The Complete Guide to Irish Round Towers

The mysterious origins of Ireland's monastic structures

Round Tower and Graveyard in Glendalough Early Monastic Site, County Wicklow, Ireland
George Munday/Design Pics/Getty Images

Ireland’s most iconic structures are probably the romantic castles which dot the countryside, but some of its ancient buildings are a bit more mysterious. The Irish round towers have long intrigued scholars and history buffs, who have studied these free-standing pillars across the Emerald Isle.

In Irish, the towers are known as Cloigtheach – or bell towers, in English. However, there remains some debate about what these ancient towers were first created to do, and why the round structures only seem to exist in Ireland.

Here is what to know about Irish round towers, and how to visit them as you explore the many corners of the Republic and Northern Ireland.

History

Built between the 9th and 12th centuries across Ireland but found nowhere else in the world, the Irish round towers remain a somewhat mysterious medieval structure. The stone towers had doors elevated off the ground, which seem to have always faced the west door of a nearby church. This proximity to places of worship suggest that the towers were used by Ireland’s early Christian monks in some way.

The Irish word for a round tower is cloigtheach, literally “the house of the bell,” and the now lonely-looking towers were likely used as belfries attached to, or facing, churches. The complete towers are usually topped with conical roofs and bell tests from the top levels prove that the sound would have carried well if bells really once rang here.

It is more than likely that the towers would have doubled up as observation platforms to warn the monks of approaching raiders, and some theorize that this is why the towers first appear after the Viking raids began in Ireland.

If you have a tower, why not use it? However, round towers would not have built for this sole purpose and have some serious flaws as a defensive structure. For one, the missing arrow slits and other military details would have made the tower useless for defense, though it may have given monks and local populations some early warning of impending danger.

The towers themselves probably would not have been safe places to hide as the danger arrived. Shaped like chimneys with wooden doors, raiders could easily have set fire to parts of the tower, leading to disaster for anyone still inside. All that evidence suggests that any defensive features were probably secondary.

In the same way, round towers probably were used to hide away precious objects because they were high and dry and it would have been a waste of space not to store some valuables in them. These would have been safe from the elements, rodents, and even the odd passing thief but would not have stopped determined raiders.

Other Theories

Experts are pretty certain the Irish round towers were built as a part of monasteries and churches but because there is no single answer about their origins, there are plenty of competing theories out there which can be entertaining but which usually ignore Irish history. Regardless of their origin, the round towers are one of the most intriguing of Ireland's man-made wonders, but here are a few of the crazier ideas about the background of the Irish round towers.

One of the most far-fetched explanations for the impressive Irish erections was dreamt up by Henry O'Brien in 1832, who came to the conclusion that the pillars of stone were the visible legacy of a Buddhist cult which pre-dated St.

Patrick.

In 1724, Thomas Molyneux published "A discourse concerning the Danish mounts, forts, and towers," and claimed that Danish Vikings built the round towers after arriving in Ireland. However, the time frame does not fit the theory since the Viking invasions happened after the first round towers were built. 

Some other theories may seem to hold water at first but then crumble when closely examined. For example, so have suggested that the towers served a special monastic purpose, helping the monks quiet life somewhere out of the way. Irish monks liked to be left alone and some may even have tried to emulate the stylites, living saints living on pillars. Hence the round tower was considered as a place where a stylite lived. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that anyone ever lived permanently in a round tower and a single man living in a round tower would have been like modern hermit occupying the Empire State Building on his own.

What we know for (fairly) certain is that the Irish round tower is a unique piece of ecclesiastical architecture that only flourished in Ireland. But, who built the first one and whether it was inspired by vaguely similar European buildings, remains up for debate.

Where to Find Irish Round Towers

If you are on the search for a bit of Irish history and know where to look, you can find round towers in the many parts of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Their state of decay varies but many of the round towers are worth seeking out for a taste of medieval Ireland. Because of their association with churches, the towers are often found next to places of worship, near monasteries, or inside cemeteries. That being said, there should be a round tower in just about every county in Ireland, with very few exceptions.

At one time, there were probably around 120 Irish round towers. Today, about 20 are still standing in great condition, while most lie in ruins. Some of the best preserved Irish round towers can be found at:

  • Glendalough, the monastic site in the Wicklow Mountains is probably the most famous Irish round tower of them all.
  • Lusk, 14 miles north of Dublin city center, has a bell tower-like round tower attached to the Church of Ireland in the main village.
  • Kilmacduagh Monastery in County Galway. The round tower in Kilmacduagh is the tallest ancient tower and rises up 113 feet (34.5 meters) above the ground.
  • The Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland's most famous castles. This tower is attached to a church which was built later.
  • Ballyduff in County Kerry is home to the Rattoo round tower, the only complete Irish round tower in the county.
  • Timahoe, near Portlaoise in County Laois.
  • Turlough Abbey in County Mayo.

 

How to Visit

Most of Ireland’s round towers can be enjoyed as a unique part of the local landscape. There are very few Irish round towers built outside of Ireland so their high walls and particular shape are tied to the Emerald Isle. The towers listed above are some of the most famous complete towers (many more lie in ruins) but it is also possible to climb inside of the towers which remain in the best condition.

If you want to truly experience an Irish round tower by exploring the interior, the best towers to visit are:

  • The tower at St Canice's Cathedral, also known as Kilkenny Cathedral, in Kilkenny.
  • The well-preserved tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh can be climbed, and there is also an incomplete round tower attached to the still-standing one.
  • Though it is a modern recreation, the round tower built above Daniel O'Connell's tomb at Glasnevin Cemetery is popular with fans of Ireland’s patriots.
  • The Cathedral Church of St. Brigid, Kildare in County Kildare has a round tower which is sometimes open for the public to climb.

However, if the goal is to see as many round towers as possible, County Mayo, Country Kilkenny, and County Kildare have the most (five towers each).

 

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