Bere Island is a beautiful and peaceful place. However, evidence of its military past is immediately evident when you first get a view of the island. Two Martello towers can be seen from the mainland together with a signal tower which formed a communication link between the towers.
The Martello towers were built at the beginning of the 19th century in response to the failed French invasion of 1796. Bere Island is strategically located to provide protection for Berehaven, a favoured harbour for the British navy up until 1938. Originally there were four Martello towers with associated accommodation and a network of signal towers. Two of the Martello towers were subsequently demolished, one stood at the present location of Rerrin village and the second was positioned on the headland where the later Lonehort gun battery now stands. The surviving Martello towers are located on higher ground, one at Ardagh and the other at Cloughland. The Ardagh tower has recently been renovated and it is possible to safely enter the tower which provides excellent views over the island and the nearby mainland.
Martello towers were constructed extensively by the British military during the late 18th and 19th century in coastal areas throughout Britain and Ireland. They were inspired by a defensive tower in Corsica at a place called Mortella, where British ships with a combined compliment of 106 guns was repulsed by two artillery pieces mounted on a circular tower which had to be eventually captured by a land force.
The Martello tower was a simple but effective design. It comprised a circular stone built tower which held a single artillery piece which could traverse a 360 degree arc and could therefore fire in any direction. The gun was mounted on a wooden traversing carriage which rotated around a pivot set in the centre of the tower. The front of the tower was mounted on wheels which traversed along a slot set on the rim of the fire step. This slot is still preserved on the Ardagh Martello tower on Bere Island. It is likely that each of the towers held a 24 pounder gun.
The entrance to the tower was at first floor level and opened into the barracks which accommodated the gun crews. The powder store was located in the ground floor with all three levels connected by a turnpike stairs. Rainwater was gathered in drains on the roof and channeled to the basement where it was gathered in a cistern for use in case of siege. The Cloughland tower was constructed within a circular ditch while the Rerrin example was surrounded by earthworks including a glacis which faced the seaward side. A rectangular complex of ruined buildings is located adjacent to each of the surviving towers and presumably served as less cramped accommodation.
As a complex, the Martello towers were a significant deterrent to attack on Berehaven and while the individual towers provided cover for ships which lay at anchor, they also covered each other from land based attacks. The Martello towers were manned until 1815 when there was no longer a threat of invasion by Napoleon.
Both Martello towers are accessible to visitors to the island although the Ardagh tower is both nearer the road and can be entered through a set of wooden steps. Directions can be sought from the Islands visitor centre.