13th June 2017 – A look at Shenick Island Martello Tower

by Frank Whearity

The Martello tower on Shenick’s Island (No. 10), stands serene when looked at from a distance, but up close it becomes a more impressive and formidable structure much like as it was meant to have been at the time of its erection in c. 1804-5, albeit that the heavily fortified door is long gone. The tower, and others along the coastline from Balbriggan to the north, and Bray to the south, were all built as a bulwark against the perceived threat from General Napoleon Bonaparte’s naval forces which were much feared at the time of the so-called Napoleonic War between Great Britain and France, and their associated allies. As it turned out, the French threat never materalised, at least not in the Irish sense, and the towers were thus never called into the service for which they were intended. Instead, they have collectively stood as lonely sentinels overlooking the Irish Sea awaiting a foe which never arrived.

For some people the distant prospect of the tower on Shenick’s Island is all that they may have seen, as the island is relatively inaccessible for only brief periods during the lowest tides in the year. In addition, for others who did gain access to the island, there still remained the difficult and somewhat dangerous act of climbing up onto the tower from a rope which seems to be permanently hanging there at the now door-less entrance specifically for such purposes. In any case, Frank Whearity, had a more pressing need, in 2005, to get acquainted with every feature of the tower, as he had to complete a university module ‘LS34 Practical Archaeology’ as a part of his studies for the BA course in ‘Local Studies’ at Maynooth University. After having measured (with the assistance of Rory McKenna and Laidman Doak) and photographed the tower, Frank was then obliged to write it up in an essay format as previousely prescribed by the module director and archaeologist, the late John Bradley. It was he who afterwards encouraged Frank to bring the essay to the attention of the editor of the Old Dublin Society, the late Theo Mortimer, who included it as an article in the 2006 Autumn edition of the Dublin Historical Record. In the intervening period the essay, in common with other articles published by the above society, has been uploaded onto the website known as http://www.jstor.org An important difference from the articles and the proposed presentation to the Skerries Historical Society on 13 June next, is that Frank’s photographic images will be shown there in full-colour for the first time.

While the tower was minutely measured for the university essay it will be the case that in the presentation the emphasis will be more on the visual aspects of the tower rather than its physical dimensions as expressed in metres and centimetres, or feet and inches, apart that is, from some important measurements such as the towers diameter, its circumference, its height and some other such like information. Examples of the photographic images to be seen will include aspects of the towers internal structures such as the domed roof, the remnants of the wooden floor beams, and the internal partitioned walls dividing some small rooms from the gun-powder store. Other images will be of the roof space with its ‘Murder hole’ and remnants of features associated with the canon, now long gone, and the so-called shot-oven designed for heating the large-diameter iron balls meant to be fired at any enemy which dared to approach from the seaward direction, though none actually did so. Other images associated with the tower, but detached from it, were the stone-built privy, and a little further distance away was a stone-built well which provided some of the water for the garrison stationed there in times long past. There was a drainage system which caught rain-water from the roof of the tower and saved it in a tank below the domed roof and where it would be safe from contamination from any extraneous sources.

In Frank’s opinion, it was the case that the tower, when compared to others in the vicinity, such as that on Red Island (No. 11), and at Balbriggan (No. 12), and another at Drumanagh (No. 9), that the Shenick’s Island tower was, and still is, the best preserved among these structures erected in the period 1804-5.

Nowadays, it would be hard for anyone living in Skerries and its hinterland, to envisage Red Island, or Shenick’s Island, without their towers. The tower on Shenick’s Island has withstood not only the ravages of time, of salt-laden maritime air and all types of weather, including possibly the greatest threat of them all, that of the predations wrought by mans need for building-stone, as occurred at Balbriggan, or his need to use the towers for various types of use as occurred at Red Island, or as a place to engage in anti-social activity which occurred at Drumanagh, where the internal walls were sprayed with paint, and some were knocked down by groups engaged in drinking and lighting fires there. The evidence was there in 2005 when visited by Frank Whearity and Rory McKenna, in the guise of a myriad of empty beer cans and bottles, and wire left behind after the burning of rubber vehicle Tyre’s. Fortunately, the Shenick’s Island tower avoided all these experiences and therefore, it still stands as a supreme example in the Skerries and adjacent areas of what an original Martello tower looked like at the time they were built more than 200 years ago.

(All the photographs to be used in the presentation were taken by Frank Whearity in 2005 including the three used here)