A Summary of Irish Round Towers

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so here’s something I wrote earlier about a summary of Round Towers, which will put my  post on the Taghadoe Round Tower in perspective- I hope!. After Taghadoe, I realised how little I remembered about them. Shocking really. So I brushed up on reading about them and wrote down all the important points you need to know. Irish Round Towers by Roger Stalley is the perfect book on Round Towers, pretty much what you’ll find below…
There are just over 80 Round Towers in existence in Ireland at the moment, all over the Island. This tells us there must have been a fair few more but 80 is quite a number. they are usually found near Christian sites such as Churches or Monasteries, so we know they came into fruition during the Early Medieval Period. First recordings of them come from the Annals at around 950 AD, with the last reference reported in 1238 AD. Round Towers are free standing structures, built of stone that usually extend t a height of 90 or 100 feet. A doorway was the usual way to enter and that was placed high above ground, probably for defensive reasons, but more importantly, structural reasons. Inside,  the tower was divided into several storeys, and a step ladder was climbed to reach the top. The top of the tower was shaped by a conical stone roof and received light from four windows. Interestingly, as the towers rose, the diameter decreased, again probably for structural reasons.

Now why were they built? There are many theories: as Fire Temples (worship of the sun), astronomy towers, Phallus worship (!), penitential tower, sun-dials, bell-tower , places of refuge, look out towers, to name but a few! The fact that they are associated with monasteries and churches can rule out ideas such as sun worship, or even phallus symbolism! It seems more likely that they were used as bell- towers, and as places of refuge and as look out towers. As bell-towers, they would be ideal as the stone would ring further, but no large bells were ever survived. There references in history as cloigtheach (bell tower) is noticeable and perhaps hand bells were rung by monks, though it’s hard to imagine monks running up and down the towers daily.

They seem to make ideal places of refuge initially as well with high doors off the ground, until you read of a few documented killings and burnings within Irish History. It gives is evidence for their use as hiding places but due to these documented accounts, you wonder how effective they actually were as places of protection. No doubt built as status symbols by the church, raiders would not be too taxed in finding a local monastery simply by finding the round tower on the horizon.

Around the world there are some parallels like in Italy, Southern France and Catalonia where detached towers are common by about the 10th Century. They are so diverse however, lacking conical roofs, or have more windows means that they weren’t a direct carbon copy, if they ever were an influence. Unlike the towers in Scotland and the Isle of Man which seem to have been made in the image of Irish Round Towers…

So there you have it!
Sources: Irish Round Towers by Roger Stalley

2 comments on “A Summary of Irish Round Towers

  1. daithi82 says:

    Round towers are very interesting structures and perhaps we will never be able to agree completely on what their main purpose was. It could very well have been the status symbol idea combined with an impressive bell tower. Unfortunately people writing at the time didn’t always record stuff they felt was obvious or everyday so I’m sure there will always be debate concerning them.

  2. Hey Dave,

    They are really fascinating alright, probably just the sheer oddity of them really in comparison to the churches and the castles we are used to seeing. I agree about their use – it was probably multi-purpose or else changed function over time. It would be nice to know more yes, though the mystery always gets us thinking more doesn’t it? 🙂

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