The cluster of Martello towers on the West Cork Islands indicate the vital strategic importance of Bantry Bay and its fascinating maritime heritage.
West Cork’s Martello towers were built by the British between 1801 and 1805 to strengthen their defences against the French. The Act of Union in 1800 had made Ireland part of the United Kingdom, which is why British military installations were being constructed on the West Cork islands.
The strategic importance of Bantry Bay, had come into sharp focus in 1796 when Wolfe Tone attempted to invade Bantry Bay with a French fleet. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen had been determined to secure Ireland’s independence.
While the fleet foundered in the bay in bad weather, one of the boats from the invasion, washed up on Bere Island. It is now in Ireland’s national museum at Collins’ Barracks in Dublin. The ‘Bantry Bay Boat’, ‘Bantry Skiff’ or ‘Bantry Yole is the model for the boats used in the international Atlantic Challenge event.
The invasion helps to explain the particular cluster of martello towers in Bantry Bay.
Fear of French invasion
By the time Ireland’s martello towers were constructed a few years after Wolfe Tone’s failed mission, a range of international pressures, including the persistent threat of French invasion, led to the view that Ireland’s coastline needed more fortifications.
The four Martello towers and a signal tower on Bere island were built as part of a chain of defence along the coast. Another martello was built on Garnish island and Whiddy Island XXX.
Around 45 towers were built along Ireland’s coast, with clusters around Dublin and Cork and its southwest coastline.
Each tower provided cover for ships which lay at anchor. As a network, the Martello towers also covered each other from land-based attacks.
What kinds of structures are the towers?
The three-storey circular Martello towers we find on Bere Island were inspired by a round coastal fort at Mortella Point in Corsica, which had impressed the British Navy in the 1790s after their attack on it failed.
The round structure and thick masonry walls made them resistant to cannon fire. Each one stands up to 40 feet (12m) tall, adding to the difficulty of attack.
A standard version of ithe tower design became the template for Ireland’s martello towers, which were constructed by local builders.
A common design saw a first-floor entrance into living quarters that housed 15 to 25 men and one officer. A basement floor would have been used to store provisions and ammunition.
The tower’s flat roof housed a large gun on a 360-degree pivot, the Martello tower’s main weapon. The tower’s stairs were safe within the tower, so the gun could be accessed from within. Each tower also had a rainwater tank and fireplaces for itse tenants.
The stone used in different martello towers varies. On Bere Island, flat-coursed limestone covers the floors and the concrete roofs feature blocked gun emplacement and parapets with recent marble coping.
When did the towers fall out of use?
The Martello towers were manned until 1815 when there was no longer a threat of invasion by Napoleon. They had played a role in helping to combat smuggling, but they never had to deter invading forces.
While this threat passed, Bere Island retained its considerable strategic importnace. In fact, the British Navy retained the island a treaty port until 1938, and both Whiddy and Bere Islands played interesting roles in World War One.
Bere Island Martello Towers
Where were Bere Island’s martello towers located?
The Bere Island towers were built at Lonehort Battery, where Rerrin Redoubt is now located, and on Ardagh and Cloughland hills.
Today, just two of Bere Island’s four Martello Towers remain standing. The towers at Cloughland and Ardagh are still standing on high ground and make striking additions to Bere Island’s dramatic landscape.
Can I visit Bere Island’s martello towers?
The Ardagh tower has been renovated and it is possible to safely enter the tower which provides excellent views over the island and the Beara peninsula.
Garinish Island Martello Tower
Garinish Island’s martello tower is perhaps the only martello tower to have been integrated into a world-class garden design!
When the Bryce family invited celebrated garden designer Harold Peto develop ambitious plans to convert Garinish Island into a garden paradise in the early 20th century.
From 1911 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, activity to develop the island garden continued at a hectic pace.
The Bryces employed around one hundred local men to implement Peto’s plans, which were to culminate in the construction of a palatial seven-storey mansion was to be located on the highest part of the island, around the obsolete Martello tower.
The Martello Tower was to take on the role of music room, and you can see evidence of preparatory quarrying and excavations around the tower today. However, the changing fortunes of the Bryce family, shaped by global pressures, meant these plans were never realised.
You can learn more about the garden’s history at Bryce House.
Can I visit the Garinish Island Martello Tower?
Yes, you can visit the tower as part of a visit to the OPW heritage site at Garinish Island (admission to the island is ticketed).
You can climb up to the martello tower using a long set of natural shale steps, originally built using stone quarried from the island. Climb to the top of the tower to take in spectacular views across Bantry Bay and the Beara peninsula!
Unlike other Irish Martello towers, the walls of the Garinish island tower are straight, not battered – perhaps because high rainfall washed the lime mortar out of sloping walls before it could set.
The fortifications around Bantry Bay included 3 gun batteries on Whiddy Island – it is well worth walking to the the middle battery, which is easily accessed via the island’s loop walk.
Bere Island Military Heritage Festival
Learn more about the military history of the West Cork islands
at the inaugural Bere Island Military Heritage Festival