There are around 29 martello towers dotted around the bay; coastal, circular buildings with curved, nearly-windowless walls. Some have been taken up as unique seaside homes or museums, but many are unused and inaccessible.
Most were built in 1804-1805, as part of a larger project to defend the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was then a part. They were a touch mysterious from the outset. An 1809 travel book shared a commonly-repeated anecdote: “An Irish sailor, in one of the packets, being asked the use of [the towers] by a passenger, replied, “the devil a use I can think of, but to please Mr. Windham [Secretary of War] and puzzle posterity”.
The British government did, in fact, have a specific use in mind: to defend against potential invasion by French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain had announced war with France in 1803, and Napoleon had reacted by assembling an invasion camp at Boulogne. The Dublin towers formed part of a large network; throughout the nineteenth century, around 50 towers were built on the Irish coastline, and a further 140 in the United Kingdom. 29 of the Irish towers were built in the Dublin bay area.
Martello towers are thought to have been inspired by a round coastal fort at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica, which also likely served as their namesake. British forces had been impressed by that tower’s resilience when they unsuccessfully launched an attack on it during 1794’s Siege of Saint-Florent. The Mortella Point structure formed part of a Genoese system of defense around the island, dating from the fifteenth century. Thus, in preparing their defences against Napoleon, the British turned for inspiration to the architecture of that man’s own birthplace, Corsica.
Most of the Dublin towers were built under the command of Colonel William Twiss and Captain W.H. Ford, while William Pitt was Prime Minister. Towers were built to a common plan, with construction work outsourced to local builders. They were largely similar to one another but varied slightly by size and local stone used. The first-floor entrance led into living quarters split into rooms for 15-25 men and one officer. Each tower had a rainwater tank and fireplaces. A basement floor contained storage of provisions and ammunition. The tower's flat roof featured a large gun on a 360-degree pivot. The roof gun was the main weapon of a tower, supported by howitzers (short barrel guns) in some cases. The roof was accessed by a stairs within the deep tower wall.
The military might of the towers was never put to the test; Napoleon did not invade, and the threat passed. Despite some use in anti-smuggling operations, the towers were no longer militarily useful by the latter part of the nineteenth century. They were also ill-equipped to defend against the latest military technology, including hand-held weapons. From the 1860s onwards, the towers were gradually decommissioned from defence use.
The towers were sold off, but many had a second life. The tower in Howth played a part in the history of communications. From 1825, the tower had been connected to Holyhead, Wales, by a submarine telegraphy cable which stretched beneath the Irish sea to deliver ‘telegram’ messages between Ireland and Wales. In 1905, innovator of early radio Gugliemo Marconi demonstrated his ground breaking ‘wireless telegraphy’ from the tower. The Howth tower is now a museum of the history of radio.
Perhaps the most famous tower, in Sandycove, captured the imagination of writer James Joyce. The Sandycove tower was rented by a friend of James Joyce, Oliver St. John Gogarty, from 1904 to 1925. Joyce stayed there and used the tower as the setting for the opening of his famous 1922 work, Ulysses. The tower now houses a museum dedicated to Joyce’s work and life.
“They halted while Haines surveyed the tower and said at last:
- Rather bleak in the wintertime, I should say. Martello you call it?
- Billy Pitt had them built, Buck Mulligan said, when the French were on the sea.”
James Joyce, Ulysses.