The Round Towers of Ireland
If you were asked ‘what is Ireland’s unique contribution to world architecture?’ What would your answer be? Indeed, the round tower is Ireland’s unique contribution to world architecture, with its 65 surviving structures existing in all but four of the 32 counties of Ireland (Cunningham, 2014). Round towers are still a characteristic feature of the Irish landscape. Many of these towers have been damaged over the centuries and only some of them have been restored (Westport Tourism, n.d.)
What do round towers look like?
Round towers are free-standing structures being shaped like stony sky scrapers and having a conical cap stone on top. In their heyday, most of these ancient edifices were about 30 meters tall and had a solitary doorway that was built several meters above ground level. (Westport Tourism, n.d.).
Surviving towers exist in a variety of states—from a scattering of foundation stones to high towers of more than 30 meters in height. At their structural peak, these towers would frequently be 5-7 storeys in height. The towers had narrow windows and a single doorway, usually high above the surrounding terrain (Cunningham, 2014). Inside, the towers had wooden floors, linked by internal ladders going from one storey to another (Westport Tourism, n.d.) going all the way up to the top storey. At the top, the towers sometimes had a corbelled conical stone roof. Also at the top, usually were four openings (or windows) allowing the bell chimes to “ring out the canonical hours of the monastic day” (Cunningham, 2014).
As far as the appearance of the tower is concerned, the towers can be seen to taper (or narrow) as it rises. The taper is obviously aesthetically pleasing but it also had a vital structural feature— “stabilising the tower as it leaned in on itself” (Cunningham, 2014). This model for construction endured for almost 300 years (Cunningham, 2014).
The variety of stone used for the towers depended on the local availability. For example, Clonmacnoise has fine ashlar— “large, square-cut stones” (Cunningham, 2014)—something that only an aristocratic donor would have been able to fund (Cunningham, 2014).
What was the purpose of the towers?
In the 1800’s, archaeologists and scholars attempted to discern the purpose of the towers. They suggested some eccentric answers—e.g., the towers could have been used for sun worship, or monuments to gods, or as astronomical observatories (Westport Tourism, n.d.). Different interpretations were given, and some scholars understood that they were originally Christian buildings. It was even thought that there was the possibility that the towers were built by Irish followers of Symeon Stylites-- who, in the 5th century A.D., spent his monastic life (36 years) living in isolation on top of a column in the desert of the Middle East, all in an attempt to get closer to God (Westport Tourism, n.d.) and (New Advent, 2021).
George Petrie—a scholar, antiquary, and artist—published a book in 1845 which aimed to show that the round towers had an ecclesiastical function—namely, that they were bell towers. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Irish word associated with the towers is “Cloigtheach” which means ‘bell-house.’ Petrie posited that the ringing of the bell was essential for calling the monks to prayer, in their monastic way of life (Westport Tourism, n.d.).
It had been thought that the round towers had a dual purpose, where they also functioned as a place of refuge—in particular, during Viking attacks. It has been put forward that the monks climbed the ladder and entered the door, only to pull up the ladder and lock the door as soon as possible (Westport Tourism, n.d.). Clearly, however, wooden doors were not durable barriers against fire and the towers often were not built in strategic or safe locations (Westport Tourism, n.d.).
The theory that the monks gathered in round towers to escape the marauding Vikings has long been discounted, in fact. This is because almost all the towers postdate the Viking era, and also because as George Cunningham (2014) writes, the towers were “virtual death traps in times of strife.” He does go on to say however that “they would have been used for temporary refuge during sudden attacks” (Cunningham, 2014).
Like Irish high crosses, the round towers were symbols of the wealth, power and status of the ecclesiastical community and their sponsors or patrons. Some towers possibly functioned as “treasure houses” (Cunningham, 2014) with the large second floor window allowing these treasures to be displayed. It is also possible that a number of the towers may have functioned as ‘scriptoria’ which were places where monks would have written, copied, and illuminated precious manuscripts. However, it should be noted that there was not much natural light inside the towers, which would have provided a hindrance to the scribes’ activities. Of course, the towers also would have been sacred places for worshippers, but Cunningham writes that “we may never know all of the towers’ functions” (Cunningham, 2014).
It is also thought that the function of these towers might centre around graves—where they marked the graves of notable people. In the 1840’s, archaeologists under the guidance of Cork antiquarian John Windele performed excavations at eight round towers, and found human skeletal remains at all of those sites (Cunningham, 2014).
And what about the origin of the round towers?
This is still an open question, writes George Cunningham in his 2014 article named Round towers and tall tales in ‘The Irish Times’. Cunningham wonders “Were they copied from the towers of Ravenna, on the Italian Adriatic, which in turn could have had their origins in the minarets of eastern Europe and north Africa, which in turn had evolved from primitive lighthouses?” (Cunningham, 2014). Or “Were they based on Anglo-Saxon examples?” Or even “copied from the towers of southwestern Europe, specifically those found at the great centres of Christian pilgrimage?” (Cunningham, 2014).
But it is quite possible that the “absolute origin” (Cunningham, 2014) of the Irish round tower might have been the common use of bell towers (or belfries) throughout the Christian world. Take for example the Ravennese bell towers, which likely date from the early 10th century. These are possible contenders for the blueprint for the Irish round tower, albeit with obvious differences (Cunningham, 2014).
It is a fact that the frescoes at the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican show that Antioch, Rome, and Jerusalem all had round towers in the eighth century. This is pointed out by the art historian Peter Harbison. It is possible that Irish pilgrims could have adopted the idea for towers from these places (Cunningham, 2014).
That the round towers were bell-towers (or belfries) — as is indicated by their Irish name—is not questioned any longer by scholars. However, their functions and origins within the physical monastic compound is still debated (Cunningham, 2014).
How were the round towers built?
The builders of these round towers were expertly skilled, and used external scaffolding and pulleys and hoists in order to build the towers (Westport Tourism, n.d.). The same method of construction was used in all the towers—that is, with two walls of block and mortar construction which were built not too far from each other, and the remaining space in between is filled with rock rubble. Incidentally, this was the standard way that the Romans constructed their walls. Experts believe that Christian missionaries learned this method of construction in continental Europe or England and then employed this building technique in Ireland—a method that was used in the construction of their massive round towers (Gray, 1982-2023).
The author Lennox Barrow writes of the dimensions of the towers in his book, Irish Round Towers that "It is remarkable how little the main dimensions vary. In the great majority of towers, the circumference at the base lies between 14 meters and 17 meters and the thickness of the wall at the lowest point at which it can be measured varies from 0.9 meters to 1.4 meters. Doorways, windows, storey heights and diameters also follow clearly defined patterns, and we may well conclude that most of the towers were the work of teams of builders who moved from one monastery to another using standard designs" (Gray, 1982-2023).
It is noteworthy though, that builders did not place much importance on deep foundations for the towers—sometimes only digging foundations of one and a half to three feet below ground level. Nevertheless, the building of the round towers represented big architectural and technological milestones in Irish history (Westport Tourism, n.d.).
Early on, the tower roofs were constructed of wood, and then, because of vulnerability to lightening and fire, stone roofs were introduced in order to mitigate these dangers. The stone roofs were also said to improve the acoustics of the bells ringing in the tower (Westport Tourism, n.d.). Out of all the towers, thirteen of them still retain their conical cap. It is presumed that all the other towers also had similar caps, but have since been lost over the centuries. Battlements, which have been built onto the top of some of the towers, were likely added in the Middle Ages at some point (Gray, 1982-2023).
When were the towers built?
Some round towers reach 34 meters in height, and it is noticeable that these edifices are in excellent condition considering just how old they are. It is not known exactly when the towers were constructed, but scholars have posited that their approximate construction date was between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. This theory is based on the fact that every single tower is based at the location of a known Celtic church—which dates from the 5th to the 12th centuries. These towers were initially freestanding structures, but later in history, churches and monastic buildings were constructed around some of the towers (Gray, 1982-2023).
The annals list the building of a few round towers, though only one tower has a completion date—that is Clonmacnoise at 1124 A.D. That said, historians are not certain about the timing of the construction of the towers (Cunningham, 2014).
How many towers are there?
It is suggested that there are approximately 65 intact towers—with about 25 other towers which are likely in varying states of ruin. However, there are slight variations in these numbers depending on the different opinions of scholars (Cunningham, 2014).
Five of the best-preserved towers in Ireland are in County Mayo. They are located at Balla, Killala, Meelick, Turlough and Aughagower. These round towers are wonderful relics of stone masonry from medieval Christian Ireland (Westport Tourism, n.d.).
A peculiar ancient possibility
[As referenced in Martin Gray’s article “The Round Towers of Ireland,”] the American scientist Philip Callahan wrote in his (2001) book, Ancient Mysteries, Modern Visions: The Magnetic Life of Agriculture, that random physical and geographical arrangements of the round towers throughout the Irish landscape mirror the position of the stars in the northern sky during the time of the winter solstice. Gray goes on to write about Callahan’s observations, saying, “Archaeological excavations at the bases of the towers have revealed that many towers were erected upon the tops of much older graves and it is known that many of the tower sites were considered sacred places long before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. These facts compel us to wonder if the ancient Irish, like the Egyptians, the Mayans and many other archaic cultures understood there to be an energetic resonance between specific terrestrial locations and different celestial bodies. This certainly seems to be the case” (Gray, 1982-2023).
Cunningham, G. in ‘The Irish Times’ (2014). Round towers and tall tales. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/round-towers-and-tall-tales-1.1847765 Accessed 25th of July, 2023.
Gray, M. (1982-2023). The Round Towers of Ireland. Available at: https://sacredsites.com/europe/ireland/tower_of_cashel.html Accessed 25th of July, 2023.
New Advent (2021). St. Simeon Stylites the Elder. Available at: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13795a.htm Accessed 27th of July, 2023.
Westport Tourism (n.d.) The Round Tower. Available at: https://westporttourism.com/the-round-tower/ Accessed 21st of July, 2023.