A year ago, we moved into an ice-cold two-room coastguard shack beside the tower, because we thought we could refurbish the tower in about six months.
Told you we’re nuts.
In the land of the Martello, anything simple turns out to be complicated; everything costs 10 times what it would if you’d had the sense to buy a modern house, and instead of seeing sense and getting bitter about your mistake, you fall more madly in love with an ugly stump of masonry that has never been useful to anybody.
The love affair happens because Martellos reveal their secrets in odd, sporadic, dribs and drabs. Ours is one of the few that’s been in private hands since the early days of the 20th century.
The State hung on to the majority and did damn all with most of them.
The people who bought our tower from the State assaulted its structural integrity in a way that neither the local authority nor An Taisce would now permit, breaking out walls and in the process bringing light into its dank, dark interior.
They also subdivided the interior so that a) you wouldn’t know you were in a circular structure at all and b) you would be permanently confused as to which room you were in. All you knew was that you were in a small room.
Martellos look big and imposing from the outside, but because the walls are eight feet thick, are quite small on the inside. Insulate them and the space gets tinier still.
We went at the refurbishment with the boundless enthusiasm which comes of pig ignorance. The attic got torn out, revealing a domed ceiling which, to our surprise, wasn’t round, but barrel-shaped. Hanging from the middle of the dome was a rusted iron hoop. Over on one wall was another.
Our son, who’s become even madder about Martellos than we are, stood for hours, transfixed by the two hoops. We worked around him. He reached the higher hoop and threaded a length of leftover twine through it, hanging his keyring on the end of the twine to weight it. He then spent hours feeding his keys through the hoop. The rest of us thought bitterly that he was trying to avoid doing his turn carrying shattered plaster to the skip. We were even more bitter when he detached Davy from shattered plaster-carrying duty.
Davy is a multi-skilled powerhouse whose van is a treasure trove of screws, corner brackets, Phillips screw-drivers, hooks, handles and leftover doorknobs. He’s a one -man statement in re-cycling and re-using.
“I think this was the cistern,” our son said to Davy, stamping his feet on the cement floor.
“What cistern?” we asked (if you hang around him for more than a week, you turn into his straight man, obediently feeding him lines and leading questions).
“Some of the towers had brick-walled cisterns a man could stand up in, dug into their foundations. Why would that hoop be there unless it was to allow them to winch a bucket of water up to the living quarters from a cistern directly below here? Betcha.”
We knew the gorgeous Martello overlooking Fethard-on-Sea has a cistern (and used the captured rainwater fed into it by the Admiralty piping system until the local authority water supply reached them) but nothing in the records indicated ours had one. However, when he does “Betcha” you go up against him at your peril.
He’d been sure that the vertical tunnel for transporting cannon balls to the roof would be hidden behind one low ceiling, and when we authorised him to punch a hole in that ceiling, sure enough, the tunnel was found to be concealed behind it, in perfect condition. He worked out where, on the ground floor, gunpowder had once been stored, based on the fact that the rafters over that area had dowel holes in them, rather than holes for metal screws.
This we understood to be a spark-avoidance measure. He did another “Betcha” over a missing spiral staircase. One spiral staircase, clearly built for English soldiers at a time when they were a lot smaller than we are now, snaked from the first floor to the roof. Looking at the line of the staircase and studying the interiors of other towers, he became convinced a second staircase had originally linked to the first.
“Betcha someone bricked it into this,” he said, asking Davy to go at the kitchen wall with a Kango. For two days, nothing emerged but stone and dust. The third day Davy texted me.
“Found spiral staircase. Feel like Indiana Effing Jones.”
Once the “Betcha” challenge was thrown down about the cistern, the two of them went at the floor, removing tons of loose masonry and, sure enough, a perfect bricklined cistern emerged. When we can afford structural glass to go over it, we have notions of filling it with water and lights so visitors can see what it must have been like back then.
We moved back into the tower at Christmas, despite not having a fully functional staircase yet. To get upstairs, we have a small temporary freight elevator – a metal grill you stand on that slowly moves up the wall sounding like an articulated truck in the final stages of labour. If you’re in a hurry, you use a ladder.
For the first few weeks, this effectively left the two cats on the ground floor. Then one night Scruffy unexpectedly appeared upstairs. We couldn’t imagine how he’d done it, until I caught him at it two nights later: climbing the ladder. This cat is as thick as a plank and the size of a small sheep, but you have to hand it to him. Not many cats teach themselves ladder-climbing.
LAST week, when the kitchen was completed, I lost the run of myself and asked two friends to lunch. Walking through the tower afterwards, I had doubts. Yes, it has a wonderful kitchen. Yes, beautiful blue stone has been exposed everywhere, courtesy of shot-blasting. Yes, it’s reasonably warm.
But we can’t put the wood down on the ground floor because if you glue timber to concrete that’s not perfectly dry, the boards go bendy, pulling up the concrete, the foundations, the plumbing and the wiring, thereby casting you into darkness and flood and electrocuting you into the bargain. Accordingly, the central feature downstairs right now is a filthy concrete floor.
The upstairs doesn’t have proper railings yet – all that protects you from a sudden 15 foot drop onto the concrete below is a blue string. If the wind is in a particular direction and the rain is bad, a waterfall flows down the wall in one of the rooms and nobody can locate the crack where the water gets in. Plus the cutlery canteen got lost in the various moves, so any guests will eat with a mixture of Kings Pattern and take- out plastic. They might not like this. Picky people are funny about white plastic soup spoons.
But dammit to hell, those are minor disadvantages. The key thing is that it’s a Martello. With a ladder-climbing cat.