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Round Towers – The Medieval, Mysterious Marvels Of Ireland

Glendalough Round Tower, Co. Wicklow

I remember sitting in classrooms back home in Ireland many years ago and listening to my teachers depicting scenes for my classmates and I, about our ancestors and of the struggles they fought through. One such set of struggles were those of the Christian monks and priests who were under constant threat of attack from the Vikings of Scandinavia, and from other foreign invaders. The aggressors would come in their droves, in their long slender ships, and pillage all in sight. As the story went, the clever priests would retreat into their tall Round Towers and wait for the attack to end.

Now, being the ever-inquisitive student that I was, I always had issue with this David vs. Goliath type tale. I questioned why, having sailed for what must have been many days or weeks in rough seas, a bunch of hardened warriors would let a tall, scrawny tower stop them from getting what they wanted. If the stories were true, and the priests did in fact hide themselves, as well as any valuables they owned, in these towers, wouldn’t the Vikings just hammer away at it until it fell, or until they broke through the stone walls?
Well as it turns out my doubts may not have been completely unfounded.

Round Towers (Irish: Cloigthithe) were built as high as 130 feet tall with the doorway to the tower positioned approximately 6 to 10 feet from the ground. The tower would often be accessed by a ladder, which in some cases could be pulled up into the tower to prevent unwanted guests from entering. Of course these physical characteristics led historians to believe that the towers were used as safe-houses and lookouts, which of course is very possible in some cases.
But, add to my skepticism the fact that many of these towers had a poor vantage point, and that they would have had wooden doors which would’ve easily burned, these towers could not have been built solely for the protection of their inhabitants. It is known now that the reason the doorway was built so high up was to increase the stability and structural integrity of the building. These towers are pretty small in circumference (40 – 60 feet) and putting a doorway at ground level would’ve dramatically weakened them. Putting the doorway a few feet off the ground was probably a case of “two birds, one stone”. It did provide some amount of protection for the occupant, but more importantly it is the reason many of the towers are still standing, for as many as one thousand years after they were built.

Dysert O’Dea Round Tower, Co. Clare

Many of the Round Towers are known to have been used as bell towers, and there are numerous disputed theories as to why else they may have been built. Theories include belfries, watch towers, granaries, astronomical marks, sepulchers, hermit dwellings, purgatorial pillars, depositories of religious relics, Freemason lodges and others. Whatever theory may hold some truth to it, the towers now stand as another memory to the Ireland of our ancestors.

If your journey takes you to Ireland, you will be lucky enough to be able to find many fine examples of Round Towers. Some are in almost perfect condition, while many others dotting the Irish landscape are in various stages of ruin. As many as 130 once stood tall and proud around the countryside, while a few more were built by our neighbors to the east in Scotland and the Isle of Man. Sadly with the passage of time, many of these marvelous historic buildings are inaccessible for safety reasons. Some can still be climbed, while others just stand idly by for us to photograph and marvel at.

A truly wonderful resource to point your web browser to for more information is RoundTowers.org. They have located, described and photographed over fifty Irish Round Towers, that they have personally visited. Their collection includes many of the finer examples such as the Glendalough Round Tower in County Wicklow, Ardmore County Waterford and Timahoe Round Tower in County Laois, while also including some towers that are in a much poorer state, such as that at Drumcliff in County Clare and Maghera in the Northern Ireland county of Down. At RoundTowers.org you can learn which towers are accessible, which ones lie in ruin, get directions to the towers, and plenty of other details that will help you plan your visit. The owners of that website, Frank and Kathi, have very kindly given me permission to use the photos you see in this article.

I would love to hear about your experiences with Round Towers in Ireland. Did you get to climb one? Did you stand at the bottom and gaze up, and try to imagine how life in Medieval Ireland was? Will you be setting time aside on your next visit to take in a tower or two? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks!

All photos used with kind permission of RoundTowers.org

19 comments

  1. Kim McNamara-Wilson

    LOVE this article!! So interesting! And wonderful pictures, as always!! 🙂

    • Thanks Kim!
      The pictures are great, and there’s hundreds more on RoundTowers.org. Hope you got a chance to check out their website. It must’ve been some adventure travelling around Ireland on a Round Tower hunt.

  2. Round towers are such a part of my Irish childhood memories. Growing up, we took them for granted, but now that I live in America, I realize what a magical, mystical reminder they were of our connections to the past.

    • Mairead

      We certainly do not appreciate what we have at our doorsteps until we move away. But the same could probably be said for most people no matter where they live. We begin to see its value more, as it becomes less accessible.
      Liam

  3. you missed out one of the most impressive on Scattery Island off Kilrush, Co Clare!

  4. We love visiting the round towers across Ireland, and we have always wanted to go up in one that had a cone on it. This was one of the main reasons we went out to Devenish Island in Lower Lough Erne (north of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland). Unfortunately, the tower was not open to climb, and it’s our understanding that no one may go inside any longer… 🙁

    • Kate
      That’s a shame that you can’t climb it anymore, but I suppose it’s probably for good reason. There are some that you still can climb though. RoundTowers.org give that info too 🙂

  5. I remember getting that bum steer at school too. The Vikings get a hard time all right – we tend to accuse them of all sorts while they argue they were just “traders”! Whatever the reasons for the construction of these towers they are remarkable structures built via cables and pulleys and hundreds of disposable slaves…Dark Age Building Regulations were obviously very stringent as so many of them of still intact!

    • Sheila
      I wasn’t the only one who heard that story then 🙂
      And yeah, I’m sure the Vikings were just misunderstood haha. The language barrier and the big axe they’d carry probably contributed to it.

  6. Thanks for pointing them out! I may not have ever noticed! They remind me of the Egyptian obelisk. Those were built as a tribute to their kings. The Irish towers were functional. Very cool! Thanks for coming by!

  7. Irish Round Towers have become my new passion. I’ve visited around 45 (so far!) of the 64-67 Towers that still exist. It’s Mind-Boggling that in a country so RICH in history and so enamored with its past — deservedly so — that so LITTLE is really known about such uniquely ICONIC relics. It can’t even be agreed as to When they were built — although MOST current guess are for SOMETIME between 600 and 1200 AD — SOME claim that they Pre-date Christianity! Most ‘Experts’ can’t agree on When, or Who, or Why they were built; or What they were used FOR, either! They particularly fail to agree as to which Towers are ‘Real’!
    The two best, Modern Sources are George Lennox Barrow’s THE ROUND TOWERS OF IRELAND (1979) and Hector McDonnell’s IRISH ROUND TOWERS (A Wooden Book) from 2005. Even THEY do NOT agree as to the number and location of Towers!
    There are a number of excellent websites relating to Towers:
    http://www.philipcoppens.com/roundtowers.html

    http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/kildare-round-tower/

    http://www.megalithicireland.com/

    http://www.roundtower.de/Home.html

    http://www.libraryindex.com/encyclopedia/pages/cpxksbxdo8/towers-ireland-built-feet.html

    And, if THOSE aren’t confusing enough — Try THIS:
    http://www.whale.to/b/callahan.html

    The Towers at St Brigit’s in Kildare Town, and St Canice’s, in Kilkenny city are climbable — though NEITHER retains their conical cap. The only Tower REPUTED to retain its original cap is Clondalkin’s. Towers were infamously at risk to damaging Lightening strikes!!! Some of the nicer Towers are atClondalkin, Glendalough, Cashel, Kilmacduagh, Ratoo, Ardmore, Clonmacnoise and Devenish. The ruined stump at Aghagower, just South of Westport, has had a relatively modern, ground level door cut into it (as have a few others) — but there is NO gate barring entry — so it is possible to step inside, to soak up the EXPERIENCE — unencumbered by floors or roof!
    FYI — Twice as many Towers were pillaged, burned and ruined by rival Irish clans, then ever the Vikings did. Also, for what it is worth — Round Towers were Death Traps! Their chimney-like design assured that anybody inside would die of smoke inhalation almost as soon as the wooden door was set alight. There are a NUMBER of entries in the Annals, attesting to that!
    I have a number of Round tower photos, collected in SETS, by Tower Name, at Flickr. They can be seen, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/itallian_chauffeur/sets/

    Bob Emprimo The Italian Chauffeur

    • Bob

      There’s some great info in that comment you left – thank you! It sounds like you really are a true Round Tower fan!
      I’m looking forward to going back through the links you sent again, when I have a bit more time.
      Thanks

      Liam

  8. By the way — County Cork has only two remaining towers at Cloyne and Kinneigh. There WERE Towers near Mitchelstown, Rosscarbry and Cork City – but the either fell in storms, or were torn down. Kinneigh, which is near Enniskean, is unique, in that it is the only universally akwnowledged ‘REAL’ Tower that has an octagonal base.

    Bob