“Billy Pitt had them made, Buck Milligan said, when the French were on the sea” James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 1 – Telemachus

Martello Towers are the most recognisable Georgian period fortification in Ireland, and together with the great  Anglo-Norman castles and tower houses, form part of the iconic defensive architecture of the country.  What is less well-recognised are the links between these towers and similar fortifications built on five continents between 1796 and the First World War, and that the Irish towers were among the earliest built. Irelands Martello towers  form part of a global network of Martello Towers built to defend key sites coastal sites from an enemy landing.  

Many groups of Irish towers remain intact, allowing an understanding of the relationship between militarism, architecture and landscape, how this influenced the positioning, design and construction of the towers, and how the coast was seen and understood when the towers were built. Martello towers were constructed in Ireland in a number of distinct phases in the early years of the nineteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars to defend strategic coastal locations. While the largest concentration focused on the defence of Dublin City to augment the defences of the approach to Dublin City provided by the Pigeon House Fort, other towers were also constructed to defend the approaches, anchorages and potential landing places of Cork, Galway, Wexford, Waterford and other positions along the coast.

While many authors have cited the engagement between British Forces and a coastal tower at Mortella Point in Corsica as the ‘origin’ of the Martello Towers, the ‘Mortella Point Tower’ is very different in architectural design and layout to Martello towers found in Ireland and elsewhere. Irish and other early tower designs pre-date the ‘standard’ Martello tower design adopted by the Board of Ordnance for use in England and other key positions along international trading routes to defend militarily-significant ports and harbours.  The Irish towers are therefore extremely useful in understanding the developments  and links between tower designs both in Ireland and globally. There is noticeable local distinctiveness among towers constructed in different regions, and among towers built in the same region during different periods. Variations include whether the towers were constructed as isolated strongholds or in groups as part of a ‘chain’ of defence; defensive capability (e.g. presence or absence of machicolations, batteries & earthworks) as well as variations in construction details and design.

The project includes a review of Mediterranean coastal ‘watchtowers’ from the sixteenth century onwards; the influence of the ‘Mortella Point’ engagement on British coastal fortifications in the late eighteenth century; the dissemination of the Martello Tower design through Board of Ordnance officers; the adoption and adaptation of earlier coastal tower designs for use in Martello Towers; the tactical and strategic defensive capabilities of the towers at the time they were constructed; and the issues leading to the standardisation of tower design and eventual its eventual abandonment as a fortification type. This project was funded by the Royal Irish Academy.