Project Description


This field school is part of a larger research project that examines the development of modern prison systems through the study of the archaeology of the 19th century prison on Spike Island, Ireland’s Alcatraz.  Strategically located at the mouth of Cork Harbour, the island was a military and naval base for over 200 years and is the site of the largest fortress in Ireland.  For 36 years from 1847, the fort was used as a convict prison, initially as a crisis response to Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1852).  Dealing with criminals by means of long-term incarceration is a relatively recent development.  In Ireland and Britain, long-term confinement only became the dominant means of punishment and social control in the mid-19th century.  Globally, that century was a critical period for the development of the modern prison with considerable innovation and experimentation in punishment regimes.  At the first International Penitentiary Congresses in the 1870s, the ‘Irish System’, was seen as a role model for other world areas and Spike Island had played a critical role in the development of this approach.  The island was also a major point of embarkation transportation to Australia where convicts became part of an extraordinarily effect project in social engineering, providing the labour and population of new colonies.

This will be the sixth season of excavations of the Spike Island Archaeological Project.  The island is uninhabited but is visited by hundreds of tourists daily during the summer with hourly boats making the 1km journey to the nearby town of Cobh.  The staff and students of the project live on the island in youth hostel-style accommodation in a modern and comfortable building.

The 2018 field school will investigate deposits in the Victorian prison buildings while also exploring the convict cemetery.  It provides students with the opportunity to spend 5 weeks in a unique location and to gain practical experience in excavation, bioarchaeology and historical archaeology at a site of global significance.

Download Syllabus

Course Details

  • Course Dates: June 17-July 21, 2018
  • Enrollment Status: OPEN
  • Total Cost: $4,175
  • Course Type: Field Archaeology, Bioarchaeology
  • Payment Deadline: April 20, 2018
  • Instructors: Dr. Barra O’Donnabhain
  • Online Orientation:  April 22, 2018, 11:30 AM PST
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The directors welcome emails and inquiries about the research elements of this project. More general information (tuition, health insurance, and payment schedule) can be found under the ‘Students’ tab above. Any further questions may be addressed to IFR staff. Additional details about research, course schedule, travel, accommodation, and safety can be found on the syllabus. Contacting the directors or the IFR office is encouraged and appreciated. It may help you determine if this field school is a good fit for you.

Dr. Barra O’Donnabhain
Dr. Barra O’DonnabhainDirector
Dr. O’Donnabhain is a Bioarchaeologist and Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork (Ireland).


“I attended the Spike Island field school in the Summer of 2015 and it was the best experience of my academic career thus far. I chose this field school because it seemed like it provided the best comprehensive field school experience while being in a unique setting. This was not my first excavation but I learned so much. I even discovered new interests in archaeology from working in the punishment block. During the first week, we took many different field trips and had a few lectures to learn about Irish history and culture; which was amazing because it really helped us understand the context in which Spike existed. We started each day with the story of an inmate which was really important because it made the inmates tangible and personal to us. Living on the island was an unforgettable experience in itself. Living on Spike with other students and supervisors really helped foster close connections because of how the living arrangement. This was my first time traveling out of the country by myself and I did not know what to expect but I am so glad I went to Spike. I would do it all over again in an instant if the opportunity arose.”
Arlett Carmona, Cal Poly Pomona (2015)
“When I first started looking at field schools to apply for over the summer, Spike Island sparked my interest the most due to the programs focus in bioarchaeology. Not only did I gain hands on experience on how to excavate skeletal remains in the field, but I have also gained a handful of useful skills that have prepared me for a career in archaeology/bioarchaeology. The supervisors are extremely helpful and they are dedicated in helping students understand how to properly work in the field. This made my learning experience much easier and more enjoyable. I highly recommend this field school to anyone who is interested in going into the field of archaeology and/or bioarchaeology.”
Katelyn Anderson, Kennesaw State University (2015)

Tuition Includes:

  • Costs of instruction
  • Cost of Academic Credits
  • Room & board
  • All local transportation
  • Health Insurance

Student Fees

A nonrefundable deposit of $500 is required to secure a seat in this program.  This program requires an application (no application fee is requested). Only accepted students should pay the deposit fee. Deposit fee is part of the program Tuition. The remaining tuition, minus the $500 deposit, must be paid prior to the tuition deadline (see above under “Course Details”).

Important Note: If you were accepted to this program but did not cancel your participation by the tuition payment deadline, you are legally responsible for the full tuition regardless of attendance in this program. Please read the IFR Cancellation Policy for further clarification.

  • A 2.5% Processing Fee is automatically assessed for all credit/debit card payments
  • A $100 Late Fee will be assessed if full tuition payment is not completed by the deadline.
  • Look at the field school syllabus above for room & board details.


Field School accommodation will be in the fort on Spike Island. Spike is a small, uninhabited island in Cork Harbour. While there is no resident population on the island, it is not an isolated place: it is only 500m from land in one direction and 1500m across the harbour from the town of Cobh. While both the British and later the Irish army and navy had small military prisons at Spike, the fort has been used as a civilian prison twice in its history. The first of these (1847-1883) is the focus of our research while the 20th century prison provides us with our accommodation! (You may read about the longer history of the Island in the syllabus)

From 1985 to 2004, Spike Island housed a modern prison and we will be housed in the administration block of this jail (do a Google maps search for Spike Island, Cork, satellite view: our accommodation is on the upper floor of two of the rectangular blocks in the right corner of the fort). The island does not have a resident population so we will be the only people there at night. Tourists visit the site during the day.

Living Arrangements

The accommodation on the island consists of bedrooms, a common room and kitchen. The rooms will be shared. There will be separate rooms for male and females students. There are separate male and female toilets on the corridor while hot showers are in an adjacent building. There will be a bed for each team member and you will need to bring your own sleeping bag and towels (please see What to Pack checklist in syllabus of items you need to bring).

All meals are provided from Monday to Friday (students look after their own meals at weekends).

Spike Island, Ireland

Travel Info

Students are responsible for making their own travel arrangements. Please be sure to arrive in Cork on or before June 17 (Sunday). The field school will conclude on July 20 (Friday). Students should plan onward travel or return home anytime on July 21 (Saturday).

Our rendezvous point in Cobh is the Commodore Hotel ( which is on the seafront and a five minute walk from the railway station (Commodore Hotel, Westbourne Place, Cobh). We will meet at the Commodore Hotel on June 17 at 4pm. It is essential that you are on time for this meeting. If you arrive early, our meeting room is booked from noon so you can wait for everyone else to arrive. Check with the hotel if you are going to leave your bags unattended.

Most direct flights from North America to Ireland land in either Shannon (SNN) or Dublin (DUB). An easier option is to fly to Cork (ORK) via London (LHR), Paris (CDG) or Amsterdam (AMS). If you fly into Cork, take a taxi to the railway station, a short journey. From Shannon, you can take a bus from outside the terminal building to Cork (about 2 hours). From Dublin, you can also take a bus from outside arrivals directly to Cork (about 3.5 hours) or take a local bus to Heuston Station in Dublin city centre and from there take a train to Cork (the bus from the terminal building is a much cheaper option than the train).   If you arrive in Cork by bus from Dublin or Shannon, you can walk to the railway station from the bus terminal.

From Cork, you should take a train to Cobh. The journey takes 25 minutes and trains currently run every hour on the hour (liable to change; check closer to the date on You can also take a taxi from Cork to Cobh.


Citizens of the US and Canada do not require visas to enter Ireland. All students participating in the field school will be registered in advance at University College Cork and our International Office will send you a letter to show at Immigration.

No vaccinations are required but anyone working in archaeology in Ireland needs to have an up-to-date tetanus shot.

Student Safety

Student safety is paramount for the IFR. Unlike many universities who are self-insured, the IFR purchases a range of high end insurance policies from some of the largest insurers in the world. Students in all our international programs have a comprehensive health insurance policy. It covers sickness, and chronic and mental health conditions at 100% of the cost. We have a strong evacuation and extraction policy. We can remove students from any location anywhere in the world with one phone call – whether medical evacuation, political or natural disaster extraction and anything in between. We purchase intelligence services from a global private provider and monitor the world 24/7. We automatically enroll our students to the US State Department STEP program. All of our students receive safety orientations both before and on the first day of each program. Our faculty have all been working in the areas where we operate field schools for years. They are intimately familiar with local customs and traditions, know the landscape well and have deep relationships with local communities.

All our domestic programs are coordinated with local authorities which are informed of our operations. Students in domestic programs are covered by their own health insurance and evacuations are managed by local emergency services, as appropriate.

The IFR has strong, explicit and robust policy towards discrimination and harassment in the field (click here for a shortcut). If students feel they cannot discuss personal safety issues with the field school staff, the IFR operates an emergency hotline where students can contact IFR personnel directly.

Travel does involve risk, but we try to minimize this risk as much as possible. Call us at 877-839-4374 or email us at if you have questions about the safety of particular programs.