Spike Island

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VII (39) | Start of Chapter

Strangers were not permitted, in the year 1848, to visit the convicts on Spike Island, but fortunately being a few days in the family of Doctor Maurice Power, M.P., he was, in consequence of his standing, allowed a peep among them, and had the privilege of taking all who belonged to his family;—his wife, daughter, and myself were his company. This island is rough in its appearance, containing some one hundred and eighty acres, and has been a fortified island from about 1791-2. Here we found convicts from every part of Ireland, who were deemed worthy of an exile from home for the space of seven years. The number of these victims was about eight hundred and forty; some employed in digging out rocks and leveling rough places, some in making mats of cocoa-nut bark, some knitting, and some marching round a circle made up on the pavement, for exercise and punishment. A school is kept where for two hours in rotation all who are of suitable age, and cannot read and write, are taught these branches. The teacher remarked, when pointing to three hundred pupils, "these persons are docile, and I believe honest; their only crime being taking food when starving." Some of these young men and boys had thrown a stone into a bread shop, some had stolen a turnip, and some a sheep; but every one was induced by extreme hunger to do the deed. But we are gravely told in Ireland that property must be protected, though life should he squandered. The teacher added, "I cannot look on these men and boys as criminals." A few others had been guilty of manslaughter; and one gentlemanly appearing man had been guilty of embezzling public money—he was overseeing the making of mats. A dexterous pickpocket, not yet fifteen, was present, from Dublin, who had, when there, fifty men under pay; and in the presence of us all he showed his propensity, by keeping one hand upon his work and the other apparently carelessly upon the skirt of Doctor Power's coat near the pocket. This sad boy will not be cured by forced abstinence; the keepers informed us that he steals for the pleasure of it—taking what he does not want, such as handkerchiefs and stockings, which he can neither wear nor dispose of. The lodging-rooms were large, and well ventilated; and numbers sleep in the same apartment, without any guard.

The solitary cells were very cold,—the walls reeking with wet; but as these are only for the incorrigibles—if none behave unseemly, none need to inhabit them. The room where the unfortunate Mitchell was confined, when on his way to Bermuda, was shown us; it was larger than any other single room, and had the luxury of a board floor, and would, if nicely fitted up, make a tolerable farm kitchen. But report fell far short of the reality, when she said that this traitor was treated more like a gentleman than a felon, occupying a drawing-room, well furnished. The bread was good, made of unbolted wheat meal, and the quantity quite sufficient. Cocoa is given every Sabbath morning, and meat for dinner. Much better in any way were these convicts than any inmates of a workhouse in Ireland. We sailed from Spike up the beautiful Corigaline, and its winding course presented us rich beauties of foliage, gentlemen's seats, and rose-covered cottages. A clear sun, like that of my native home, shone upon this landscape; and in sight of the river, mid the song of birds, with children sporting about us, in this wooded spot we took a pleasant "pic nic," which was greatly valued by me, because the carmen were sitting too, at a little distance, partaking of the same repast, when one sent a civil inquiry to Mrs. P. to know if the pudding had whisky in it, as he was a teetotaler, and could not take it if anything of the kind were in it. He was assured it was pure.

The whole to me was quite American, Dr. P. having graduated in a college there, his wife being a native, and his daughter born there, and had he not been an M.P. we might have talked republican things. Why is this partiality for country and home so deeply fixed in the human heart? Is it not selfish, and does it not tend to contract, and even sour the mind against what often is more valuable than home produce?