The survival of so many Irish round towers is a tribute to the monks who built them, writes Paul Ross. Along with the harp and the shamrock, the round tower has almost become a symbol of Ireland. From Armoy in north Antrim to Aghadoe outside Killarney, there are sixty-five of these slender and tapering round towers in various degrees of survival. They range from thirteen towers which are complete, and almost as new looking as they were 1,000 years ago, to eight others that are merely stumps not more than three metres (9 ft.) high. There are also about twenty-five sites where towers are known to have stood once. All were built near monasteries of the early Irish Church.
Only seven of the thirty-two counties have no towers – Armagh, Derry, Tyrone (half of the northern six counties), Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath, and Wexford. Galway has the most: six. Clare, Kildare, Kilkenny and Mayo have five each. Dublin has four. One of Galway’s is on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands, and it is all that remains of St. Enda’s famous monastery there. And one of Clare’s is on Scattery Island in the mouth of the Shannon. Donegal’s only tower is on Tory Island, eight miles off the coast.
There’s a tower on Ram’s Island in Lough Neagh, near the Antrim side; another on Inis Cealtra, the beautiful island on the Clare side of Lough Derg; and there are two on Devenish Island in Lower Lough Erne, near Enniskillen, one a perfect specimen, the other the mere foundation of a tower.
Two towers are leaning: the one at Kilmacduagh, Co. Galway, the tallest of all, 34 metres high (102 ft), which leans at about one metre from the vertical; and Kilkenny city’s tower, whose tilt is hardly noticeable. Their survival is a tribute to the men who built them 1,000 years ago.
Why were they built?
“As to why the towers were built there is ultimately only one answer,” states Lennox Barrow, one of the greatest authorities on them. “They were raised to the greater glory of God as symbols reaching up towards heaven to mark in unmistakable fashion the strongholds of the new (Christian) faith, the new centres of Irish civilization.”
Their main practical purpose, though, seems to have been to house the nearby monastery’s most valuable treasure, its founder’s bell. They also served as stores for other treasures in times of danger, as refuges and watch towers. And, of course, as belfries. Apparently the monks climbed inside to the top floor and rang hand bells out of the windows.
Circular belfries set apart from the main monastery buildings are not peculiar to Ireland. They are still to be seen in places like Ravenna in Italy. They would have been familiar to the early Irish monks on their missionary journeys across Europe.
Construction of the towers
The oldest of the towers are believed to date from the last quarter of the 9th century, while the latest ones were built in the 12th century. So some are standing for more than 1,100 years and the latest are nearly 900 years old. The earliest ones were made of rough masonry, but the latest were built with finely dressed blocks, using lime mortar.
The towers were all built according to a standard design. For such tall buildings they had very shallow foundations, some going down only about 0.5 metres, or 1.5 ft, below the ground. The circumference at the base and the thickness of the circular wall varied little. Diameters, doors and windows were also designed according to a uniform plan. This suggests that most of the towers were erected by teams of builders who travelled from one monastery to another.
Only one tower, that on Scattery Island, has its door at ground level. Most doors are at least three metres (9 ft) off the ground, for security reasons. The door was entered by a rope ladder, which could be drawn up into the tower in time of danger, as from Viking raiders. This made the tower a virtually impregnable repository of such monastic valuables as chalices, reliquaries and books. But fire was a hazard, for though the walls and roof were made of stone, the floors and ladders inside were wooden. If the interior was set alight, the stone walls would act as a chimney. Escape would then be impossible for those trapped inside since the windows were too narrow for anyone to escape through.
Most towers have seven floors or storeys, with a small window on four of the middle ones. The top floor normally has four windows, usually facing the cardinal points. These served as look-outs, from which the approach of Vikings could be detected in good time. The bell calling the faithful to their religious duties was also rung from the top floor.
Design and decoration
Nearly all the caps on the thirteen complete towers still surviving were partly or wholly reset in modern times. The cap on the tower of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, regarded as the finest round tower of all, was replaced in 1876. Battlements were later added to some towers, like those in Cloyne and Kilkenny. A few towers, such as that in Timahoe, Co. Laois, all have decorative carving on their doors. The finished tower at Devenish in lower Lough Erne is unique in having a human head carved over each of its four top windows.
Two other towers are also unique in different ways. Probably the most photographed, if not the most beautiful, of all the towers is the one on a hillside overlooking the strand at Ardmore, Co. Waterford. It is unique in having three string courses encircling it outside like belts. And the tower at Kinneigh, near Bandon, Co. Cork, is the only one whose lower part, for six metres from the ground, is hexagonal in design.
Some towers are magnificently situated, like those at Glendalough, at Drumcliff (in the shadow of Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo), at Aghadoe (commanding a panoramic view of the lakes of Killarney), and on top of the Rock of Cashel, though this one is somewhat overshadowed by the cathedral built beside it in the 13th century.
A few towers – such as those at Armoy, Co. Antrim, and at Drumbo, overlooking the Lagan Valley south of Belfast – are in village churchyards. Some, like those at Meelick, near Swinford, Co. Mayo, and at Monasterboice, north of Drogheda, are in the heart of the country. More, such as those in Antrim, Clones and Roscrea are in the centre of towns, while two, at Clondalkin and Swords, are in the suburbs of Dublin city.
And besides the sixty-five towers in Ireland, there are three other Irish round towers that were built by Irish monks abroad. One is at Peel in the Isle of Man and the other two are at Abernethy and Brechin in eastern Scotland.
This article first appeared in The Word , a Divine Word Missionary Publication.