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The island's name may derive from Old Norse ál-boling or similar = "eel dwelling" ("area where there are conger eels"). The 17th and 18th-century spellings end in "-ing"; there may have been nautical influence on the spelling later. The Irish language name for the island, Inis Sionnach, translates to "island of the fox".
At a strategic and deepwater position in the harbour, the island has long been a military base. The island was first fortified in 1602, and initially an important base for the British Army. Later, the British Army moved to nearby Spike Island, and the fortifications were handed over to the Royal Navy. The Navy established a large arsenal on the island, and a naval dockyard was built during the Napoleonic Wars.
Unlike the other fortifications in Cork Harbour, which formed part of the treaty ports, the dockyard was handed over to the Irish Free State in 1923, and remains the main naval base and headquarters for the Irish Naval Service. The majority of the Naval Service campus is on the west of the Island - save for the service's football pitch which was reclaimed from land on the eastern side in the 1980s.
Irish Steel was previously based on the east of the island; however, the plant closed in 2002. Much radioactive and Chromium 6 contamination remained in the soil after the steel making process was terminated.
In July 2006, it was announced that the former site of Irish Steel would be developed with apartments, offices, a hotel and a marina planned for the site, however no definitive use for the site was subsequently confirmed.
On 11 March 2008, one of the historic 19th century storehouses on Haulbowline Island was destroyed by fire.
- National Inventory of Architectural Heritage - Haulbowline Island, East Cork
- Toxic Island: The Story of Haulbowline Island
- Irish Independent - Residents alarmed over toxic dump at former steel mills - 27 June 2008
- 2006 Press Release from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation - Major new redevelopment planned for Haulbowline
- Oireachtas Hansard - Questions relating to OPW working group to manage and develop Haulbowline
- RTE News Report on storehouse fire