The Dublin seaside is marked at intervals with an iconic series of squat, round defense towers. In 1800, when the mortar was still drying on these armored bulwarks against an attack by Napoleon that never came, Dublin’s coastal neighborhoods would have looked quite different—and the property values must have been a fraction of what they go for in today’s market. Especially for a strong, weatherproof property right on the waterfront with a great sea view.
Oddly, after Napoleon’s imperial armies had retreated back to France, these fortifications were passed around and met different fates—some were dismantled, some collapsed into the sea, and some were converted into private homes. So it was for the still-standing tower in Sandycove, just south of the large Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire.
In 1904, the tower was rented to Dublin writer Oliver St. John Gogarty for a pittance—sleeping in the cramped, cold quarters couldn’t have been very luxurious. Later that year, James Joyce, famed writer of
incomprehensible nonsense works of genius moved in. The domestic bliss ended only a few nights later, with an altercation between Joyce and another young man sharing the small sleeping room involving nightmares, screaming, and gunfire.
Joyce left the tower for good that night, but his association with it was not forgotten and, after his death, the tower was acquired by some Joyce enthusiasts to open as a public museum dedicated to his works and his influence. Today, the James Joyce Tower and Museum is one of the only towers in Dublin to be open to the public for free, and it’s worth a visit whether in your mind Joyce reads like Shakespeare’s sonnets or the scribbles of a child obsessed with boogers.
Chat with the friendly all-volunteer staff and step into the ground-floor powder room. The eight-foot-thick walls don’t leave much interior space, but it is well used to display a small but interesting collection of Joycean goodies. Shimmy up the narrow staircase—meant for guards and gunpowder, not for rubberneckers like us—to the sleeping room, laid out just as it would have been that fateful night when Joyce cried out in his sleep, startling his two roommates. In the panic, a pistol was drawn and several shots were fired at the pots and pans dangling above Joyce’s bed—look for them.
After a look around the repurposed bedroom, step back into the narrow central stairway and climb to the roof of the tower for a great view of the south Dublin coast. The artillery that once pointed out to sea from the roof is gone, but look for the wheel grooves and imagine spending long hours up here in the cold days and nights of the Irish winter scanning for French sails in Dublin Bay.
Directly below the tower, at the end of the small head of Sandycove, try not to ogle the swimmers in the Forty Foot Bathing Place. This (traditionally all-male and totally nude) swimming hole has been a popular spot for south Dubliners to cool off for generations. While the old boys’ club restriction has been lifted (the old sign is still there just for chuckles, I guess), it has been reported that nude bathing is still popular, but only very early in the morning.
After climbing the tower and taking a dip, walk back to the DART station at Dun Laoghaire along the seaside path, noting the Joyce quotes painted on the seawalls. The lower (older) path is closer to the waves, but not nearly as well maintained as the wide track above. If you’ve still got some legs—or if the next DART train won’t be arriving for awhile—extend your walk to the end of the East Pier for a look back down the coast to Bray Head to the south and the peninsula of Howth to the north. Both have more seaside charm and great hillwalking—and even more Martello towers, which you can now say you’ve seen, inside and out.