TWELVE people were finishing their introductory cups of coffee yesterday afternoon, when I stood up to address them. I got everyone’s attention, except the baby’s. It was affixed to its mother’s chest. The baby uttered so deep a bored sigh that it expelled its soother and went into a brief, but impassioned bereavement.
“The Martello towers of Britain and Ireland,” I began, “were arguably the most costly mistake ever made by the British government. Seventy eight of them were built around the south and east coasts of Britain and Ireland, all within a five-year period, to defend against the possibility of maritime invasion by Napoleon. In the event, Napoleon never came, because he was a bit preoccupied in Russia. This particular tower was completed in 1806, making it two hundred and ten years old.” This tower is also my home.
At this point in the tour, organised as part of National Heritage Week, visitors usually nod silently. Yesterday, one of them asked me how old I was. I was so surprised, I told her. She looked disappointed. The rest of the tour looked sympathetic. I couldn’t figure out whether they were sympathetic to me having to fess up my age, or were sympathetic because they know, in their hearts, I’m nearly as old as the tower.
That’s the thing about owning an old house and opening it to visitors for the eight-day week that is the Heritage Council’s effort to make us love the built sections of our country: you never know what you’re going to be asked.
If you make a reference to a war, you live in dread that some amateur military historian will want to know whether it was the Thirty Years War or the Hundred Years War. If you mention the regulations you have to follow to make an old building liveable, you get scared someone will ask you about the statutory powers (if any) of An Taisce. If you mention the wood pigeons that used to inhabit the matchicolation of the tower, there’s a worry they might query their absence, and that they might blame our two cats.
The personal questions are dead easy. “Have you read all the books?” is one of them, sparked off by the fact that the two round rooms in the interior of our Martello are book-lined, floor to ceiling. “Pretty much,” is the answer, and I disregard the looks from teenage visitors, which convey, loud as a trumpet, their view that I must have no life.
It’s the numbers that are the biggest challenge. The Heritage Council website and delightful booklet both specify, in relation to visits during this eight-day week, that booking in advance is essential, a specification that might work in England, but in Ireland never does. On Friday, I found myself facing sixteen people. I invited those who had booked to raise their hands, which they did with some pride.
“OK,” I said, pointing to the others. “How did you lot get in?” “We saw people going in the farm gate,” was the swift answer, “and we thought something interesting might be going on, so we joined them.” Only in Ireland...
I would have come the heavy and booted them back out the farm gate, except for the fact that they had all cleverly bonded with the booked people and were already swapping email addresses, so the ones who had gone to the trouble of booking interceded and we ended up with an exceptionally large tour.
Now, Martello towers are not that old, compared to Norman castles and pre-historic mounds. They’re also squat and ugly. Plus, they were all built on bits of land protruding into the sea, which means that, on a bad weather day, offering an umbrella to those about to go on the roof is a contradiction in terms and might get them airborne, which would not be good, seeing as how we’re on the flight path from Dublin airport, and whatever about drones getting in the way of passenger jets, a Heritage Week visitor making like Mary Poppins might be a tad dangerous to all concerned.
The reason most visitors give for pitching up at North Tower Number 7, which is ours, is that they spent summer holidays in Portrane or Rush or Donabate, as children, were fascinated by the structure looming over Tower Bay, and always wanted to see inside it but never could. One woman, last week, came three times with three different groups. One ten-year-old came first with her parents and then dragged her grandparents along for a second tour.
The children love the spiral staircases and the descriptions of why they were built that way (so right-handed swordsmen on the second-floor would have the advantage over invaders coming up the stairs, who would be forced to fight using their left hands.)
The grandparents hate the spiral staircases. The majority of them still get to the roof, but the ones with new knees have too much respect for their prostheses to risk them.
So, while Bryan, our friend and Martello expert, takes the others to the roof, the new-knee brigade ask me more questions down stairs. My favourite, last week, came up a number of times.
“Where do you actually live?”
The first time I was asked it, I was thrown, since the questioner had, along with several hundred others, gone through our bedroom to see the view from my side of the bed.
Then, I realised they thought we just visited during the summer. ‘Uh uh’, I explained. This is our home. All year round. We may be the first inhabitants, other than the invalided soldiers barracked here in the early 19th century, to have lived in the tower through the winter.
“Aren’t you great, all the same?” one visitor murmured, clearly imagining me and the man in my life out on the foreshore battling the incoming storms.
Those storms are spectacular, and living in a Martello gives a great view of them, but it also provides maximum protection from them, while permitting the tower walls to leak like colanders.