Ireland’s Round Towers

You might see an unusual architectural wonder in your travels around Ireland known as a round tower. They are almost exclusively an Irish medieval architectural gem, with only two known in Scotland and one in the Isle of Man, although the was a bit of a renaissance and so you can see newer ones in Ireland and other places across the globe.

Round towers range from about 60 to 130 feet high. Earlier examples are rougher in construction, with later versions having fine masonry joints. All seem to have entranceways about three feet up and could then only be accessed by a ladder or stairs. Inside it is believed that there were a series of wooden floors accessed by stairs or ladders. At the highest point there are lookouts and the roof was made of stone as well.

It’s estimated that 120 or so are still around, though possibly many more lie under the surface. They were built between the 9th and the 12th century, by the west door of a church.

Their function is not certain, there’s some suggestion that they were bell towers, though you’re more likely to hear and read that they were used to protect monks and valuables during an invasion, specifically viking invasions. Vikings, being rather ruthless, traveled the ocean and the Irish Sea to raid monasteries, who not only possessed larger quantities of money, but also embellished their illuminated manuscripts with gold. Invaders, whether foreign (most likely) or domestic, were interested in the front cover of the manuscripts and would just about anything to take them. I say just about anything, because the wily Irish began to bury precious monastic items and other possessions of wealth in burial grounds because Vikings were superstitious of digging up graves. However, if the inhabitants were killed, the secret location also died and once in a while a horde, buried centuries ago, is discovered.

However, after excavation work it appears highly unlikely that this would be the case. The round towers would have had wooden doors and floors, which could be burnt out, causing smoke to rise straight up the tower and cause suffocation. There is some evidence of burnt doors, as well as documentation of deaths in the tower for that very reason. It’s also unlikely due to their close proximity to churches, and weak position as a lookout for potential invaders. All this points to the idea that they were more likely used as a belfry, mimicking the European idea but not the design.

Another suggestion is that they marked the status of the monastery and the wealthier or more important churches would possess a round tower. It’s all a bit fascinating and with no real conclusive information, you can hypothesize for yourself.

There are about twenty left in their near original state and probably the most famous and most viewed is at Glendalough in Wicklow Mountains National Park. The round tower at Clondalkin still retains its stone cap roof and is the only one to do so. Five towers can be viewed in various states in County Kildare, Country Kilkenny and County Mayo. Viewing a few is well worth the effort. You might just stumble upon one as you are touring, but if not, try to see if one is in the area you’re at and go see it.


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