My visit to the Martello Tower in Howth (The Home of Vintage Radio)

By Billy Redmond

Monday, 6 November, 2014 was a smashing Autumn day, with the sun shining, despite the night before being rough with high winds. I was threatening for many years to visit the Martello Tower in Howth because during my working lifetime I had an interest in radio and all things associated with this means of broadcasting, and this was my opportunity.

The day got off to a bad start when, as I was having my breakfast, a power failure on the Connolly-Howth railway line was announced on RTÉ, which made me deliberate whether I should go or not. I decided I might as well, and the first obstacle I encountered was traffic related, a backup at the lights in Kilcullen, another at Kinneigh and a further one at Athgarvan – all to do with the previous night’s inclement weather.

For the next part of my journey I hopped on the train in Newbridge to take me to Heuston Station, followed by a short trip on the Luas to Connolly, and from there to my destination in Howth.

I set off on the final leg of the journey by foot from Howth station. The tower itself is within walking distance from the village and marina, mind you the last few hundred yards up a very steep hill I did find challenging. Just as I approached the entrance gate I  noticed a male motorcyclist coming towards me who appeared to be the man in charge.

Oops, trouble here, I felt and enquired from him “did I come at a bad time?” “You couldn’t have come at a worse time,” he replied, explaining that he had forgotten the keys and had to return to Artane to get them. “How long will you be?” I questioned. “About twenty minutes” he said, leaving me to wonder “would that be a country twenty minutes”?

So having come this far what could I do but wait, and observe the lovely marina and coastline, as well as Lambay Island and Ireland’s Eye in the distance. The people who constructed this tower definitely chose a terrific site. It didn’t seem long at all until the man in charge, or curator of the tower, who introduced himself as Richard, arrived back on his motorcycle. Straight away he gets off on his right foot and before we do any exploring of the tower promises to put the kettle on. “We’ll have a cup of tea”, he said. Inwardly I’m delighted at this prospect of sitting down for a cuppa before exploring the tower.

The Martello Tower, as well as 26 other similar towers situated around the Dublin coastline, were constructed during the Napoleonic wars. A few of them were lived in by  artists and musicians and the ilk, with most having fallen down. My first task in exploring the Martello is to climb up a small ladder to the tower itself, packed with all kinds of equipment from floor to roof in a circular setting, such as Morse Keys, Signalling Lamps from World War I & II, Gramophones, old radios and various crystal sets.

Then Richard remarks that I should come down to the bottom floor and he will show me the radio Fr. J. Stone owned, a Ham Radio named ‘Apache’. Well the moment he mentioned the Reverend Father’s name I couldn’t believe it. Fr. Stone was serving in Killester all those years ago and was a Ham Radio Operator, and for those who may not know what a Ham was, it was a person who would spend his or her time making contacts with other Hams all over the world by radio.

Anyway, this discovery instantly got me more excited by the minute because of my interest in radio. I was a Radio Operator in the first Battalion (32nd) which went to the Congo in July 1960. We had our own internal Battalion Communications, but no Rear Link back to Ireland. On one occasion, after a few weeks on the ground in Goma, we managed to contact a Mr. Terry Tierney, a Ham Operator who was working in Kampala in Uganda at the time. He had regular contact with Fr. J. Stone back in Dublin and this was a great blessing for us.

We had almost 700 troops on the ground in Africa and naturally enough we had things to talk about to those back in Army Headquarters in Dublin, queries about personnel, administration and information as well as the gear we needed, so this was great news. After a few weeks Mr. Tierney cleverly constructed a transmitter and receiver which he delivered to our Sigs.

Officer Captain Brendan Deegan had to cover a round trip of over 500kms on the most challenging of roads and terrain. On meeting Terry Tierney, in gratitude our group handed over to him a range of Irish provisions and various other foodstuffs which he was unable to obtain in Kampala. That whole period of time of time with the battalion was an incredible experience for me. In 2010 on the 50th Anniversary of the 32nd Battalion I reflected on it in a short article which was published in Ireland’s Own.

This article I have displayed in one of my Storyhouses in Rathangan (Filey’s session). One of the ladies who entertains us with her brilliant recitations read the said article and declared to me that her sister worked for Fr. Stone. “Well, isn’t it a small world,” I pondered! All of this information only coming to light 54 years after the event made me realise that the lady from Tullow was right – having heard my story she remarked “Billy, you must be an antique.” I hoped she meant unique! I certainly enjoyed recalling those events very much.

It may not be widely known that the first telephonic underwater cable laid to this country was from Hollyhead in Wales all those years ago. Some readers may have an interest in radio hamming, and in the context of reflecting on my time in the Congo with the 32nd Battalion and the radio communication we engaged in back then, it is noteworthy to say that Mr. T. Tierney’s call sign was VQ5FS, Fr. Stone’s was EI9G, and EI56 was the sign used by the Curragh Camp.

As an added insight it is worth saying that the Belgian Congo was 28 times larger than Ireland, so communications  was a huge undertaking with all the administrative, logistical and operational traffic (messages) which were being sent by Morse Code. I recall that my speed at that time was 25 wpm and even after all those years I can still send 23 wpm and receive 22 wpm.

In conclusion, I must say that I was hugely impressed at the level of knowledge demonstrated by Richard, my guide, that day in exploring Martello Tower, especially as he shared with me that he spent his life working as an electrician in Dublin airport. He was particularly knowledgable on vintage radio equipment. So, if you ever get the opportunity, do definitely go and visit this terrific exhibition which is open on Saturdays and Sundays from November to April.   

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