It is only when you arrive at the base of the cable car that the trench of water that breaks the straight spine of Beara is seen and heard. The break is not wide, maybe five hundred metres across, but full of complicated eddies and currents. On the other side, on Dursey Island, a pier, the ruins of a church and a collection of battered cars are clearly visible. Climbing the cleanly shorn grass slopes a path cuts a wide arc so the northern flank of the Island comes into view. From the far seaward slope of the summit of Dursey the signal tower juts up exactly like the cherry on top of a cake.
They had fixed the cable car in winter but it took them longer than they thought: having replaced the old cable car, a corrugated metal box, with a ‘new’ second-hand one, they discovered problems with the cable itself. Expected deadlines of February stretched to spring and then summer. One afternoon after Christmas I heard on the radio that the cable car was up and running so I drove out that way again. The old cable car had been turned into a house for poultry. It sat in a small field with the hens and ducks slipping through the broken windows- black cavities which reminded me of the empty eye sockets in a bare skull.
It was a crisp day. The sky was wholly blue, and the land pale golden. Splayed seaweed, exposed roots of heather and bracken, the rusting Ford fender held together by blue bailing twine; details emerged with forceful clarity. Patches of ice remained under cars and in the shadows of some rare big trees. There was no activity on the roads or in the fields. I remember distinctly that we didn’t pass a single car on the way out. Having known the island from three limited aspects, as one might know a precious object behind glass, the feeling of walking across its hills was nerve-wracking.
The first collection of stone houses was Ballynacallagh, the first of the three island parishes. Closest to where our path wound was a large building. The sign above the porch told of its prior life as the island’s school. The roof had collapsed and there were no doors or windows. We clambered over the foundations and stone wall that enclosed it. As we started off again, up another hill, I felt growing discomfort. There is an unattractive smugness that comes from being in a place that has been left behind, as though the words we uttered and thought were part responsible.
The signal tower, elusive behind the brow of the hill, was one feature of the island I had wanted to see. Martello towers have always interested me- it’s their proud replication in so many different parts of their globe coupled with a universal redundancy. From the height of the tower is a full round view of the Bull, Cow and Calf islands, the stump of lighthouse on the latter like a charred log, the Mizen and Sheep’s Head to the south, the Kerry peninsulas to the North, and the Skelligs haunting on the horizon. On such a day it was not hard to imagine the fleets of fresh, white billowing sails floating past in the heyday of the pirates.
The signalling tower is not like other Martello towers. To begin with it is rectangular, not squat and round. The design came from the local forts built by O’Sullivan Bere in the 16th century, not, as most others, from the Mortella towers of Corsica. It has three stories with a basement. Each story is supported by vaulted stone work above the hearth and opposing window. The tower is narrow; each of the three rooms being thirty by thirty feet. Two soldiers and their families would have lived there at any one time. They were not built for comfort- they were not castles, more defensive structures, like the round towers built in the 11th century, and like those round towers complete with the elevated entrance. Each night the men stationed inside could pull in the ladder to prevent assault from the resentful island population.
Dursey was a weak point for the English. The Battle of Bantry in 1696 and the attempted invasion a hundred years later by Wolfe Tone had shown that. Construction of the tower was thus a priority in early 1804 and many local inhabitants, men and women, were employed under an English engineer. The stone was quarried from just below where the tower now stands, on the north side of the island. It is still visible, the quarry, deep and ugly like the aftermath of a meteorite landing. The island is not short of stone. Men were paid 2d. a day and the women 1d. It is said a little pathetically that this new money allowed some of the inhabitants to buy boots and shoes for the first time. In the same year the tower was begun an English cutter swooped on four local men fishing between the Calf rock and Dursey. The men were kidnapped to fight and die in the Battle of Trafalgar. All that their families knew was an empty boat washed ashore.
In 1806 a survey by John Hampton was published showing a road and a tower in the site plan. The tower was presented as a single storey building with a flagstaff in an enclosure. A year later a report issued by Rear-Admiral George Bowen, who toured the coast in the summer, stated that the tower wasn’t even half finished. ‘This tower has only the bare walls standing’, he wrote, ‘it has been neglected for two years’. There was no one found to be working on it, and the man responsible was residing in Bearhaven, twelve miles inland. By August 1809, five years after the project had begun, there were still only ‘bare walls’.
Five months later this damning report filtered back to the authorities in Cork: ‘The walls are falling down as consequence of several beams having been sawed out and carried away.’ In another account the flagstaff was stolen and buried in a field in Ballynacallagh. The Lieutenant responded by taking a local woman hostage and keeping her until the centre piece of the tower was returned, which it duly was. As to be expected antagonism existed between the new arrivals, the garrisoned soldiers, and the islanders, but only, as is the way there, through ambiguous, passive acts- not replying, absenting oneself without excuse, feigning ignorance, countless everyday tactics of resistance.
In August 1811, Captain W.G. Moran reported to his superior, Admiral Thornbrough, ‘The Lieutenant, Midshipman and one man being absent, I could get no information respecting their different appointments &c. The lieutenant has not been at the post for a month, as I was told by Denis Sullivan Signalman, the only person present.’ He described the state of the tower as ‘not yet roofed or glazed’. The constructor of the tower was absent in Crookhaven so he could not ‘learn the time the Tower is to be habitable, but the signalman told me, he heard, not less than two months to come.’ While the tower was in a state of incompletion, and uninhabitable, Moran saw no reason why signals could not still be made- these were signals made from a combination of a blue pendant, rectangular flag, a narrow triangular flag and four black balls. He writes, ‘There appears no reason why signals might not be made from it (the flagstaff) in the course of the day provided the Flags &c. were there, which I understood from the signalman, is not the case, neither is there any spying glass.’
Pearks, the absent Lieutenant, wrote to his superior to defend himself, claiming ill-health. He was soon replaced and a fourth man was appointed to the task. Lieutenant Henry Masterman lasted seven months. James Moriarty was given the post in May 1812 and asked for a transfer in February of the following year which was turned down. ‘The Signal tower on this island is not in an inhabitable state’, he wrote, and then, in perhaps the most accurate commentary of them all: ‘nor is it likely it will be for some time…’
It is hard to imagine that the problems encountered in building the tower were due to incompetence of the Lieutenants. Records recount that after early tensions the tower became a social gathering place ‘for storytelling and card-playing’. Several men stationed there, including Simon Nason, the missing Midshipman from Captain Moran’s report, married local women and settled. Headstones in the cemetery, once the site of a medieval monastery, tell of successive generations of that family and to this day ancestors live on the island and across the Dursey sound in Garinish.
We could well believe that that tower on Dursey was never completed- the threat of war was gone by 1814 and no report ever came through informing the government of its completion. Certainly by the 1850s, a generation after being built, it is described as roofless and crumbling; bare walls rising and falling like the sea.