Sitting on a bench on Sandymount Green on Tuesday morning, Rodney Devitt turns to his right and gestures at the Martello Tower close by.
He used to live right across from it, he says, turning to the left and pointing to a house with a lilac-coloured door on Strand Road, on the opposite side of the green.
He would cross the street and go down to the little shop called Cheadle’s next door where they sold biscuits and crisps.
Devitt stands up and walks through the green and around to the front of the tower. On the door, it says “1822”.
As a kid, he would buy an ice cream sold out of this door by someone from the Tower Cafe inside. He’d eat it and then go for a swim in the sea.
“On sunny weekends, it was crowded with people,” he says. “The buses would stop exactly where that bus stop still is” – he points towards a stop for the numbers 1 and 47 – “and hordes of people would get off”.
But in the 1960s, the Tower Cafe wound down, Devitt says. “Cheadle’s also faded away at that time.”
Since the late ’90s, the tower has been lying vacant, but some locals like Devitt want to see it put to use again. The question is, what use, exactly?
The Sandymount Martello Tower was one of 28 the British built between 1804 and 1805, from Seapoint up to Balbriggan. They were worried about an invasion by Napoleon.
The towers were named by their locations and number from 1–16 on the south side, beginning with No. 1 Bray Head. Sandymount was known as No. 16 Sandymount.
This one was a “double tower”, with two cannons on the roof. In 1912, a century or so after it had been built, the Dublin United Tramways Company was using it as an office.
Photos show that it was even used as a tram terminus. “An old tram man told me that his team went too far along the rails and crashed into the steel staircase,” Brian Siggins said over the phone this week, laughing.
Siggins, an acquaintance of Devitt’s, is a member of the Old Dublin Society and used to be on the council of the Ballsbridge Donnybrook and Sandymount Historical Society.
Other towers have been reclaimed: the one in Sandycove is the setting for the beginning of Ulysses and, as a result, houses the James Joyce museum; the one at Seapoint is occasionally opened for tours.
The back of the 200-year-old round tower in Sandymount is now obscured by what was supposed to be a restaurant. It’s a concrete structure with four large steel shutters over its windows.
The two-storey extension was added in the ’80s, according to a Dublin City Council report, and has large windows that face the sea. It was supposed to be a restaurant, fronted by restauranteur Peter Langan – and reportedly part-owned by actor Michael Caine.
Langan had bought the tower from the CIÉ in 1980, according to a 1992 article in the Irish Independent. His business partner, Robert Noonan, hoped to see the eatery open, even after Langan’s death, in spite of local opposition.
Permission was eventually granted in 1991, but the tower was soon sold and but the exterior “restaurant” building with the shutters still remains and was never used, the Irish Independent reported in 1995.
In the early ’90s, Michael Doyle bought it. In 1998, he applied for planning permission to add a brewery and use the adjoining buildings for toilets and “stores”.
Dublin City Council granted this, but An Bord Pleanála overturned the decision in 1999, after an appeal by the Residents of Tower Terrace group. The micro-brewery would be “out of character” with the area, its report said.
For the past 20 years, or longer, it’s been lying empty, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.
Lacey brought up the tower at this month’s council meeting. He was inquiring about when the council would commence flood defence works around it.
“I just wonder if the manager would contact the owner to see if there’s any possibility of Dublin City Council or any other appropriate public body acquiring the tower to put [it] to some positive use,” he said at the meeting.
Dublin City Chief Executive Owen Keegan said the council would be “very happy” to establish the owner and “see what the position is about the possibility of acquiring that tower”.
Lacey says he would like to see the tower used for something that serves the community.
“The area is rich in history,” he says. “It could be a Pembroke museum or a Pembroke maritime museum. It could be used as a cafe, could be used for events.”
His personal wish would be to see it belong to the Ballsbridge Donnybrook and Sandymount Historical Society, he says.
Siggins says he used to give slideshow presentations on the history of the area in the Martello Tower. There would be photographic exhibitions too, he says.
“That was when the restaurant had been abandoned and the structures were still in good order,” he says – about 30 years ago. “It was a pity to see it end up lying empty.”
Devitt, who, like Lacey, is a member of the historical society, said they’ve never discussed in great depth what it should be used for.
“I would like to see some form of use,” he says. “I know commercial dictates. I personally would have no objection to a restaurant or pub or bar, but then I don’t have to live beside it.”
In any case, he would like to see the “awful” extension come down, he says. “Everybody walks along here and thinks what a pity, but none of us have come up with brilliant ideas.”