What the Hell Are the Round Towers?
Years ago, visiting the gorgeous medieval town of Kilkenny, an eye-catching building came into my sight. It was a pencil-shaped tower on the far side of the town.
I wanted to look closer, so I crossed the town and reached the wonderful St Canice’s Cathedral, where the tower is located just beside the Cathedral over the churchyard.
I discovered I could visit it and climb up to the top.
I had no hesitation in doing so, but honestly, I got a bit scared when I found out that the foundations of the tall and very thin tower are remarkably shallow only 0.7 meters!
What adventure! The tower is 30m high and tapers from 4.5m to 3.3m in diameter. I had 121 steps and seven floors ahead of me before reaching the platform at the summit. The view of the beautiful city and stunning surrounding landscape was a real reward.
It lasted few seconds before I realised how small the platform was. The height dizzied me, and my legs wobbled under me.
I just wanted to touch the ground as quickly as possible, and I rushed down the ladders catching my breath back when I was on the churchyard again.
I was fascinated by the round towers though, so I asked myself what they were, who built them, when and why. I dug deeper into this, and the story is as follows.
Round Towers are peculiar features of the Irish skyline which give the surrounding landscape a dramatic impact.
They were free-standing structures shaped as a stony tube and usually covered by a conical roof of stone. They were built from the early tenth to the early thirteenth century-spanning over three hundred years of history.
Essentially they were elongated beehive huts built with local stones bound together with lime mortar. Probably the technique came to Ireland with the Christian Missionaries in the 5th century.
Because of a standard design and similar dimensions, it is believed teams of builders moved from one monastery to another.
They were around 30m high with a circumference measuring between 14m and 17m; the thickness of the wall varies between 0.9m to 1.4m. They had a single doorway, typically built several metres above the ground (1.5m-4.5m) and facing a monastery or an Abbey.
Inside wooden floors divided the space in storeys (usually 6-7) and the last one, under the roof, was illuminated by four windows. Step wooden ladders led to the upper floors placed against the wall.
Their silhouettes have a natural elegance due to the gradual reduction in diameter as the tower’s height increases; also, this is what makes round towers so durable.
They were built with external scaffoldings showing the builders had very skilled expertise in the use of pulleys and hoists.
At first, the roofs were made of wood and then, because of vulnerability to fire and lightning, the stone roofs were introduced to reduce the dangers. Also, the stone roofs improved acoustics and bells’ resonance.
Irish builders didn’t care about the importance of deep foundations, which, in some cases, were only at 0.5-1 m below the ground level or over graves.
Anyway, the building of the round towers represents a significant technological and architectural milestone in Irish society throughout history.
During the nineteenth century, archaeologists and scholars tried to discover the purpose of the towers. They came to eccentric answers: round towers could have been used as fire temples (for sun worship), astronomical observatories or monuments to Priapus.
Some of them understood they were Christian buildings and gave different interpretations. They could have been built by the Irish followers of St Symeon Stylites, who spent his life in isolation on top of a column or used as a penitential tower.
In 1845 George Petrie (artist, scholar and antiquary) published a book in which he demonstrated the religious origin and function as bell towers of these peculiar buildings. This theory seems to be also confirmed by the Irish word “Cloigtheach”, meaning bell-house.
He also showed the towers were associated with monasteries where the ringing of the bell was essential for the monastic life calling the monks to prayers.
Other investigations encouraged the belief they were places of refuge used, especially during the Viking invasions. It was easy to imagine monks climbing up a ladder to the doorway, taking refuge inside, pulling up the ladder and locking the wooden door.
However, wooden doors could be easily burned or broken down, and often, rounds towers weren’t built in a safe and strategic position.
So one can conclude that the towers were erected as bell towers and only secondly as a refuge during emergencies.
They are magnificent relics of medieval Christian Ireland and superb examples of medieval stone masonry in the County.
Among them,the most suggestive round towers are located at Glendalough in Co. Wicklow, Clonmacnoise in Co. Offaly, Monasterboice in Co. Louth and Kilkenny.
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