Billy Pitt had them built: Napoleonic towers in Ireland

Published in Uncategorized

Bill Clements
(The Holliwell Press, £12.95)
ISBN 9780992610401

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Did the Martello towers of Ireland truly deter Napoleon and were they worth the £250,000 invested in their construction from 1804 to 1817 (equivalent to £50,000,000 today)? How were these permanent defences designed, what was their purpose after Waterloo, and how have the surviving ones—such a distinguishing feature of our coastal landscape—been preserved? These issues are all addressed in this detailed and richly illustrated study by Bill Clements, an international authority on fortresses. An indefatigable and committed researcher, Clements had published two earlier books on Martello towers worldwide; recognising that they dealt only briefly with the Irish ones, he wrote this book to fully describe their origins, plans, construction, use and survival. Its publication is timely. Some local authorities, taking their heritage role seriously, have provided the public with expertly compiled reports and guides. With the gun (and the hang-ups) now removed from the study of military heritage in Ireland, there is an increasing interest in the island’s fortifications, but the towers are of course cherished in the national consciousness beyond their architectural, archaeological and historical value. While there are numerous vestiges of these British-built structures in many far-flung coastal corners of the former empire, more were built here—50—than in any other country except England. None elsewhere, however, are associated with, or named after, a national literary colossus, nor have they become major tourist attractions. Indeed, Clements clearly could not resist the temptation of linking the Irish Martellos to Joycean culture by borrowing Buck Mulligan’s brief history lesson from Ulysses for the book’s catchy title. But this is the only literary allusion. Though this short book is grounded in scholarly research, it is more of a guidebook, and quite a technical one at times, yet fluidly written and reader-friendly throughout.

Six regional chapters are preceded by a useful historical introduction. Before 1793, the strategic seaports of Ireland were poorly defended. The only major fortifications were the Duncannon and Charles forts, and the only main defence the Royal Navy. While the French expeditions of 1796 and 1798 failed, they had chillingly demonstrated to British political and military decision-makers that fleets could, and did, slip past Royal Navy blockades. Despite the quashing of rebellion in 1798, fears of a renewed attempt in alliance with conspirators in Ireland focused their thinking. After the collapse of the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Napoleon intensified French preparations for an invasion concentrated at Boulogne. The ‘globalisation’ of the Napoleonic wars meant that it was vital to reverse this major weakness in British security, as Ireland’s south-western and western coasts were an unprotected gateway to the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The history of the design and construction of the Irish Martellos is inextricably linked to changes in personnel after the Act of Union, and particularly the Board of Ordnance. Throughout, readers are provided with insights into the motivations and challenges facing its talented Royal Engineers, and some insights are given into the subsequent use, where applicable, of the towers after Waterloo.

A further chapter deals with the quadrangular towers or defensible guardhouses, and the 81 signal towers built as an integrated defence system in the face of Ireland’s vulnerability to invasion. The distinctive silhouette of the signal towers could at a distance be mistaken for a Norman keep, and the one at Malin Head was used by Lloyd’s of London until 1913. The book includes an insightful map locating the line of these signal stations, running clockwise from Dublin to Malin Head almost all around the Irish coastline, as none were deemed necessary along the coast north of County Dublin, Louth and especially ‘fortress Ulster’. It graphically displays the authorities’ belief that no foe would be daft enough to even contemplate threatening the north-eastern coast from the northernmost point in Ireland back down to the Pigeon House. This map also leads one to point out a minor weakness of the book—the absence of an equivalent general map of the island’s towers, though there are six regional ones locating towers, forts, batteries, redoubts and signal stations in key points of Ireland. A minor quibble: this reviewer would also have welcomed a list of the illustrations, and would have been willing to pay a bit more for this otherwise recession-busting publication if a few had been in colour. These range from photographs to functional but timelessly aesthetic architectural plans and sections, and also include a few unintentionally artistic officers’ sketches, such as Captain Sir William Smith’s 1814 view of Cromwell’s Castle defending the bridge over the River Shannon at Banagher.

The book is indexed and provides sources and a summary bibliography; it also includes a useful glossary which, if anything, may delight the lexically curious and inspire crossword-setters and quiz-masters while certainly improving our knowledge of how seventeenth-century French military architects creatively borrowed terminology that has endured to this day. The author is not alone in deploring how so many fortifications have been abandoned and are now derelict; their condition and current use are detailed in an annexe. The restored ones are popular tourist attractions, however, and visitors can now knowingly scale a ‘pas de souris’ staircase or observe the strategical layout of a ‘dog-leg’ entrance.  HI

Sylvie Kleinman is a member of the Centre for War Studies, Trinity College Dublin.

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