Remarks on the Round Towers of Ireland (continued)

The existing towers have frequently suffered injury; but their altitude in their present condition varies from twenty-five to one hundred and thirty-three feet. Their usual circumference near the base is from forty to fifty feet. They frequently, but not uniformly, spring from a projecting plinth, and diminish gradually as they ascend. In some remaining towers the roof is of a conical shape, and there is every reason to conclude that this was originally the shape of all. Battlements now crown the summit of several of them, but appear to have been added long after the erection of other parts of the structure. The doorway is raised to the height of several feet, generally from ten to twenty above the level of the ground. There are seldom any apertures for admitting light, except near the summit, where four small windows, pointing to the cardinal points, are to be seen in some of them. Both doors and windows are in general oblong openings, of less breadth at the top than the bottom—a feature characteristic of the old Pelasgic and Egyptian styles of architecture. Arched windows, with carved mouldings and sculptured decorations, are sometimes to be met with; but these deviations from the general mode of building may, with great probability, be ascribed to the early Christian priests, who, in later years, converted them to the purposes of Christianity: for, as I may here observe, it was the policy of the Christian missionaries not so much to impair the reverence which the people entertained for their ancient places of worship, as to change the object of their adoration from a false to a true God.

There are no traces of stairs in any of these towers, yet the interiors have in many instances projecting rests at different heights, as if for flooring-joists to rest on. These pillar-towers are almost exclusively confined to Ireland. Two have been met with in Scotland,[21] but it is easy to imagine that the prevalent taste for such buildings in Ireland, would lead to their imitation in one or two instances in a country so near, and inhabited by descendants of the same race. A few buildings somewhat resembling them, that is, long narrow towers, have been seen in the eastern countries, but none of them are of the construction which an observer acquainted with those in Ireland would pronounce at once, and without hesitation, to be a Turaghan [22] or Pillar-tower.

Such are the leading facts connected with them: the conjectures on their use are equally numerous and vague. They have been pronounced by some to have been the residence of hermits, like the Stylites [23] of the eastern countries, who spent their lives on the tops of elevated pillars; but history affords no grounds on which to rest the opinion. If such had been their use, the names of some of the inmates of the buildings, in whose construction so much expense and ingenuity had been employed, could not have passed away unnoticed. They are supposed by some to have been Danish watch or signal-towers; but their situation in low and sheltered places at once contradicts this supposition.

They are also said to have been belfries; but it is apparent that their application to such a purpose must have been long subsequent to their erection, and only in a few instances, as the greater number of perfect towers now remaining exhibit no traces of the insertion of beams in the masonry for the suspension of a bell: besides which, the silence of history, as to the period of their erection, furnishes undeniable negative evidence to the opinion that they were originally built in the early ages of Christianity, for any ecclesiastical purpose whatever. The founding of cathedrals, churches, abbeys, hospitals, and even belfries, is carefully noted in the annals. The erection of a structure so singular as that of a Round Tower would surely not have been passed over in silence in every instance; we should have some note of a few of them at least. Although, therefore, they may have been applied to ecclesiastical uses by those who introduced Christianity into Ireland, or by some of their successors, there are no data for connecting their foundations or originality of purpose with that era.


[21] One is situated at Brechin, the other at Abernethy.

[22] The name Tur-aghan, literally the "tower of fire," warrants the supposition that these pillars were connected with the ancient worship of fire. The word agh, signifying "fire" in the Irish language, is frequently compounded in the names of places in whose vicinity traces of Druidic structures may be discovered: as Aghadoe, "the field of fire," near to which stands one of these towers.

[23] Mr. Harris conjectures that the round towers were erected for the reception of the anchorite monks termed Stylites, from the practice of living in a pillar. Simeon, an enthusiast of the fourth century, was the first who adopted this singular mode of penance.