“Welcome to the Tower House“, cooed the voice from the intercom.
“Could it be..?” I thought “probably not…must be the housekeeper…”
The electric gates inched open and Teengirl and I crunched along the gravelled driveway to Portrane’s Martello Tower.
As part of the British coastal defences against the bould Napoleon Bonaparte, Martello towers were copies of a similar tower built in Mortella, Corsica in the sixteenth century. Some amadán(though he was probably British) got the name a little muddled and so, Martello(Italian for `hammer`) stuck instead of Mortella (Italian for `myrtle`).
Napoleon obviously put the fear of God into the British. They swung into action building these massive towers all along the coast, and inland along major waterways of the British Empire. The fact that so many are still intact, is the ultimate tribute to the engineering and military ingenuity of that time. Though it is also a little amusing to think that, after all that effort, and considerable expense, Napoleon never landed here after all.
For defence purposes, Martello towers were built at the optimal junctures for spotting the oncoming enemy. This one stood out on its own promonotory to face Lambay Island, with the unsung glories of Portrane Bay to the west of it, and a broad sweep towards Howth to the east.
Every tower has a set plan. And Terry Prone and her Tower caretaker, Bryan, were only dying to show us how that transferred into reality.
But first to Terry herself….
She is billed variously as a media spin doctor/PR guru/communications expert. If you were around in 1970s Ireland, you will remember her from her work with Bunny Carr’s Carr Communications. They specialised in teaching politicians how to present themselves in the best possible light. She was also known for marrying former priest Tom Savage-definitely a very brave thing to do back then. I can still hear my mother’s clucks of disapproval on that subject being left in no doubt that it was the bould Terry who led to the man’s ruin.
Since then, she’s been upfront and out there about her various adventures with plastic surgery, has penned several books in both fact and fiction, and writes a weekly column for The Cork Examiner.
The funny thing about writers is that they’re a reclusive lot. Yet, while they shun the world to pen their papers, they also take you right into their own heads. So you feel like you know them but that perhaps they’d really rather not know you at all. Which makes meeting them a tad unnerving.
Meeting Terry was even more unnerving. I knew from her most recent book “Coach” that her rampant wit could turn swiftly acerbic and that she didn’t suffer fools gladly. So where would that leave me?
Suddenly, I am standing in front of this famous face, gibbering like a schoolgirl on speed and disconcerted by the having my impressions of this woman entirely upended.
For a start, she’s much tinier than I’d expected, both thinner and shorter. A fragile little dove of a woman. A shock of white, closely cropped hair frames a smooth complexion with wonderful cheekbones and wide set almond eyes. After reading “Mirror, Mirror” it was difficult to avoid staring to see where nature and the surgeon’s knife had parted course, and impossible to put an age on her. That book winds its way through all of the cosmetic procedures Terry felt compelled to try and she even gives them a satisfaction rating.
Her eyes darted from one to another, taking everything in, seemingly interested in everything and everybody and having the same measure of respect for each person. And, of course, only dying to show us around her tower.
She laughed easily as she and Bryan recalled the torture of restoring the Tower in 2007.
“Bryan worked with the builders then and they left him behind. “
It was time to leave the gleaming kitchen then, and follow her up the couple of steps to the living room area.
I have a weakness for books. My dream home is lined with bookshelves from the second you enter the front door, and all along every room, to include a little shelf in the bathroom. Yes, I’ll have a Kindle along with that please, but I am not fashionable enough to ever want to off load my treasure trove of print on paper.
So, the tour could quite happily have stopped for me in her living room. While the kitchen had been a later addition to the tower, the living room is in the round, as part of the tower itself. And it is a shrine to books. Save for a small section of wall space just above the stepped entrance, the entire room is lined with bookshelves. Reams and reams of books, drawing the eye right up to the mezzanine area above, which, again, is lined with books.
It was difficult to resist the urge to pick up a paperback and curl up on the couch . But in the spirit of Napoleon’s foes, I soldiered on.
Terry was leading the charge, and was eager to tell us about the Tower’s original troops. The officers had occupied this lower floor. Now partially timbered over, a large area-perhaps two meters square-is covered in glass revealing an enormous empty water tank.
Terry explained that it had supplied the water for the occupying troops.She pointed to the ceiling above, and the place from where a pipe had taken rainwater off the roof and channeled it into the well beneath the ground.
“The troops” she went on to explain, “were from Machester. Half-starved and chain-smoking, they didn’t grow to any great heights and could hop up and down the spiral staircase with ease.”
This was Bryan’s cue to take over. Clearly, the spiral staircase was an object of great delight for him. It had been bricked up by a previous owner and Bryan himself, had had the great delight in chipping away at the masonry to reveal the original stairwell.
With that, he led the way along its narrow confines, and up to the mezzanine area. The thing about these towers is that they look massive from the outside. But most of that massiveness is taken up with the width of the walls, which are at least eight feet thick. So, the space within relatively tight. Breaking through those dense walls is necessary to create extra space and to allow light to flood the tower although, I imagine, this must also hack its way through any renovation budget.
In the case of this Tower, additions have been made at each compass point so that light floods in at all times of the day. And, of course, great views can be enjoyed from each angle. One window projects right towards Lambay Island, and splashed with sea spray from the waters below, one feels almost part of the sea itself, with the rest of the world left far behind.
And I expect, after a tough day dueling with politicians, that’s exactly the kind of escape Terry needs.
We followed Bryan up another set of steps to the roof itself. Now a decked area, it affords clear views over historic Lambay Island, and south over Ireland’s Eye and Howth, as well as the broad sweep of sea into Portrane beach and, to the west over St. Ita’s hospital. Bryan explained that the Tower’s cannon had been mounted on the roof and was capable of swinging around the 360 degrees should the enemy come from behind the tower itself.
This must be where Terry practises putting her head over the parapet. No stranger to controversy, she often attracts well aimed volleys. And maybe that cannon with it’s 360 degree swing would be facing more landward, than seaward in her case.One must need the thickest of skins when swimming around in the political and media mire.
Nevertheless, she was still there to greet us warmly as we descended the stone staircase. This time she took us around the sunroom. Facing west, and of course, built along the outside wall of the tower, it’s warmth and brightness and the perfect counterpoint for the darkness of the library.
“That’s where I lost five thousand books” she said, glancing ruefully at the boathouse. They’d been stored there while the tower was being renovated.
Terry has taken bigger knocks in her time of course, and swiftly brightened up
“Tea or coffee?” she enquired.
And,so, after our grand tour, Teengirl and I were soon ensconced at the Prone-Savage breakfast bar, caught in the suspicious glare of her cat, while sipping our bevvies of choice. Terry did what she does best, and asked all the questions and, with an author’s ear, listening carefully to every response. Naturally, I interjected several times during our conversation to forbid from writing about me. Though it was not, I hasten to add, a reciprocal arrangement.
Delighted when I told her I always read her weekly Cork Examiner column, she handed me a crisp new paperback “May Need Renovation” by Pamela Rowan. The book is about a woman’s quest to renovate a Martello Tower and yes, Pamela Rowan is Terry’s nom-de-plume.
We rambled around the gardens afterwards with Bryan, I remarked on the Tower’s machiolations. They’re projections over a front door from which missiles can be fired at unwelcome guests. Every home should have at least one, of course, but Tom and Terry’s Tower has four.
Great coffee, great books, great history, a fine welcome and lots of ways to torture your enemy. What more would you want in a home?