Remarks on the Round Towers of Ireland

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter IV-6 | Start of chapter

The existence of these pillar-towers, is one of the most extraordinary circumstances connected with the history of Ireland; and notwithstanding all that has been written about them, and the innumerable conjectures which have been advanced on their origin and use, the question still remains unsolved. The writers who have discussed the subject have been, no doubt, fully satisfied each in his own mind of the soundness of his own conclusions on the point: each is convinced that he has solved the riddle; but those who read and think without the bias occasioned by a predisposition to a favourite hypothesis, must still remain in doubt. It might have been expected that our extended geographical knowledge and antiquarian research would have detected, in some region or other, buildings of a similar description. But no such thing; nothing that could justify the inquirer to connect the state of society in any other part of the world, with that which existed in Ireland at the time these singular edifices were constructed, has yet been brought to light. The state of the case relative to them, both as to facts and to conjectures, now rests nearly in the same position as it did when they first became a subject of philosophical investigation.

Nevertheless, as objects peculiarly characteristic of the Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, I may be permitted to offer here a few comprehensive remarks upon a subject of such acknowledged interest, with reference to the opinions of various writers, concerning the date of the erection and intended use of these remarkable structures.

The main facts connected with them are as follow:—They are of a date beyond all traces of history or tradition; no record in existence notices the foundation of any one of them.[19] They were built at a time when the art of architecture must have been in a very improved state. "A striking perfection observable in their construction, is the inimitable perpendicular invariably maintained. No architect of the present day could observe such regularity. Nelson's Pillar (Dublin), has been proved to vary somewhat from the perpendicular line; but the keenest eye cannot trace a deviation in a single instance amongst the whole of the Sabaean monuments. Even the tower of Kilmacduagh, one of the largest in the kingdom, having from some accident been forced to lean considerably on one side, yet retains its stability as firm as before, such was the accuracy of its original elevation; while the cement employed in giving it solidity, and which is the direct counterpart of the Indian chunam, bids defiance to the efforts of man to dissever, except by the exertion of extraordinary power." [20] These facts prove a highly advanced state of architectural knowledge. The number of these buildings is not less remarkable. Upwards of ninety have been ascertained either as now existing, or known at a period within historical memory. Their situation is also another remarkable peculiarity. They are generally in low and sheltered spots, never upon places of great elevation, and are also, with few exceptions, found in the immediate vicinity of some ecclesiastical building.


[19] When Cambrensis wrote in the twelfth century, there was no tradition extant respecting their origin.

[20] O'Brien's Round Towers of Ireland, p. 615.