Balla Round Tower

Balla round tower is the only visible remnant of the monastery founded by St Cronan Mochua in the early part of the 7th century.


Balla Round Tower

Cronan claimed that divine guidance in the form of a cloud led him to a special site at Ros-dairbreach (which when translated means Oak grove). On his arrival a spring of water burst miraculously from the ground, and at the side of this he oversaw the development of his monastery and became the first archbishop of the now redundant See of Balla.

Cronan built a wall – in Irish, a balla – around his religious establishment, to keep some out and others in, and it was this balla that gave the town of Balla its name. While the wall surrounding the monastery provided effective protection for a time, the original church was burned to the ground in the year 780, 143 years after Cronan’s death.

The first thing to strike the observer of the remains of the round tower is the quality of stonework; even individually coloured sandstone blocks appear so placed as to complement one another and all have been carefully dressed so as to preserve that graceful curve that describes the exterior wall.

There is no doubt the tower was once much taller. Contributing to the local schools folklore collection, P. Ó Maolanaigh made the following observations: ‘Balla Round Tower is about twenty-five feet high. It was much higher until the time of the late Canon Gibbons – about 50 or 60 years ago. He wanted to use it as a bell tower. But he considered it too high so he took off the stones for several feet from the top until it now is not much more than one half its former height.’ There is a noticeable difference in the style of masonry close to the top, which suggests a partial rebuild at some time in the past.

It is thought that only 100 or so round towers were built throughout the entire country, of which 65 at least partially remain. Mayo was, and is, well represented in this tradition. Of the five remaining round towers in Mayo this is by far the shortest.

As to the purpose of round towers, speculation is rife. All are associated with medieval religious houses and likely served as bell towers as well as lookouts. As the entrance was invariably several feet from the ground it is thought they also served as places of refuge in times of attack, the monks attaining the doorway by means of a rope or wooden ladder which could then be pulled up behind them.

The ground floor entrance of Balla round tower is widely accepted as being a later insertion. The arrow slits, a defensive feature, are original and can be interpreted as evidence that the resident monks were prepared to resort to violence to protect their wealth.

While all this may have seemed like a good idea it appears not to have worked especially well, for the Annals of the Four Masters record the following events:

AD 1179 ‘Larragh, Ardfert Brennan, Cashel, Tuam, Disert Kellaigh, Kill-Meadhain and Balla were burned this year.’

AD 1226 ‘Hugh O’Connor assembled his troops, with whom, he marched into west Connaught, and from Balla westwards, besides which he burned towns and corn as far as Sliabh Luagha. Many persons were killed by his people… (they) burned from Tuam to Athlone, and killed all they met, who were fitted for service.’

And just ten years later:

AD 1236 ‘MacWilliam Burke proceeded to Balla, and remained there one night… he spread disorder and disturbance through the province of Connaught and left no provision in any church or territory throughout the province.’

It appears that rather than serving as a protection the presence of a round tower only advertised the potential for looting and pillaging.

It should come as no surprise that religion continued to play a prominent role in the history of Balla. In 1801 Dr. James McParlan made the following observations: ‘And this Ba’al is to this day a most extraordinary place of superstitious worship. Here are a couple of small chapels vaulted over a river which runs through the town; and once a year, I think it is in autumn, immense crowds of people swarm from all parts to perform certain circuits and evolutions on their knees, dropping as they proceed in describing these figures, a certain number of beads to various intentions, and in expiation of various sins; but the day closes most cheerfully in eating and drinking. Mr Lynch who lives just at the town assured me that not less than 300 sheep are consumed at this festival.’

Indeed, Balla town became a prominent place of pilgrimage, of which we will learn more as we visit the well and rest house around the corner.