Martello tower and Empire

calm evening shennick 001  .  Without it, the island would be  a ridge of rock and boulder clay.  The tower is the focal point. That was the whole point of its existence.  It had to be seen  to perform its function. Intervisibility.  From this tower, as from most of of its fellows, you can see two more, one to the north and one to the south. It is a link in a chain, a D.E.W. line to protect Ireland, or at least part of it, from Napoleon, the little corporal, the Corsican monster, an unscrupulous emperor who thought nothing of invading and annexing other countries.

Wait a moment. This one was built in the name of King George (of England and various other lands) to protect Ireland from contamination by French notions of Liberty,Equality and Fraternity. He must have annexed Shennick Island to his empire. Did one of his intrepid explorers land, place a flag and read a proclamation to the seals and to the birds?  Whatever he did, it worked.  Napoleon never arrived. The gulls still cry with Skerries accents, the sound of home.  The seals still moan in the nasal tones of Fingal.

The War Office did a fine job. When Arctic winds whistle through the radar stations of the D.E.W. line and missile silos fill with stagnant water and perhaps radioactive tadpoles, the tower will still be there, its lichen-covered limestone blocks defying the elements, providing a perch for the sentinel gull and  adventure for  any casual visitor prepared to climb to the parapet. As guide-books invariably say, the view from the top is rewarding (if you survive the climb.). Test the rope before starting and hold on tight.

As to ownersip, it was offered for sale by the War Office, in 1908 for £50. The clue is in the name.  In order to gain and hold an empire, you must make war. You must win by any means available. I was not around in 1908.  I’m not sure that I could lay hands on fifty quid if it were to come up for sale again. I visit by courtesy of the fulmars who check out every visitor.  I take care not to step on nests of stone-coloured eggs. I take a few mussels and leave a few million for other people. I catch a few crabs in season and eat them. No doubt their relatives would return the courtesy in other circumstances.

Recently Margaret and I found an octopus stranded by the tide. He was the size and colour of a cricket ball. He lay helpless, waiting for the gulls.  He looked at us. We looked into his eyes.  There seemed to be recognition and intelligence there. I hope he thought the same.  We put him into the water. He expanded his webbed limbs and became, an umbrella, a fan, a kite.  He glided away into the depths.

Recently in a little mountain village in Portugal, under the stars, I ate octopus and sweet potato.  It was delicious but I confess to vague feelings of guilt. Music played and people laughed but I remembered our momentary friend on the island.

[The Martello Towers of Dublin. Bolton, Carey, Goodbody, Clabby.  Dunlaoghaire Rathdown Co. Council and Fingal Co.Council. 2012]  A splendid book.

“There was an air of pathos about the small procession, accentuated by the flurries of rain borne on the carping southerly wind. A small crowd of locals had gathered to watch what was to them a piece of history, an insignificant sideshow to the great events in Europe but a milestone in the quiet history of their uneventful lives.. For years afterwards arguments would be settled by reference to the day the gunners left or the day the man was drowned or the time the soldier was murdered. Old men would play the game of remembering events beyond the ken of their younger drinking companions. ‘Do ye mind the time?’ or ‘that was before your time-the year of the wreck’ or ‘you wouldn’t remember John Mullen’, to which the younger men would have to concede how little they had lived and how impoverished was their experience. Children who stood by, would recall the blue coats and white webbing, etched on their memories against the background of limewashed harbour walls and would wonder in later years, if they had seen it or had only imagined it from the descriptions of the event.”

(THE KYBE. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound press 1983)


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