Irish Round Towers
Since today is St. Patrick’s Day I wanted to do a post that was somewhat related to him. I feel a sort of affinity for Saint Patrick. Like me, he was born and raised in Wales but captured by Irishmen and dragged over to Ireland where his spirituality blossomed. I’m exaggerating somewhat, for effect, but you get the idea I hope.
Since I moved to Ireland in 2000, I have wondered about the round towers that one sees dotted about the landscape. Above is a photo of one at Turlough that I took last year. I was driving past it regularly back then, and one night there was a full moon which I wanted to capture. I’m not a particularly good photographer but I think it looks kind of atmospheric. It is claimed that Turlough Abbey was founded by St. Patrick in 441 A.D.
Up until I read about round towers in “The Golden Age of Irish Art” by Peter Harbison a few days ago, I thought they were for protecting people and valuables from raids by Vikings and other marauders. However, according to Harbison, the towers actually provided very little protection from that kind of attack. The floors and stairs of the towers were wooden, so a single, well-aimed fire arrow through a window could destroy the whole contents in a fiery inferno. The doors are raised several metres off the ground but I think this was probably to prevent opportunist burglary and access by animals. Here is a summary of what Harbison says about round towers.
About 65 round towers survive in various states of preservation on Ireland’s ancient monastic sites. Considerable discussion has arisen on the purpose and date of these towers, and most would agree that they had multiple functions. The first reference we have found in Irish historical sources is to a tower at Slane, Co. Meath, which was burned by the Vikings in 950 A.D. The towers are visible from a distance and probably served as a beacon to weary pilgrims. The old Irish word for the towers was cloicthech, literally a bell-house. It is possible that the towers were used to store bells that pilgrims carried, and later on to store larger bells which may have been rung in the towers, but the evidence is scant. Other valuables were probably also stored in the towers.
Here are some photos of another local tower, this one ruined. If you click on one of the photos it will take you into a slideshow.
Here is one final picture of Turlough tower that I took last year from the grounds of the National Museum of Country Life.