyriders”.



The department warned: “Fort Mitchell would not provide the traditional type or degree of security associated with our existing prisons”; it had dormitories rather than cells.

But it said if adequate resources were made available, it could be used to provide “substantial, reasonably secure accommodation”.

“The department is not aware of any available alternative,” it added.

By the end of March, 80 prisoners had been moved to Spike Island and on September 1st they rioted, taking over and burning down key buildings, and injuring one prison officer.

On September 5th, then minister for justice Michael Noonan sought approval to use the military detention barracks in the Curragh, Co Kildare, as a civilian prison.

In a memo to government, he said numbers in custody had peaked at 2,029 in August that year. Following “the weekend’s events at Spike Island”, difficulties may arise when the courts get back into full swing, he said.

He said additional accommodation had to be made available to make it clear to prisoners that activities engaged in on Spike Island would not lead to their release.

A note for government, circulated by Cooney on the same day, said when the detention barracks was last used for civilian prisoners “it had to be festooned virtually all over with barbed wire” and armed soldiers had to be posted in lookout towers.

Escapes were only prevented by a high staff-prisoner ratio, the barbed wire and “the belief of prisoners that they would be shot if they escaped (a belief encouraged by the military)”.

Soft in places

The note said the Curragh was the only detention centre remaining for the

Defence Forces

and its military court had to have a place to put a prisoner if sentenced to detention. It also said the barracks was built of brick and mortar, “soft in places and bricks could be removed with relative ease”.

And it warned of proximity to the ammunition depot, which did not conform to international regulations for the storage of military explosives.

“A chain explosive reaction at the moment would cause blast damage out to a radius of 3,000 metres,” the note warned.

Dumping ground

On the last occasion it was used as a civilian prison it was “a dumping ground for the most violent and disruptive types, including psychopaths” from

Dundrum Mental Hospital


Certain roads through the Curragh had to be blocked off, creating “an unpleasant environment for wives and young children living in the camp”.

The government approved the use of the Curragh as a prison for civilians on September 5th “should it prove necessary”.

It was eventually refurbished and took in civilian prisoners from 1997 to 2004.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist