Ancient Ireland [2] : The Round Towers

One unusual, mysterious but distinctive feature of the ancient Irish landscape was the Round Tower. Many of these are still well preserved and can be seen at, mainly monastic, sites across Ireland today. At the time they were built they would have been exceptionally prominent features in a largely untamed landscape. They were defensive but also prestigious.

Cashel 3

Rock of Cashel, Co, Tipperary

In Cornwall last week I came across a shop selling all sorts of stones, crystal jewellery, mystical artefacts and esoteric books. On the bookshelves was a little book called “Irish Round Towers” by Hector McDonnell. It isn’t just a geographical list of towers but also tells something of their history, building methods used, the siting of the towers and their windows and doors. There’s speculation about their purposes and there are comparisons with other towers in mainland Europe, such as minarets, campanile, clock towers and lighthouses. I’m amazed that the map shows that 97 Irish round towers were scattered across the country of which 73 still stand and the gazetteer includes very brief notes about each one.

Irish round towers

In his introduction McDonnell writes ;

The round towers of Ireland are by far the largest relics of the ancient Irish church. Some are over 30 metres tall. They were always built as part of monastic sites, and while some still dominate the landscape around the greatest Irish monasteries, others now stand completely alone, as all other traces of the monasteries that built them have now vanished. They are as pure an expression of geometry as architecture can offer, their slim stone and mortar cylindrical bodies topped with conical stone cap roofs. Usually they are freestanding, though a few are incorporated into churches, in particular at two of the most important of all Irish monastic sites, Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.”

Only four towers have a page of description each : Ardmore, Cashel, Clones and Devenish.

I came across just three in my travels: Cashel, Glendalough and Ardmore.

Cashel, Co. Tipperary

Rock of Cashel from road

The Rock of Cashel from the Road

Cashel 1

Cashel 2

The Rock of Cashel Round Tower

Saint Patrick is said to have visited Cashel (a huge outcrop of limestone rock which can be seen for miles around) and baptised the reigning king of Munster here in the 5th century. The round tower is the oldest building on the rock and was built in the 11th century. Its entrance is 12 feet from the ground. Hector McDonnell explains that defenders of the monastery could pull up their ladders during an attack. However, some have ground floor doorways and others are so high that ladders tall enough to reach them would not fit inside!

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Glendalough is a famous monastic settlement within a beautiful valley in the Wicklow Mountains. The site was founded in the 6th Century and, as at Cashel, besides the tower there are churches, crosses and graves. At one time there were three towers but now only two remain, the third having collapsed in a storm in 1818. There is one complete and capped tower standing alone and a further, capped tower attached to St Kevin’s church. The third tower was attached to Trinity church.

The monastery at Glendalough was founded by St Kevin, who died in 618. The tower is reported to be 11th century. A near-perfect tower in a most beautiful, stunning landscape.

Glendalough 1

 Arriving at Glendalough

Glendalough 2

Approaching the former Monastic Settlement at Glendalough

Glendalough 3

The Round Tower, Glendalough

Ardmore, Co. Waterford

Ardmore round tower

The Round Tower at Ardmore

Ardmore tower is a “noble survivor” according to McDonnell. The sandstone block tower is probably 12th century and stands within the grounds of the fifth century monastic foundation of St Declan.

Now that I have checked the location of Devenish Tower I find that I only just missed it. It stands on an island in Lower Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh, near to where I spent a few days towards the end of the trip. I also drove through part of Clones but I was unaware of the presence of the tower. Of course, one always has to leave something until one’s next visit!

14 comments on “Ancient Ireland [2] : The Round Towers

  1. Declan O'Brien says:

    Only 2 of these Round Towers in Ireland can be climbed (for a small fee). These are the towers in Kildare and Kilkenny!

  2. Oh, Barbara, I have been to Devenish – a wonderful memory, and also to White Island and seen the ancient figures. So long ago, though, that my pictures are all…er…paper, and are among crumbling thousands that would be need to be scanned if they are to last.

  3. ms6282 says:

    Good post Barbara

    I’ve seen the Kildare tower, but only from train going to and from Portleash and to Galway as it’s next to the train line.

    I went up the KIlkenny tower a few years ago – a bit scary as I’m not so good with heights. I think the Vikings would have got me if I lived in the times when the towers were being used for their original purpose!

    • I’m sure on your trips to Ireland you must have seen others! I never knew about the Kilkenny one even though Declan (above) and family lived there for many years. I’m OK about heights but might change my mind when I get there!

      • ms6282 says:

        I have been to Cashel and Glendaloch, so saw those two. And I saw one travelling towards Tipperary once, but don’t know where it was!

  4. Martin says:

    Fascinating post Barbara. I’m sure you will help to promote interest in such historic buildings and their details, purpose etc through your beautifully concise articles

  5. nilly says:

    I love these towers too, sometimes depicted on Victorian carved bog oak jewellery. They remind me a little of Norfolk round tower churches.

    • I didn’t know that about the jewellery and coming from Norfolk I should also have thought about the fascinating round tower churches. Well, perhaps it was subconscious thought that drew them to my attention. Thanks making me see the similarity.

  6. […] lane. Follow this road up to a T-junction and continue straight on until you reach the 12th-century Round Tower, which rises to a height of just over 29m, and the ruins of and the ruins of a Cathedral and […]

  7. […] both lakes to ‘Monastic City’ as it has been dubbed. The round towers I wrote about earlier but there is also a church, a cathedral, numerous graves and crosses and other ruined monastic […]

  8. […] towers or that they were used as refuges from Viking attacks. Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir has a post on the towers she visited during her trip to Ireland recently. This website has an interesting discussion of the various […]

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