The Round Towers of Ireland

John Healy
The Round Towers of Ireland
Clochan, or Oratory, of St. Gallerus, Dingle

Clochan, or Oratory, of St. Gallerus, Dingle

THE re-publication of O’Brien’s “Essay on the Round Towers” (By Henry O’Brien, Esq. New Edition, London, 1898) at the present time shows that the question of their origin and uses, which was so warmly debated one hundred years ago, is still regarded by many as an open and interesting one.

No man of intelligence can ever gaze on one of these inscrutable sentinels of the past without asking himself who built it, and why it is so different from everything else that we see in Ireland, or even in other countries.

It was thought by many well-informed persons that Petrie’s famous “Essay on the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers” had for ever settled the question. But the warm Celtic imagination, dissatisfied with the present, revels in the far-distant past; and, proudly pointing to the Pillar Towers of his native land, the Irishman will tell you that they were built by his ancestors long before Caesar’s legions conquered the half-naked savages of Britain.

O’Brien’s essay of itself is not worthy of serious refutation. The style is puerile and turgid, the alleged facts are often wholly unfounded, the quotations are inaccurate, and sometimes the arguments are quite silly.

The writer, too, though very dogmatic, frequently shows gross ignorance of Irish history, as, for instance, when he describes St. Patrick as entering on his prescribed task—the conversion of Ireland—towards the close of the fifth century, and makes Cormac—the first Bishop of Cashel, as he calls him, and the author of the famous Glossary, who was killed in A.D. 907—a personal disciple of St. Patrick, and a convert to Christianity in the same fifth century!

His main argument, that the towers were pre-Christian, is founded on a statement, made in the “Annals of Ulster” under date of the year A.D. 448, that fifty-seven of these Towers were overthrown in that year by an earthquake; whereas the entry is an exact and textual reproduction, from the “Chronicle of Marcellinus,” of a passage describing the damage caused by an earthquake, not in Ireland, but in the “Imperial City” of Constantinople!

He argues that these Irish Towers must have been built by the Tuatha De Danaan, because the two great battlefields on which they fought are called Magh Tuireadh, which means, he says, the “Field of the Towers”; although nobody ever asserted there was a Round Tower at or near either field, or within miles of them.

Why such an essay should get a second prize of £20 from the Royal Irish Academy is more than we can well understand, except it were given, not in recognition of the merits of the work, but, to borrow the phrase of the author himself, as “an eleemosynary deodand.”

The author rewarded their liberality by denouncing their refusal to award him the first prize—which they had most deservedly assigned to Petrie“as an act of the most aggravated injustice.”

The history of the controversy regarding the Round Towers is very curious. The celebrated Giraldus de Barri, writing early in the thirteenth century, with the accuracy of an observant critic, describes them as ecclesiastical towers, built in the fashion of the country, lofty, round, and narrow. He unfortunately says no more; but this much is important, for it shows that the Towers formed part of the ecclesiastical establishments of the time, and hence may be fairly assumed to be of ecclesiastical, and, therefore, of Christian origin.

The statement that they were built in Irish fashion—more patriæ—seems to imply that the type was Irish, and, although it was doubtless originally borrowed, it came to be regarded as characteristic of Ireland.

Dr. John Lynch, of Galway, Sir James Ware, Peter Walsh, and Molyneux, who all wrote in the seventeenth century, attribute, with more or less hesitation, the origin of the Towers to the Danes. Walsh, who knew least about the subject, speaks most confidently, and asserts that the Towers were built by the heathen Danes “to serve as watch-towers against the natives.”

It is enough to say that there is not a shred of evidence in support of this theory. The Danes, neither at home nor abroad, ever built a Tower of this peculiar type; and they are to be found in many parts of Ireland which, though often raided, were never occupied even temporarily, by the Danes.

No Irish scholar at the present time adheres to this hypothesis of the Danish origin of the Towers, although it was common enough during the greater part of the last century.

The last, and worst, writer of any note who maintained the Danish origin of the Towers, was the notorious Ledwich, whose pretensions to antiquarian learning are justly scoffed at by all discerning critics.

It was towards the close of the last century that General Vallancey, a much more respectable writer than Ledwich, put forward for the first time, with a great show of antiquarian learning, his own theory of the pagan origin and uses of the Round Towers; and, strange to say, his views, with various modifications, were supported by really learned men like Lanigan, O’Connor, D’Alton, Beaufort, and others of less note.

Vallancey’s “Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language,” in which he puts forward these views, was first printed in 1772, and reprinted in 1781.

The Towers, according to Vallancey, were fire-temples where the Druids kept the sacred fire perpetually burning, from which all the people were obliged to light their own fires once a year; and “they were certainly,” he added, “of Phœnician construction.” But his arguments are mere fanciful conjectures, based on the alleged similarity of the terms applied to such towers in the Irish and Oriental languages.

There were not wanting, however, various writers who undertook to maintain the Christian and ecclesiastical origin of the Towers, but sometimes, by their foolish arguments, they rather injured than served the cause which they undertook to champion.

Whilst Irish opinion was thus divided on the subject, the Royal Irish Academy, with a view, if possible, to decide the question, offered, in 1820, a prize of a gold medal and £50 to the author of an “approved essay” on the Round Towers, which, they hoped, would remove the uncertainty in which their origin and uses were involved.

Amongst the rival candidates for the Academy’s prize were Petrie and O’Brien. The former produced a most accurate and elaborate treatise on the whole question of ancient Irish architecture, which gained the prize, and, speaking generally, has brought conviction to the minds of its readers.

With some minor modifications, the theory which it advocates of the Christian origin of the Towers has been adopted by almost all Irish scholars ever since. No one now maintains O’Brien’s theory that the Towers were built by the Tuatha De Danaan for the phallic worship which they carried with them all the way from their original homes in Persia.

In 1867 Marcus Keane published a work in which he boldly challenges the conclusions of Petrie and Dunraven, who still further expounded and somewhat modified the views of Petrie; and he maintains that not only the Round Towers, but also the crosses and stone-roofed churches, are entirely of heathen origin.

A still later writer, Mr. Brash, whose work on “The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland” was published in 1875, whilst assenting to many of Petrie’s views, expressly declares that he does not believe in the ecclesiastical character of the Round Towers, so that the latest writer on the subject flatly contradicts the earliest statement on the same question made by Giraldus Cambrensis.

With all modesty, therefore, but with no doubt, we venture to summarise our own views on the question, which in the main are those of Petrie, but modified by the reservations of Dunraven and Miss Stokes.

Petrie was the first writer who set about the investigation of the question in a rational and scientific method. Instead of indulging in vain speculations, regarding fanciful resemblances between the names and aspects of the Round Towers and other buildings in Eastern countries, he set about a careful and systematic examination of the Towers themselves, and at the same time collected every reference made to them in our ancient annals and unprinted manuscripts. In this way he was enabled to reason from facts—from existing facts and from historical facts—and was thus in a position to prove his conclusions by unassailable evidence.

First of all he showed that there were no buildings of any kind—leaving the Towers out of the question—in pre-Christian Ireland built with lime-cement, or with any other cement.

We have many existing examples of the cromlechs or dolmens in their most ancient form; we have the great sepulchral chambers of Dowth and New Grange, certainly dating from pagan times; we have grand old pagan fortresses like Dun Aengus and Dun Connor on Aran Mor, which are also certainly pre-Christian, and constructed with considerable skill; we have also some clochans, or stone cells, which appear to date back to the same period; but in all these structures there is not a trace of cement of any kind. They are all built dry, and for the most part of stones which were never touched by the hammer.

It is only in the earliest types of the Christian churches that we first note the use of lime-cement; and as it was certainly used in the construction of all the Towers, the conclusion is inevitable that they belong, not to the pagan period of dry walls, but to the Christian period of lime-cement.

Again, a Round Tower has never been found except in immediate connection with some Christian church. Even where the ruins of the church have disappeared, its site can be traced in the neighbourhood of the Tower, and its existence can be proved from our annals.

This surely points to the fact that the use of the Tower was in some way closely connected with the use of the church, and that the men who built the one, or their representatives, also built the other, especially as we find that in many cases—for instance, at Kilmacduagh—the masonry of the church and of the Tower is of the same character, and obviously belongs to the same period.

Even the most unprofessional eye can detect the very striking resemblance which exists between the workmanship in the two buildings, so that the conclusion is inevitable that both belong to the same period of ecclesiastical architecture.

Furthermore, the Irish name for the Round Tower invariably used by the annalists is cloic-theach—that is, bell-house—which certainly goes to show that one of the uses of the Round Tower was to serve as a belfry for the church and monastery close to which it stood.

It has been said that the word might also mean stone-house, which is possibly true; but it has never been so applied, for when the annalists wish to distinguish the stone church from those built of other materials, they use the word daimhliag to express the house of stone; nor can any instance be produced where the term cloic-theach has been used to express that idea.