Ireland is set to promote its own "Alcatraz" in a new tourism blitz.

And tourism chiefs are hoping that Spike Island in County Cork will become as big a tourist attraction as the former jail in San Francisco.

Spike Island - which was also known as Fort Mitchel - was first used as a staging point to transport Irish prisoners to the West Indies and Australia after the Cromwellian wars in the 17th century.

Shortly after Christianity was introduced to Ireland, St. Mochuda started a church on the 104-acre island. He left 20 clerics there while he continued his mission around Ireland, but Spike and Christian teaching proved to be uncomfortable companions.

Smuggling was widely practiced in the 18th century, and the dark ruggedness of the Spike Island shoreline was a favorite hiding place for smugglers.

Convict depot

However, this ended in 1779 when the island was purchased by the British government from a local landowner. The construction of the fortress, Fort Westmoreland, named after the then Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Westmoreland, began in 1790. The first regular garrison moved to the island in 1806.

In 1847, Spike first became a convict depot. By 1850, over 2,000 were detained there.

An early prisoner was Irish Nationalist activist and political journalist John Mitchell who was held there in 1848 on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, is said by some to have been written while he was imprisoned at Spike.

One British officer who was stationed there in the early 1900s became world famous. Captain P.H. Fawcett, the explorer, was last heard of in the Brazilian jungle in 1925.

Spike, which reverted from a place of incarceration back to military use in the late 1800s, once again became a prison when hundreds of Republicans and their sympathizers were held there during the War of Independence.

Conditions under which the men were confined were very poor and several hunger strikes broke out in protest.