A Tower of Inspiration

The 'Curfew Tower' in Cushendall continues to play an enigmatic role

Passing through the north coast Co Antrim village of Cushendall, no one can fail to notice or be impressed by the curious ‘Curfew Tower’ that stands at the village’s central crossroads. Unbeknown to many, an intriguing cultural enterprise, slightly mischievous, slightly opaque but nevertheless innovative, is under way within the building’s fortified walls.
The Curfew Tower is a three-dimensional ‘object of curiosity’. Built in 1809 by landowner Francis Turnly of 'Drumnasole’, Carnlough, this fascinating building is founded in eccentricity and uniqueness.
Its very appearance is unusual. A stout sandstone building of 20 feet square and tapered, it rises to 40 feet in height and within each of the five floors exists one room including a dungeon, alluding to its original purpose.
The architecture is both medieval and yet has oriental influence, said to be inspired by a Chinese tower Turnly admired, and in conjunction with its origin seems not to be out of place in the imaginative fantastical domain of Gormenghast.
Grand Vision
Born in 1765 to a County Down family, Francis Turnly amassed a fortune in the Orient and on his return to Ireland purchased two estates including Cushendall village. Though a dynamic entrepreneur, his inherent eccentricities rooted themselves in localised projects. Sometimes groundbreaking, such as the first blasting of land between Carnlough and Waterfoot to form what is now the popular Coast Road, his projects also included establishing Cushendall as a centre of world peace. He even re-routed the River Dall through the centre of the village, determined to heighten the rural hamlet’s romanticism and built the Curfew Tower as the epicentre of this grand vision.
Enveloped in philanthropic vigour, Turnly wished to exert his influence on the small village in order that it become a leading example of world peace. The fortressed tower was constructed in order to facilitate this. Riotous and unruly locals were to be imprisoned and a nightly curfew was declared.
Exact in his design and instructions, the tower was to have a permanent garrison of one man who was to be armed with one musket, bayonet, case of pistols, and a thirteen feet long pike with a cross of wood or iron on its handle so that it could be expelled and withdrawn through the holes in the door.
The projecting windows house openings for pouring molten lead on unsuspecting attackers.
In art we trust
After successive private ownership, the property was purchased by the Hearth Revolving Fund, Belfast, in 1992-3 and sold to the current owners writer Bill Drummond and Mark Manning, both of music group KLF fame, in 1993.
Originally intended as an escapist retreat for the England-resident owners, sporadic habitation forced a rethink and a fascinating creative project ensued.
Bill Drummond established a supervisory trust aptly entitled In You We Trust consisting of himself, a member of Hearth Housing and an artist.
The Trust encourages a series of creative residencies throughout the year at the Curfew Tower, open to any artist, of any age, working within any discipline. The artists can undertake residencies of between one week and one month and the only obligation is that they leave an artwork executed whilst in residence and inspired by their occupancy.
The donated artwork substitutes rent and the trust maintain a simple residency policy which must be adhered to, mostly common sense instructions and ensuring respect to the surrounding community.
Remaining as part of the ‘Curfew Tower Collection’, artworks are exhibited annually at local village venues and in the tower itself. In his writings online Bill Drummond relates how their vision of residency output was challenged by the reality of residencies in practice, with many ‘artworks’ being of a disappointing standard, coercing the trust to introduce an annual competitive award whereby locals are encouraged to view and vote on the artwork created, encouraging professionalism, creative growth and artistic standards.
In an ideal world
This is the problem with such an altruistic but loose endeavour. Relying on human integrity can be a precarious prospect and monitoring a creative project that, to a large degree, is opaque and generous by its nature and yet must ideally fulfil organisation objectives will be trying and difficult.
Though admirable in their vision of encouraging the residencies to have a true connection with the local community, working with the reality of indigenous culture, whatever that may be, and encouraging the acceptance, or at least, open-minded consideration of contemporary art will be a challenging proposition. Similar to Turnly’s hunger for peaceful co-existence, the Curfew Tower project relies on an implicit creative trust and a belief and optimism that can only be applauded.
As Turnly once hoped to establish altruistic ideals within the community, so too do In You We Trust within the artistic community. It is ironic how the Curfew Tower, this enigmatic, idiosyncratic and slightly askew monument to idealism, however misguided or unsuccessful, is still embroiled in visionary experimentation. Francis Turnly may well be very proud.
By Desima Connolly
For further information on the Curfew Tower Residencies contact: In You We Trust, c/o Hearth Housing, 66 Donegal Pass, Belfast BT7 1BU.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation