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Points of Strength, Lines of Force: Ireland's Napoleonic defences

Part 2 Dissertation 2005
Damian Meehan
University College Dublin Dublin Ireland
The building of the Napoleonic Defence network around and across the island of Ireland captures a unique moment in national, architectural and military history. The totality of the conception of such a vast interrelated series of built points, and the rapidity of its construction in under a decade, is without precedent in Ireland. To present day observers the ruined outposts of the network posses a lonesome, eerily romantic, beauty as pure objects inhabiting the threshold between land and water. The strangeness of their bold geometric forms sets them apart from the vernacular tradition, underlining a completely different set of circumstances and imperatives driving the very particular architecture of the towers and forts. It was the search to understand these dynamics that forms the core of my dissertation.

I came to understand the climate of intense fear of a French invasion of Ireland after 1804, that demanded the creation of such an extensive series of defensive installations. The hostile colonial environment of the era meant that the British administration could not rely on the native populace to repel an attack. Therefore, strong, precisely conceived defensive architecture became acutely necessary as the primary means of protecting the island. Architecture is trusted over men.

The seemingly imminent nature of an invasion meant that the architecture produced was finely-tuned to exploit the exact limitations and ranges of the contemporary military technology. These technological limits are given corporeal shape in the buildings of the network. Ever aspect of the designs can be traced back to a specific functional parent. This absolute specialisation led to inevitable obsolescence. The network was abandoned almost as quickly as it was built, once the boundaries of technology moved forward in the decade after Waterloo.

The network also exhibits a distinct reading of landscape. Everything is reduced to a single military datum, viewed only in terms of unobstructed lines of sight, artillery ranges and the anthropological limits of human vision. This informs the exact positioning of elements at the key points in the landscape, to extract maximum defensive advantage and set up a symbiotic relationship with adjacent pieces in the defensive line. This formed an unbroken thread between architectural points of strength, which bound the peripheral frontiers of the island together to form a single greater entity.

Damian Meehan

Using a combination of field-work, archival and secondary sources Damian Meehan investigates in a wholly original way the network of military defenses erected around Ireland in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Beginning with the artefacts themselves as they now appear in the Irish land and seascape, he carefully examines their form, materials, siting and relationship to one another to argue convincingly that they respond precisely to a series of functional triggers. These range from the general climate of fear surrounding a possible French invading force, the British mistrust of indigenous Irish yeomanry, and the technologies of contemporary map-making, to the limitations of Napoleonic ordnance. In this way, he describes a fitness of purpose which governed all aspects of their design and which was the source not only of their strength but also of their almost immediate functional obsolescence.

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