TERRY PRONE: Indiana Jones thrill of discovering a bit of hidden history in your home

During the world wars, some of the British towers were turned into observation and gun posts.

But for the most part, they stayed where they were, statements in stone testifying to the misjudgement of national leaders. In the early 20th century, a few fell into private hands

Let me tell you about my house. No, not about the mortgage, because I don’t want you crying this early in the day. Nor about the house we used to live in, which nobody now wants to buy at a halfway decent price. We all have our troubles.

No, the house I want to tell you about is a Martello Tower we bought a couple of years ago.

Martello towers are those stumpy round buildings that sulk along our coastline (and along the coastline of Britain and, inexplicably if singularly, in Key West, Florida).

They were erected because a British Admiral tried to demolish a tower in an Italian town named Cape Martella and threw tonnes of ordinance at it for two days without effect. Only the fact that a lucky shot set the interior on fire and exploded its stored gunpowder prevented the British from giving up and acknowledging that it was impregnable. The admiral came back home to the Admiralty, afire with the experience.

“Lads, you know what?” he asked, speaking forsoothly, as they did, back then. “That guy Napoleon is due to send an armada to invade us. Or to invade Ireland, where those disaffected disloyal unreliable peasants will welcome him, and from Kingstown, it’s but a short hop over here. We need to dot our coastline with towers like the one that nearly defeated me in Cape Martella. Fast.”

The logic, like the tower, was impregnable, so a rough plan was sent out and instructions issued: Make sure it’s roughly 600 yards from the next one, and in line of sight, so we can catch incoming ships in crossfire.

Use cut stone from the local quarry or rubble from the beach. What’s that? It’ll take half a million bricks? Find them. Just get a tower up in your location.

It was a simple enough proposition. Vast, but simple. The tower had to be round, because canon balls bounce off round surfaces. It had to have walls 8ft thick on the sea side and not much thinner on the land side, because — at least in Ireland — you couldn’t trust the locals not to have a go at it.

That meant that some of them were elliptical, rather than perfectly round, and that others had a barrel-shaped interior. It had to have a roof sufficiently strong to withstand the weight of a pivoting canon, with compartments to store and heat canon balls. (Cold canon balls will not set fire to the sails of incoming ships, you know yourself…)

The lads set to with a will. More than 100 were built around the south coast of England, and perhaps 80 about Ireland, where the project started. They were ugly as hell and tiny inside.

They cost Britain as much as the Trident missile system in the money of the time, and they were out of date and redundant just as they were completed in the first decade of the 19th century, because by then Napoleon had decided to take himself and his toothbrush (now on display in the Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street, Dublin) to Russia. Big strategic error for the Little Corporal, that change of direction. Huge.

Now safe from maritime attack, the Martellos never fired a gun in anger. The canons were taken elsewhere, leaving the great iron hoops rusting on the roof. The soldiers set off for the European mainland, leaving the narrow spiral staircases built for their tiny undernourished frames unclimbed.

The winches to haul the cannonballs up to the roof lost their chains. Pigeons took over the machicolation — the bit that sticks out at the side of the tower roof, designed to allow the aiming of guns through “murder holes” down at any potential invaders.

It seemed more trouble than it was worth to take them all down again, so there they sat, down all the years. A few were used as targets for the testing of new weapons.

During the world wars, some of the British towers were turned into observation and gun posts. But for the most part, they stayed where they were, statements in stone testifying to the misjudgement of national leaders.

In the early 20th century, a few of them fell into private hands. Ours was bought by an English publisher, who, in those heady days before local authorities cared much about heritage and before An Taisce had even been invented, hired two men to break out the walls of the tower.

For five years, they worked, the two of them, taking tons of stone away using a donkey and dray, using some of them to build up a garden tiered like a rice paddy. Inside, the walls were mortared and plastered, false ceilings concealed the barrel vault underside of the roof, a new staircase was installed and the place was sporadically lived in. All of those “improvements” are now disastrously ugly and dysfunctional.

The ceilings are so low, it feels like you’re wearing them. The stove in the tiny main room roasts your face while icicles form down your back. Mushrooms grow in the bathroom.

But we are obsessed by the grey hulk and spend half our time researching its history and structure. So when, on St Patrick’s Day, my son telephoned and asked me if he could come and punch a hole in a tower ceiling, it was odd, but not unexpected.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, arriving with a drill. “I’m pretty sure I’ve worked out where the vertical void they winched the canon balls up through is hidden.”

He stitched a neat necklace of holes in a ceiling, while I stood by, ready to give him CPR if he hit an electric wire.

Then he put down the drill and punched the centre of the necklace with a closed fist, creating a hole big enough for a torch to go through. His yells of triumph could have been heard in Carrigaline. There it was, the vertical corridor, winch-hooks rustily intact.

A few weeks later, he decided the ground floor continuation of the spiral staircase to the roof had probably been bricked into a modern wall.

So a friend went at the wall with a pickaxe. No luck. He moved a bit to the left and had another go. No luck. A great deal of dust, a requirement for a skip, but no staircase. And then, at the third go, there it was.

He texted us saying he felt like Indiana Jones as he pared away the surrounding cemented rubbish to reveal the long triangular limestone steps built in 1801.

The objective, at this stage, is unambitious. Clear enough space to house the 20,000 books sitting in plastic boxes in storage.

Get a camera, like an endoscope, down the chimney and other tubes to find out where they start and finish. Get the place insulated. Expose the old stone where practicable.

And get the occasional Indiana Jones thrill of discovering a little bit of hidden history in your own home.


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