Blog and online portfolio of Ian Pollard

Martello Tower at Finvarra

“In the gloomy domed livingroom of the tower Buck Mulligan’s gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro, hiding and revealing its yellow glow. Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans: and at the meeting of their rays a cloud of coalsmoke and fumes of fried grease floated, turning.”

Ulysses Ch.1 [Telemachus] – James Joyce


[An article prepared for matzine 09 ‘Copy+Paste’ ed. Stephen Mackie]

Martello Towers are compact defensive forts built by the British during the early 19th century – for the Napoleonic wars – at coastal positions throughout the diverse regions of their empire. They are a development of earlier Corsican defensive towers, and draw their name and design from one at Mortella, which was completed in 1565. The design and implementation of the Martello Towers across the 140 locations at which they were constructed remained broadly consistent, and was later emulated and re-purposed for communications by other nations, including America and France.

Joyce set the opening ‘Telemachus’ episode of Ulysses in the Martello Tower which still exists today at Sandycove in Dublin. In the episode we follow the irreverent morning routine of Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus and visitor Haines – wherein the Martello tower in which they are living serves as stage set for domestic acts exalted to sacrament. The tower becomes many things – the Elsinore of Hamlet; the Ithaca of Odysseus; and as altar for ‘plump’ Buck Mulligan as he holds his bowl of shaving lather aloft and intones to the morning air and ‘snotgreen sea’ the dedication “Introibo ad altare Dei

The inherent material durability, typological uniqueness and diverse geographies of the Martello towers means that many have survived as accidental monuments to a war which they hardly served, and now resemble something prehistoric in the dramatic landscapes which they inhabit. The tower at Finvarra – built in 1816 on the western reaches of County Clare in Ireland may be accessed by scaling the sheer wall by rope and entering into its solid mass through the void which formerly contained a reinforced door four metres above ground level. Everything surplus to structure has decayed into oblivion, leaving only its stereotomic mass to resonate the sounds of the sea in a mushroom-shaped echo chamber invigilated by the soaring of gulls and terns.

Filed under: Architecture, History

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