“Martello Towers in Ireland” PART I : James Joyce Tower and Museum

While being immersed in the pages of the masterpiece, Ulysses by James Joyce, or while exploring the coastal beauty of Ireland, a couple of antique structures might grab your attention. These antique beauties are known as the ‘Martello Towers’. But, have you ever wondered about the rich history and the cultural significance of these historical treasures?

Well, let’s dig in, so that the next time you come across any Martello Tower along the Irish coast, you can appreciate its significance. 

What are Martello Towers? 

The Martello Towers are mostly coastal forts. They were constructed for strategic and defensive purposes during the early 19th Century.  Besides Ireland,one can get to see these towers even in other countries, like the US, India, Italy, Canada, etc. Following the Industrial Revolution, the tactics of warfare were highly revolutionized. Consequently , these defensive forts started losing their importance.

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The remains of Torra di Mortella (Source: Airbnb)

The design of these towers bears resemblance to the ancient coastal defensive tower, the Torra di Mortella at Corsica, a Mediterranean island. Conventional belief preaches that the name and the design of the Martello Towers have been derived from this 1565 fortress. The towers mostly have a round structure and thick solid stone walls, and are usually three-storeyed. They soar as high as 40 feet, with the capacity of housing a squadron of around 26 armed forces.

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Illustration depicting the interior of the tower (Source: Martello Towers UK)

The towers had classic entrances about 10 feet from the ground, with ladders facilitating the entry. After the troops entered into the ‘defense chambers’, the ladders were extracted to prevent enemies from entering into the tower. Most important was the roof, which harboured an 18 or 24 pounder cannon on the gun platform. The upper floor housed the garrison and the ground floor was used for hoarding ammunition and supplies. The basement was used for storing food and had a water tank. All the floors were connected by a narrow stone staircase.

Isn’t such architectural excellence a matter of awe? 

Where are these towers located in Ireland?

Beginning in 1804, the fear of Napoleonic invasion triggered the construction of around 50 Martello towers across Ireland. Most of the Irish Martello Towers (28 in total) exists on the East Coast, largely around Dublin Bay. The South of the capital, Dublin, harbours 16 towers and the North has 12. Likewise, the rest stand along the South Coast, around Cork Harbour. 

It is quite unfortunate that today, many of these architectural gems are gradually sinking into negligence.

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The majestic South No. 11 Martello Tower (Source: Time Travel Turtle)

This series, “Martello Towers in Ireland” is going to explore one of the ‘forgotten’ symbols of Irish heritage. The first Irish Martello Tower to be featured in the series is the one which has now been transformed into the James Joyce Tower and Museum. This tower dates back to 1804-1805.

Now, let’s jump right into digging around the first Feature of the series!

James Joyce Tower and Museum

The Martello Tower, which has been preserved as the James Joyce Tower and Museum, is located in Sandycove, Dublin. It is one of the most sought tourist attractions in  Ireland. The museum is preserving the legacy and the exemplary works of James Joyce (1882-1941), one of the most influential 20th century authors, born in Ireland. This literary heritage is a must visit for all the literature-enthusiasts, history-bugs and curious tourists. As the location of Ulysses’ opening episode, this South Number 11 Tower is undoubtedly a historical and literary icon.

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A portrait of James Joyce (Source:Goodreads)

How did a defense fort become a museum?

Oliver St. John Gogarty, an eminent figure in the Irish literary Renaissance, and a close friend of Joyce, took the tower on lease. In a letter to G.K.A. Bell, Gogarty wrote that he had rented the tower to “House the Bard”. Joyce, along with Gogarty and his Oxford friend, Samuel Trench, took refuge in the tower. Joyce had spent six nights there in early September 1904, a setup which inspired the opening chapter of Ulysses. Gogarty plays a very crucial role in the novel as well, as a major literary incarnation. He was Joyce’s inspiration behind sketching one of the most important and cheerful characters of the novel, Buck Mulligan. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”, reads the opening sentence of the novel.

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This piece remains incomplete without talking about Michael Scott (1905-1989), one of the most important Irish architects of the 20th century.  As a major tribute to James Joyce and for preserving the rich history of the Martello Tower, Scott bought it in 1954. The famous filmmaker John Huston and Scott’s friends had helped him in setting up the museum. On Bloomsday, 16th June, 1962, the Museum was first opened for the public.  

In 1978, an entrance hall was constructed and in 1992, a bit of renovation took place. As one of the most exemplary buildings in world literature, and an Irish cultural heritage, the historic architecture of the tower has been more or less preserved. 

What exhibits would one expect to see?

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The living room where James Joyce had spent six nights with his friends (Source: Time Travel Turtle)

One can expect to witness a plethora of interesting exhibits, upon visiting the museum. The tower proudly houses a unique and incredible collection of Joycean memorabilia. Furthermore, one can get to see special artefacts that have been referred to by Joyce, like the empty pot of his famous quote “What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat? Incomplete”

The legendary Black Panther (Source: Joyce Tower)

Moreover, an enchanting exhibit is a ceramic ‘Black Panther’ which represents an episode in Ulysses: a nightmare of one of the characters. Besides these wonders, the museum also houses several personal belongings of the legend, including numerous letters, portraits and photographs. An Ulysses edition by Matisse, the renowned French artist, is also exhibited.

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Exhibits inside the Museum (Source: Time Travel Turtle)

A visit to this incredible museum will let one perceive the opening scene of Ulysses. Even today, the living room and the gun platform are similar to what has been described by Joyce in this enduring piece of literature

Do not forget about the location’s scenic beauty

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The breathtaking view from the tower (Source: Time Travel Turtle)

Apart from a pure historical and literary exploration, one can enjoy a breathtaking view from this Martello Tower. Located at the seaside, one can witness the panoramic views of the mountains as well as Dublin’s south coast. In Ulysses’ opening episode, Telemachus, Joyce has referred to this wonderful view as “the awakening mountains”. 

Bloomsday and the Museum

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Bloomsday Celebrations at the Tower (Source: CBS News)

The largest crowd pull in the museum occurs on Bloomsday (every 16th June), the annual celebration of ‘16th June 1904’, the day depicted in Ulysses. The festival has derived its name from the central character of the novel, Leopold Bloom. Every year, Joycean-enthusiasts celebrates this special day all across the world with huge pomp and mirth. The Museum authority organizes many free activities throughout the day, like musical events, readings from the Ulysses, theatrical performances, film screenings, etc. 

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Bloomsday celebrations in the streets of Dublin (Source: Rove)

In Dublin, spectacular cultural activities take place, ranging from Ulysses plays and readings,to pub crawls, etc.On this wonderful summer day every year, the streets and pubs of Dublin are brightened up by literature devotees. Many dress up like characters from the novel and go around the city, indulging in various cultural activities. 

The Museum’s Virtual Bloomsday Festival 2020

The 2020 Bloomsday is just knocking at the door. Are you worrying about missing out all the celebration and the fun, because of the pandemic? You need not worry about it all, because the James Joyce Tower and Museum has made arrangements for a wonderful ‘Virtual Bloomsday Festival, 2020’. On the coming 16th of June, a LIVE Virtual celebration session has been organised which will run from 11 am- 1 pm. Also, the website has featured some exclusive “Virtual Bloomsday Treats” which nobody should be missing out!

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(Source: Joyce Tower)

The Virtual Bloomsday can be accessed at https://www.joycetower.ie/events-welcome-to-the-james-joyce-tower-museums-virtual-bloomsday-2020/

A day spent in this wonderful location will be an all-encompassing venture. One will get to absorb the literary excellence, historical significance  and the scenic beauty of the Irish coastline, all under one roof! 


But, Wait.

There are around 50 Martello Towers in Ireland. What is the current status of the others?

The next feature will be coming up soon with something really interesting!


Stay tuned!  Till then, Happy Reading!


Cover Image Source: Time Travel Turtle

Shrinwanti Mistri
Shrinwanti Mistri

Shrinwanti Mistri is currently pursuing MSc in International Relations at The School of Politics and IR, University College Dublin. Her professional domain includes Policy Research and Advocacy. However, she has always had a passion for writing, and is grabbing this opportunity to reach out to the world through her write-ups.

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