The Round Towers of Ireland

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

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Another striking fact which goes to show that the Towers were primarily intended for places of refuge, has been well brought out by Miss Stokes. That learned lady has given a map showing that the Towers were built in those places which, as our annals show, were most subject to the Danish raids—that is, along the great waterways of the country; whereas none of the Towers are to be found in the remoter inland districts that were beyond the reach of the northern pirates. There is strong evidence, too, to show that they were built within the existing cemeteries that surrounded the churches, for in several cases where excavations have been made within the Towers, numerous skeletons have been found beneath the foundations, lying east and west in the Christian fashion.

From this it may be fairly inferred that the Tower was built within a Christian churchyard, which would never have been done except for the urgent need of erecting these Towers of refuge as near as possible to the church, so that the clergy might, in case of sudden alarm, betake themselves with their treasures to these convenient and admirably designed strongholds.

It has been said that if the Towers were built within historic times, some notices of the date of their erection would be found in the annals of the country. It was not usual, however, for the annalists to note the foundation of the churches or other buildings in connection with them, although they very frequently notice the dates of their pillage or destruction. And so also we find reference to the burning of the Towers, with all the people and treasures they contained: which goes to confirm our view that they were primarily built to serve as strongholds for the protection of the ecclesiastics and treasures of the Church.

On the main question, therefore, we think that Petrie has completely proved his theory of the Christian origin of the Towers; but as to the limits of the period during which they were erected, his views are, we think, fairly open to question. He holds that they were erected at various periods between the fifth and the thirteenth century, and he seems to think that the primary purpose for which they were intended was to serve as belfries. Here we venture to dissent from the learned Petrie, and, to put our views briefly, we hold that:—

(a) The Towers were primarily designed to serve as strongholds for the protection of the ecclesiastics, and as keeps for the preservation of the treasures of the Church during the turbulent times of the Danish wars in Ireland.

(b) We think they were erected at different times during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, although some may have been repaired at later dates.

(c) They also served as belfries, and naturally took their name from a usage which was every day obvious to the people

(d) They were also designed to be watch-towers, from which the approach of an enemy could be noticed at a great distance; and this was the real purpose of raising them so high over the surrounding buildings. They were, generally speaking, about 120 feet in height.

These conclusions will be obvious to those who carefully observe the construction of the Towers in the light of the history of the times.

The entrance door was narrow, so that only one person could enter at a time; and it was always placed at a considerable height above the ground, not less, generally speaking, than from ten to fifteen feet. The walls, too, were at least three feet in thickness at the level of the doorway, which had two strong doors, one behind the other, with the thickness of the wall between them. It is obvious that the purpose of the builders in thus keeping the entrance so high above ground, and the doorway so narrow, was to make ingress as difficult as possible to the foe. In fact, a few determined men within the Tower could easily keep the doorway against a host, whose only means of access would be by ladders or similar contrivances laid against the wall. If the doorway was to be forced at all, it could only be done from an elevated platform, on which men might work a battering-ram of some kind to burst in the door, and then set fire to the Tower with combustibles—a contrivance that was, it appears, sometimes successfully resorted to, both by the Danes and the native chieftains.

The Towers also contained several lofts, resting on offsets—sometimes four, five, or six—with small ladders leading from one storey to the other, each of which was lighted by a single small window.Tower on Devenish Island By this means the Tower, though not usually more than eight or ten feet in diameter, could be made available for the accommodation of a considerable number of refugees. The topmost storey, under the conical stone roof of the Tower, was far the most important. It contained at least four openings, looking to the four points of the compass, so that the watchman could readily perceive from that great height—at least 100 feet—the approach of the foe from any point of the compass. Then he had his bell near him, either hung from the roof or rung by hand, to warn all the clergy and tenants of the Church lands that the foe was approaching. Their first care would then be to bring all the treasures of the church to the Tower—the gold and silver vessels of the altar, the precious shrine, with the relics of the founder, his bell, his crozier, his Gospel and its gem-studded cover, along with everything else which they prized. Provisions were also carried up the ladder. Stones and other missiles were collected in the topmost storey; all the clergy and the neighbouring people took refuge in the Tower; then the ladder was drawn up, the double doors were barred, and all was secure. When the enemy came, they might fire the church, but it was empty. All its valuables were gone. They dare not attempt to undermine the thick, strong walls of the Tower, often built on the rock, for missiles—deadly missiles from such a height— could be showered down upon them from the four large windows of the upper storey, which were sometimes nearly as large as the door. They could not force the door, for it was far above them, and ladders would be wholly useless. They could not starve the inmates, for the garrison took good care to provide themselves with provisions and water. They might sit down, it is true, to besiege them; but meantime the whole country would rise, and the raiders might be utterly destroyed.

This, we think, explains the origin and uses of the Round Towers in a simple and natural way. During the Danish wars, which began in the ninth century, the religious houses and the cathedral churches were the principal objects of their bloody raids, because, as a fact, they contained most of the wealth of the country in gold and silver, and their flocks and herds were amongst the fattest of the land. For the first thirty or forty years the raiders left no time to the Churchmen to build their towers: but about the year A.D. 875 they suffered great defeats, so that there was a "period of rest" for forty years, during which no new swarms of sea-rovers landed in Ireland, and those already there kept themselves comparatively quiet. This was the time during which most of the Towers still remaining were constructed to guard against future incursions. Some of them were built rudely, as if by men in a hurry, who had small time to square their stones or ornament their doors and windows; but others are admirable specimens of the builder's skill, and seem to belong to a later date.

The last three-quarters of the tenth century were very turbulent, owing to the arrival of new swarms of the Danish invaders; but, towards the close of that period, the heroic Brian Boru put them on the defensive, and finally gave them a crushing defeat at Clontarf. Encouraged by these brighter prospects, and by the great example of Brian himself, the abbots and bishops once more set about building Round Towers to protect their churches, not only against the Danish raiders, but also against the native chiefs, who too often followed their bad example. About the same time the first traces of what is known as the Irish Romanesque began to appear in our churches. It is only fair to conclude, therefore, that the Round Towers which show ornamental doorways of Romanesque design, like Kildare, Timahoe, and, to a less extent, Ardmore, were erected during this period, and must be regarded as belonging to the more favourable times of the eleventh century.

We may add that, although the Round Towers are called bell-houses in our annals, it must not be assumed that their bells were huge cylindrical or conical masses of bell-metal, such as we see in the towers of our churches at present. There were bells in use in the Irish Church from the time of St. Patrick; but they were hand-bells—not small, round bells as we now see, but rudely-fashioned pyramidal or quadrangular bells of good size and of a very peculiar shape. Such bells, no doubt, might be hung; but it is more likely that in the topmost storeys of the Round Tower they were rung by hand; and as the bell-ringer's functions were normal, not exceptional, his bell gave its name to the Tower itself. We regret that we have no space to answer various difficulties that have been urged against these views, but we venture to think that to state them clearly is to prove their truth.

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