Martello Towers Paintings by Cathal O'Briain-O Briain Pianos

Martello Towers Paintings

Cathal O'Briain enjoys sketching the Martello Towers on location due to their rounded, thick walled structure, colour and composition. These sketches are painted over in Watercolour and are later used in the studio for translation into Oil or Acrylic paintings. Being a native of Dublin, the Seapoint Martello Tower evokes early childhood memories for Cathal, as it does for many Irish and international painters.



Martello towers
, sometimes known simply as Martello’s, are small defensive
forts that were built across the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the French Revolutionary Wars onwards. Most were coastal forts
They stand up to 40 feet (12m) high (with two floors) and typically had a garrison of one officer and 15–25 men. Their round structure and thick walls of solid masonry made them resistant to cannon fire, while their height made them an ideal platform for a single heavy artillery piece, mounted on the flat roof and able to traverse, and hence fire, over a complete 360° circle. A few towers had moats or other batteries and works attached for extra defence. The Martello towers were used during the first half of the 19th century, but became obsolete with the introduction of powerful rifled artillery. Many have survived to the present day, often preserved as historic monuments. In the second half of the 19th century, during the premiership of Lord Palmerston, there was another spate of tower and fort building. The Palmerston Forts are also circular in design and resemble Martello towers.


Prince of Wales Tower – oldest Martello tower in North America (1796), Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Martello towers were inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genoese defence system, at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica. The designer was Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino (el Fratin), and the tower was completed in 1565. Since the 15th century, the Corsicans had built similar towers at strategic points around the island to protect coastal villages and shipping from North African pirates. The towers stood one or two storeys high and measured 12–15 m (39–49 ft) in diameter, with a single doorway five metres off the ground that one could access only via a ladder that the occupants could remove.

Local villagers paid for the towers and watchmen, known as torregiani, who would signal the approach of unexpected ships by lighting a beacon fire on the tower's roof. The fire would alert the local defence forces to the threat. Although the pirate threat subsequently dwindled, the Genovese built a newer generation of circular towers (the
Genoese towers), that warded off later foreign raids.


On 7 February 1794 as part of the siege of Saint-Florent, two British warships, HMS Fortitude (74 guns) and Juno (32 guns), unsuccessfully attacked the tower at Mortella Point; the tower eventually fell to land-based forces under Sir John Moore after two days of heavy fighting. What helped the British was that the tower's two 18-pounder guns fired seaward, while only the one 6-pounder could fire land-ward.

Vice-Admiral Lord Hood reported:

...The Fortitude and Juno were ordered against it, without making the least impression by a continued cannonade of two hours and a half; and the former ship being very much damaged by red-hot shot, both hauled off. The walls of the Tower were of a prodigious thickness, and the parapet, where there were two eighteen-pounders, was lined with bass junk, five feet from the walls, and filled up with sand; and although it was cannonaded from the Height for two days, within 150 yards, and appeared in a very shattered state, the enemy still held out; but a few hot shot setting fire to the bass, made them call for quarter. The number of men in the Tower were 33; only two were wounded, and those mortally.

Late in the previous year, the tower's French defenders had abandoned it after HMS Lowestoffe (32 guns) had fired two broadsides at it. The British removed the guns to arm a small vessel; consequently, the French were easily able to dislodge the garrison of Corsican patriots that had replaced them. Still, the British were impressed by the effectiveness of the tower when properly supplied and defended, and copied the design. But, they got the name wrong, misspelling "Mortella" as "Martello" (which means "hammer" in Italian). When the British withdrew from Corsica in 1803, with great difficulty they blew up the tower, leaving it in an unusable state.

The resistance of the Torra di Mortella to the British in 1794 inspired Martello towers

A Martello tower on the plains of Abraham in Quebec City (Quebec, Canada), at the top of Cap Diamant overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.

The towers were about 40 feet (12 m) high with walls about 8 feet (2.4 m) thick. In some towers the rooms were not built in the centre, but more to the landside, leaving the walls thicker on seaside. These were cases where an attack with a cannon from the landside was thought very unlikely. Entry was by ladder to a door about 10 feet (3.0 m) from the base above which was a machicolated (slotted) platform which allowed for downward fire on attackers. The flat roof or terreplein had a high parapet and a raised platform in the centre with a pivot (sometimes a converted cannon) for a cannon that would traverse a 360° arc. (Some towers were designed to carry more than one gun, with each having a more limited arc of fire.) The walls had narrow slits for defensive musket fire.

The interior of a classic British Martello tower consisted of two storeys (sometimes with an additional basement). The ground floor served as the magazine and storerooms, where ammunition, water, stores and provisions were kept. The garrison of 24 men and one officer lived in a casemate on the first floor, which was divided into several rooms and had fireplaces built into the walls for cooking and heating. The officer and men lived in separate rooms of almost equal size.

Québec city had four Martello towers, but tower n°3 was demolished in 1904. In this picture, the internal structure can be seen.

Diagram of the interior of a Martello tower. A well or cistern within the fort supplied the garrison with water. An internal drainage system linked to the roof enabled rainwater to refill the cistern.

Distribution of Martello towers worldwide

During the first half of the 19th century, the British government embarked on a large-scale programme of building Martello towers to guard the British and Irish coastlines. Around 140 were built, mostly along the south coast of England. Governments in Australia, Canada, Menorca, South Africa and Sri Lanka also constructed towers. The construction of Martello towers abroad continued until as late as the 1870s but was discontinued after it became clear that they could not withstand the new generation of rifled artillery weapons. The French built similar towers along their own coastline that they used as platforms for communication by optical telegraphs (using the Chappe Telegraph). The United States government also built a number of Martello towers along the east coast of the US that copied the British design with some modifications.

Great Britain and Ireland were united as a single political entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from 1801 to 1922, spanning the time during which most Martello towers were erected (the initial scheme started under the previous entities of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland). Consequently, the Martello towers of Great Britain and Ireland can be considered to have been part of a single defensive system, designed to protect the coastlines of the two main islands of the British Isles as a whole. This is most clearly visible on the south and east coasts of England and the east coast of Ireland, where chains of Martello towers were built. Elsewhere in the world, individual Martello towers were erected to provide point defence of strategic locations.

An aerial view of a Martello tower

Between 1804 and 1812 the British authorities built a chain of towers based on the original Mortella tower to defend the south and east coast of England, Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey to guard against possible invasion from France, then under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon. A total of 103 Martello towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Seaford, Sussex, to Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Most were constructed under the direction of General William Twiss (1745–1827) and a Captain Ford. The northern-most tower at Aldeburgh is of quatrefoil design, i.e. four in one.

Included in the scheme were three much larger circular forts or redoubts that were constructed at Harwich, Dymchurch and Eastbourne; they acted as supply depots for the smaller towers as well as being powerful fortifications in their own right. The effectiveness of Britain's Martello towers was never actually tested in combat against a Napoleonic invasion fleet. They were, however, effective in hindering smuggling. After the threat had passed, the Martello towers in England met a variety of fates. The Coastguard took over many to aid in the fight against smuggling.

A Martello tower at Clacton-on-Sea on the east coast of England.

Fifteen towers were demolished to enable the re-use of their masonry. The sea washed thirty away and the military destroyed four in experiments to test the effectiveness of the new rifled artillery. During the Second World War, some Martello towers returned to military service as observation platforms and firing platforms for anti-aircraft artillery.

Forty-seven Martello towers have survived in England, a few of which have been restored and transformed into museums (e.g., the tower at St Osyth and Seaford) visitor centres, and galleries (such as Jaywick Martello Tower). Some are privately owned or are private residences, The remainder are derelict. A survey of the East Coast towers in 2007 found of the 17 remaining, most were in a reasonable condition. Many remaining Martello Towers are now Listed Buildings. A fuller list of British towers, with photographs, is available.

The Tally Toor, in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Three Martello towers were built in Scotland, the first on offshore rocks facing the Firth of Forth in 1807–09 to defend Leith Harbour. The Tally Toor now lies land-locked within the eastern breakwater.

Two towers were then built at Hackness and Crockness, near Longhope in Orkney. They were constructed between 1813 and 1815 to guard against the threat of French and American raiders attacking convoys assembling offshore. Historic Scotland now operates the Hackness tower as a museum.

A small number of Martello towers were also built in Wales, of which few survive. The most notable surviving towers are the two located in Pembroke Dock, which were built between 1848 and 1857 to protect the naval base there. Today, one of the towers is privately owned. The other is located on the town's riverfront, next to the old entrance of the naval base. It was converted into a small museum that focused on the local history of the dock and its defences. The museum has now shut down because of water influx. Recently Pembrokeshire County Council has decided to put the tower up for sale.

Martello tower at Balbriggan

The British built about fifty Martello towers around the Irish coastline, especially along the east coast, from Millmount (Drogheda), to Bray, around Dublin Bay but also around Cork Harbour on the south coast. On the east coast, concentrated mainly around Dublin Bay, twenty-six towers were in line of sight of each other, providing the ability to communicate with one another, or warn of any incoming attacks.

Possibly the most famous is the Martello tower in Sandycove, near Dún Laoghaire, in which James Joyce lived for a few days. Joyce shared the tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty, then a medical student but later to become famous in Irish history as a surgeon, politician and writer. In Ulysses, the fictional character Stephen Dedalus lives in the tower with a medical student, Malachi "Buck" Mulligan, whom Joyce based on Gogarty. The James Joyce Tower, as the tower is now known, houses a museum dedicated to Joyce. A number of other Martello towers are extant nearby at Bullock Harbour, Dalkey Island, Williamstown, Seapoint and Sandymount and Martello towers feature in many literary works set in Dublin. During the 1980s, Bono owned the Martello tower in Bray, County Wicklow.

Martello tower (South No.7) at Killiney

Martello Tower South No.7, on Tara Hill, Killiney Bay, is unique, as is its location as an enfilading tower. The Tower is privately owned and has been fully restored, to include a proofed, working King George 3rd Blomefield18-pounder cannon mounted on a traversing carriage on the crown of the Tower. There is a three-gun battery below the tower, with a glacis. There is also a coach house, artillery store, tool shed, and gunner's cottage, with resident gunner and gunpowder store. The battery, while restored, remains to be armed and the coach house and artillery store still require some restoration.

On the north side of Dublin, one can find Martello towers in Balbriggan, Shenick Island and Red Island at Skerries, Drumanagh Fort, Rush, Tower Bay in Portrane, Donabate, Malahide (Hicks tower), Portmarnock, Ireland's Eye, Howth, and Sutton.

There were seven Martello towers in the vicinity of Cork Harbour of which five are extant. During the 19th century Fenian uprising, the famous Captain Mackey briefly captured and held the Monning Martello tower near Fota Island in Cork Harbour; this tower is believed to have been the only Martello tower ever captured, other than the original. The other Cork Harbour towers are at Ringaskiddy, Haulbowline Island (now part of the Irish Naval Service HQ) and at Belvelly and Rossleague on the Great Island (near Cobh). There are also Martello towers at Little Island and Rostellan, though these are no longer intact.

The British built two Martello towers on the Hook Peninsula to protect the fort near Duncannon, Co. Wexford and the entrance to Waterford Harbour. There is a third tower on the headland at Baginbun Bay in Co. Wexford. One of the most interesting Martello towers is Meelick Martello Tower at Clonahenoge, County Offaly, guarding the Shannon river crossing to Meelick, County Galway. As this tower supports three guns (unlike the normal Martello tower which is circular on plan and carries only one gun), it is cam shaped on plan. Currently a rampant growth of ivy covers the tower.

The tower at Seapoint, County Dublin, which was the property of Blackrock Urban District Council was formerly the clubhouse of the Seapoint Boat Club from 1916 to 1931,and was subsequently the headquarters of the Genealogical Society of Ireland (GSI).The GSI vacated the tower when it found that the atmosphere was not conducive to the preservation of records.The restored tower at Ilnacullin is a feature of an island garden in Glengarriff, County Cork. Several other towers are still extant, including one at Rathmullan in County Donegal and two in County Clare on the south coast of Galway Bay in the townlands of Finavarra and Aughinish.

A Martello-like tower was built on Achill Island, according to local memory during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). It is square rather than round, unlike the traditional Martello tower. This tower is known locally as the Gabhla Fhranca ('French Tower') or the Napoleonic Tower. It is marked on an 1838 Ordnance Survey chart and denoted "Signal Tower," suggesting it was used with a series of other stations for communication. The tower's position offers a view of the sea both to the north and south of the island and is therefore well-suited for that purpose. By the 1830s the tower was described as a "watch-house of the coast-guard." (From Wikipedia, the Free Encylopedia)