The Round Towers of Ireland

By Thomas Davis

ACCUSTOMED from boyhood to regard these towers as revelations of a gorgeous but otherwise undefined antiquity—dazzled by oriental analogies—finding a refuge in their primeval greatness from the meanness or the misfortunes of our middle ages, we clung to the belief of their Pagan origin.

In fancy we had seen the white-robed Druid tend the holy fire in their lower chambers—had measured with the Tyrian-taught astronomer the length of their shadows—and had almost knelt to the elemental worship with nobles whose robes had the dye of the Levant, and sailors whose cheeks were brown with an Egyptian sun, and soldiers whose bronze arms clashed as the trumpets from the tower-top said that the sun had risen. What wonder that we had resented the attempt to cure us of so sweet a frenzy?

We plead guilty to having opened Mr. Petrie's work strongly bigoted against his conclusion.

On the other hand, we could not forget the authority of the book. Its author we knew was familiar beyond almost any other with the country—had not left one glen unsearched, not one island untrod; had brought with him the information of a life of antiquarian study, a graceful and exact pencil, and feelings equally national and lofty. We knew also that he had the aid of the best Celtic scholars alive in the progress of his work. The long time taken in its preparation ensured maturity; and the honest men who had criticised it, and the adventurers who had stolen from it enough to make false reputations, equally testified to its merits.

Yet, we repeat, we jealously watched for flaws in Mr. Petrie's reasoning; exulted, as he set down the extracts from his opponents, in the hope that he would fail in answering them, and at last surrendered with a sullen despair.

Looking now more calmly at the discussion, we are grateful to Mr. Petrie for having driven away an idle fancy. In its stead he has given us new and unlooked-for trophies, and more solid information on Irish antiquities than any of his predecessors. We may be well content to hand over the Round Towers to Christians of the sixth or the tenth century when we find that these Christians were really eminent in knowledge as well as piety, had arched churches by the side of these campanilia, gave an alphabet to the Saxons, and hospitality and learning to the students of all western Europe—and the more readily, as we got in exchange proofs of a Pagan race having a Pelasgic architecture, and the arms and ornaments of a powerful and cultivated people.

The volume before us contains two parts of Mr. Petrie's essay. The first part is an examination of the false theories of the origin of these towers. The second is an account not only of what he thinks their real origin, but of every kind of early ecclesiastical structure in Ireland. The third part will contain a historical and descriptive account of every ecclesiastical building in Ireland of a date prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion of which remains now exist. The work is crowded with illustrations drawn with wonderful accuracy, and engraved in a style which proves that Mr. O'Hanlon, the engraver, has become so proficient as hardly to have a superior in woodcutting.

We shall for the present limit ourselves to the first part of the work on the


The first refutation is of the


John Lynch, in his Cambrensis Eversus, says that the Danes are reported (dicuntur) to have first erected the Round Towers as watch-towers, but that the Christian Irish changed them into clock or bell-towers. Peter Walsh [2] repeated and exaggerated the statement; and Ledwich, the West British antiquary of last century, combined it with lies enough to settle his character, though not that of the towers. The only person, at once explicit and honest, who supported this Danish theory was Dr. Molyneux. His arguments are, that all stone buildings, and indeed all evidences of mechanical civilisation, in Ireland were Danish; that some traditions attributed the Round Towers to them; that they had fit models in the monuments of their own country; and that the word by which he says the native Irish call them, viz., "Clogachd," comes from the Teutonic root, clugga, a bell. These arguments are easily answered.

The Danes, so far from introducing stone architecture, found it flourishing in Ireland, and burned and ruined our finest buildings, and destroyed mechanical and every kind of civilisation wherever their ravages extended—doing thus in Ireland precisely as they did in France and England, as all annals (their own included) testify. Tradition does not describe the towers as Danish watch-towers, but as Christian belfries. The upright stones and the little barrows, not twelve feet high, of Denmark, could neither give models nor skill to the Danes. They had much ampler possession of England and Scotland, and permanent possession of Normandy, but never a Round Tower did they erect there; and, finally, the native Irish name for a Round Tower is cloic-theach, from teach, a house, and cloc, the Irish word used for a bell in Irish works before "the Germans or Saxons had chuiches or bells," and before the Danes had ever sent a war-ship into our seas.

We pass readily from this ridiculous hypothesis with the remark that the gossip which attributes to the Danes our lofty monumental pyramids and cairns, our Druid altars, our dry stone caisils or keeps, and our raths or fortified enclosures for the homes or cattle of our chiefs, is equally and utterly unfounded; and is partly to be accounted for from the name of power and terror which these barbarians left behind, and partly from ignorant persons confounding them with the most illustrious and civilised of the Irish races—the Danaans.


Among the middle and upper classes in Ireland the Round Towers are regarded as one of the results of an intimate connection between Ireland and the East, and are spoken of as either—1, Fire Temples; 2, Stations from whence Druid festivals were announced; 3, Sun-dials (gnomons) and astronomical observatories; 4, Buddhist or Phallic temples, or two or more of these uses are attributed to them at the same time.

Mr. Petrie states that the theory of the Phoenician or Indo-Scythic origin of these towers was stated for the first time so recently as 1772 by General Vallancey, in his "Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language," and was re-asserted by him in many different and contradictory forms in his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, published at intervals in the following years.

It may be well to premise who


was. His family were from Berry, in France; their name Le Brun, called De Valencia, from their estate of that name. General Vallancey was born in Flanders, but was educated at Eton College. When a captain in the 12th Royal Infantry he was attached to the engineer department in Ireland, published a book on Field Engineering in 1756, and commenced a survey of Ireland. During this he picked up something of the Irish language, and is said to have studied it under Morris O'Gorman, clerk of Mary's Lane Chapel. He died in his house, Lower Mount Street, 18th August 1812, aged 82 years.

His Collectanea, and his discourses in the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was an original member, spread far and wide his oriental theories. He was an amiable and plausible man, but of little learning, little industry, great boldness, and no scruples; and while he certainly stimulated men's feelings towards Irish antiquities, he has left us a reproducing swarm of falsehood, of which Mr. Petrie has happily begun the destruction. Perhaps nothing gave Valiancey's follies more popularity than the opposition of the Rev. Edward Ledwich, whose Antiquities of Ireland is a mass of falsehoods, disparaging to the people and the country.


Vallancey's first analogy is plausible. The Irish Druids honoured the elements and kept up sacred fires, and at a particular day in the year all the fires in the kingdom were put out, and had to be re-lighted from the Arch-Druid's fire. A similar creed and custom existed among the Parsees or Guebres of Persia, and he takes the resemblance to prove connection and identity of creed and civilisation. From this he immediately concludes the Round Towers to be Fire Temples. Now there is no evidence that the Irish Pagans had sacred fires, except in open spaces (on the hill-tops), and therefore none of course that they had them in towers round or square; but Vallancey falls back on the alleged existence of Round Towers in the East similar to ours, and on etymology.

Here is a specimen of his etymologies. The Hebrew word gadul signifies great, and thence a tower; the Irish name for a round tower, cloghad, is from this gadul or gad and clogh, a stone: and the Druids called every place of worship cloghad. To which it is answered—gadul is not gadclogh, a stone, is not cloch, a bell. The Irish word for a Round Tower is cloch-thach, or bell-house, and there is no proof that the Druids called any place of worship cloghad.

Vallancey's guesses are numerous, and nearly all childish, and we shall quote some finishing specimens, with Mr, Petrie's answers—

"This is another characteristic example of Vallancey's mode of quoting authorities: he first makes O'Brien say that Cuilceach becomes corruptly Claiceach, and then that the word seems to be corrupted Clog-theach. But O'Brien does not say that Cuilceach is corruptly Claiceach, nor has he the word Culkak or Claiceach in his book; neither does he say that Cuilceach seems to be a corruption of Clog-theach, but states positively that it is so. The following are the passages which Vallancey has so misquoted and garbled—

"'CUILCEACH, a steeple, cuilceach, Cluan umba, Cloyne steeple—this word is a corruption of Clog-theach.

"'CLOIG-THEACH, a steeple, a belfry; corruptè Cuilg-theach.'

"Our author next tells us that another name for the Round Towers is Sibheit, Sithbeit, and Sithbein, and for this he refers us to O'Brien's and Shaw's Lexicons; but this quotation is equally false with those I have already exposed, for the words Sibheit and Sithbeit are not to be found in either of the works referred to. The word Sithbhe is indeed given in both Lexicons, but explained a city, not a round tower. The word Sithbhein is also given in both, but explained a fort, a turret, and the real meaning of the word as still understood in many parts of Ireland is a fairy-hill, or hill of the fairies, and is applied to a green round hill crowned by a small sepulchral mound.

"He next tells us that Caiceach, the last name he finds for the Round Towers, is supposed by the Glossarists to be compounded of cai, a house, and teach, a house, an explanation which, he playfully adds, is tautology with a witness. But where did he find authority for the word Caiceach? I answer, nowhere; and the tautology he speaks of was either a creation or a blunder of his own. It is evident to me that the Glossarist to whom he refers is no other than his favourite Cormac; but the latter makes no such blunder, as will appear from the passage which our author obviously refers to—

"'Cai i. teach unde dicitur ceard cha i. teach cearda; craes cha i. teach cumang.'

"'Cai, i.e., a house; unde dicitur ceard-cha, i.e., the house of the artificer; creas-cha, i.e., a narrow house.'"

The reader has probably now had enough of Vallancey's etymology, but it is right to add that Mr. Petrie goes through every hint of such proof given by the General, and disposes of them with greater facility.

The next person disposed of is Mr. Beauford, who derives the name of our Round Towers from Tlacht—earth, asserts that the foundations of temples for Vestal fire exist in Rath-na-Emhain, and other places (poor devil!)—that the Persian Magi overran the world in the time of the great Constantine, introducing Round Towers in place of the Vestal mounds into Ireland, combining their fire-worship with our Druidism—and that the present towers were built in imitation of the Magian Towers. This is all, as Mr. Petrie says, pure fallacy, without a particle of authority; but we should think "twelfth" is a misprint for "seventh" in the early part of Beauford's passage, and therefore that the last clause of Mr. Petrie's censure is undeserved.

This Beauford is not to be confounded with Miss Beaufort. She too paganises the towers by aggravating some mis-statements of Mason's Parochial Survey; but her errors are not worth notice, except the assertion that the Psalters of Tara and Cashel allege that the towers were for keeping the sacred fire. These Psalters are believed to have perished, and any mention of sacred fires in the glossary of Cormac M'Cullenan, the supposed compiler of the Psalter of Cashel, is adverse to their being in towers. He says—

"Belltane, i.e. bil tene, i.e. tene bil, i.e. the goodly fire, i.e. two goodly fires, which the Druids were used to make, with great incantations on them, and they used to bring the cattle between them against the diseases of each year."

Another MS. says—

"Beltaine, i.e., Bel-dine: Bel was the name of an idol; it was on it (i.e., the festival) that a couple of the young of every cattle were exhibited as in the possession of Bel; unde Beldine. Or, Beltine, i.e., Bil-tine, i.e. the goodly fire, i.e., two goodly fires, which the Druids were used to make with great incantations, and they were used to drive the cattle between them against the diseases of each year."

Mr. Petrie continues—

"It may be remarked that remnants of this ancient custom, in perhaps a modified form, still exist in the May-fires lighted in the streets and suburbs of Dublin, and also in the fires lighted on St. John's Eve in all other parts of Ireland. The Tinne Eigin of the Highlands, of which Dr. Martin gives the following account, is probably a remnant of it also, but there is no instance of such fires being lighted in towers or houses of any description—

"'The inhabitants here (Isle of Skye) did also make use of a fire call'd Tin-Egin (i.e.], a forced Fire, or Fire of necessity, which they used as an Antidote against the Plague or Murrain in cattle; and it was performed thus: All the Fires in the Parish were extinguished, and eighty-one marry'd Men, being thought the necessary number for effecting this Design, took two great Planks of Wood, and nine of 'em were employed by turns, who by their repeated Efforts rubb'd one of the Planks against the other until the Heat thereof produced Fire; and from this forc'd Fire each Family is supplied with new Fire, which is no sooner kindled than a Pot full of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the People infected with the Plague, or upon cattle that have the Murrain. And this, they all say, they find successful by experience.' —Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (second edition), p. 113.

"As authority for Miss Beaufort's second assertion, relative to the Tower of Thlachtga, etc., we are referred to the Psalter of Tara, by Comerford (p. 41), cited in the Parochial Survey (vol. iii. p. 320); and certainly in the latter work we do find a passage in nearly the same words which Miss Beaufort uses. But if the lady had herself referred to Comerford's little work, she would have discovered that the author of the article in the Parochial Survey had in reality no authority for his assertions, and had attempted a gross imposition on the credulity of his readers."

Mr. D'Alton relies much on a passage in Cambrensis, wherein he says that the fishermen on Lough Neagh (a lake certainly formed by an inundation in the first century, A.D. 62) point to such towers under the lake; but this only shows they were considered old in Cambrensis's time (King John's), for Cambrensis calls them turres ecclesiasticas (a Christian appellation); and the fishermen of every lake have such idle traditions from the tall objects they are familiar with; and the steeples of Antrim, etc., were handy to the Loch n-Eathac men.

One of the authorities quoted by all the Paganists is from the Ulster Annals at the year 448. It is—"Kl. Jenair. Anno Domini cccc.xlo. viiio. ingenti terrae motu per loca varia imminente, plurimi urbis auguste muri recenti adhuc reaedificatione constructi, cum l.vii. turribus conruerunt." This was made to mean that part of the wall of Armagh, with fifty-seven Round Towers, fell in an earthquake in 448, whereas the passage turns out to be a quotation from "Marcellinus"[3] of the fall of part of the defences of Constantinople—"Urbis Augustae!"

References to towers in Irish annals are quoted by Mr. D'Alton; but they turn out to be written about the Cyclopean Forts, or low stone raths, such as we find at Aileach, etc.


Dr. Charles O'Connor, of Stowe, is the chief supporter of the astronomical theory. One of his arguments is founded on the mistaken reading of the word "turaghun" (which he derives from tur, a tower, and aghan, or adhan, the kindling of flame), instead of "truaghan," an ascetic. The only other authority of his which we have not noticed is the passage in the Ulster Annals, at the year 995, in which it is said that certain Fidhnemead were burned by lightning at Armagh. He translates the word celestial indexes, and paraphrases it Round Towers, and all because fiadh means witness, and neimhedh, heavenly or sacred, the real meaning being holy wood, or wood of the sanctuary, from fidh, a wood, and neimhedh, holy, as is proved by a pile of exact authorities.

Dr. Lanigan, in his ecclesiastical history, and Moore, in his general history, repeat the arguments which we have mentioned. They also bring objections against the alleged Christian origin, which we hold over; but it is plain that nothing prevailed more with them than the alleged resemblance of these towers to certain oriental buildings. Assuredly if there were a close likeness between the Irish Round Towers and oriental fire temples of proved antiquity, it would be an argument for identity of use; and though direct testimony from our annals would come in and show that the present towers were built as Christian belfries from the sixth to the tenth centuries, the resemblance would at least indicate that the belfries had been built after the model of Pagan fire towers previously existing here. But "rotundos of above thirty feet in diameter" in Persia, Turkish minarets of the tenth or fourteenth centuries, and undated turrets in India, which Lord Valentia thought like our Round Towers, give no such resemblance. We shall look anxiously for exact measurements and datas of oriental buildings resembling Round Towers, and weigh the evidence which may be offered to show that there were any Pagan models for the latter in Ireland or in Asia.

Mr. Windele, of Cork, besides using all the previously-mentioned arguments for the Paganism of these towers, finds another in the supposed resemblance to THE NURRAGGIS OF SARDINIA, which are tombs or temples formed in that island, and attributed to the Phoenicians. But, alas for the theory, they have turned out to be "as broad as they're long." A square building, 57 feet in each side, with bee-hive towers at each angle, and a centre bee-hive tower reaching to 45 or 65 feet high, with stone stairs, is sadly unlike a Round Tower!

The most recent theory is that the Round Towers are


Mr. Windele and the South Munster Antiquarian Society started this, Sir William Betham sanctioned it, and several rash gentlemen dug under towers to prove it. At Cashel, Kinsale, etc., they satisfied themselves that there were no sepulchres or bones ever under the towers, but in some other places they took the rubbish bones casually thrown into the towers, and in two cases the chance underlying of ancient burying-grounds, as proofs of this notion. But Mr. Petrie settles for this idea by showing that there is no such use of the Round Towers mentioned in our annals, and also by the following most interesting account of the cemeteries and monuments of all the races of Pagan Irish:—


"A great king of great judgments assumed the sovereignty of Erin, i.e., Cormac, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. Erin was prosperous in his time, because just judgments were distributed throughout it by him; so that no one durst attempt to wound a man in Erin during the short jubilee of seven years; for Cormac had the faith of the one true God, according to the law; for he said that he would not adore stones, or trees, but that he would adore Him who had made them, and who had power over all the elements, i.e., the one powerful God who created the elements; in Him he would believe. And he was the third person who had believed in Erin before the arrival of St. Patrick. Conchobor Mac Nessa, to whom Altus had told concerning the crucifixion of Christ, was the first; Morann, the son of Cairbre Cinncait (who was surnamed Mac Main), was the second person; and Cormac was the third; and it is probable that others followed on their track in this belief.

"Where Cormac held his court was at Tara, in imitation of the kings who preceded him, until his eye was destroyed by Engus Gaibhuaiph-nech, the son of Eochaidh Finr Futhairt: but afterwards he resided at Acaill (the hill on which Scrin Colaim Cille is at this day), and at Cenannas (Kells), and at the house of Cletech; for it was not lawful that a king with a personal blemish should reside at Tara. In the second year after the injuring of his eye he came by his death at the house of Cletech, the bone of a salmon having stuck in his throat. And he (Cormac) told his people not to bury him at Brugh (because it was a cemetery of Idolaters), for he did not worship the same God as any of those interred at Brugh; but to bury him at Ros na righ, with his face to the east. He afterwards died, and his servants of trust held a council, and came to the resolution of burying him at Brugh, the place where the kings of Tara, his predecessors, were buried. The body of the king was afterwards thrice raised to be carried to Brugh, but the Boyne swelled up thrice, so that they could not come; so that they observed that it was 'violating the judgment of a prince' to break through this Testament of the king, and they afterwards dug his grave at Ros na righ, as he himself had ordered.

"These were the chief cemeteries of Erin before the Faith (i.e., before the introduction of Christianity), viz., Cruachu, Brugh, Tailltin, Luachair, Ailbe, Oenach Ailbe, Oenach Culi, Oenach Colmain, Temhair Erann.

"Oenach Cruachan, in the first place, it was there the race of Heremon (i.e., the kings of Tara) were used to bury until the time of Cremhthann, the son of Lughaidh Riabh-n-derg (who was the first king of them that was interred at Brugh), viz., Cobhlhach Coelbregh, and Labhraidh Loingsech, and Eocho Fedhlech with his three sons (i.e., the three Fidhemhna—i.e., Bres, Nar, and Lothoe), and Eocho Airemh, Lughaidh Riabh-n-derg, the six daughters of Eocho Fedhlech (i.e., Medhbh, and Clothru, Muresc, and Drebrin, Mugain, and Ele), and Adill Mac Mada with his seven brothers (i.e., Cet, Anlon, Doche, et ceteri), and all the kings down to Cremhthann (these were all buried at Cruachan). Why was it not at Brugh that the kings (of the race of Cobhthach down to Crimthann) were interred? Not difficult; because the two provinces which the race of Heremon possessed were the province of Gailian (i.e., the province of Leinster), and the province of Olnecmacht (i.e., the province of Connaught). In the first place, the province of Gailian was occupied by the race of Labhraidh Loingsech, and the province of Connaught was the peculiar inheritance of the race of Cobhtach Coelbregh; wherefore it (i.e., the province of Connaught) was given to Medhbh before every other province. (The reason that the government of this land was given to Medhbh is because there was none of the race of Eochaidh fit to receive it but herself, for Lughaidh was not fit for action at the time). And whenever, therefore, the monarchy of Erin was enjoyed by any of the descendants of Cobhthach Coelbregh, the province of Connaught was his ruidles (i.e., his native principality). And for this reason they were interred at Oenach na Cruachna. But they were interred at Brugh from the time of Crimhthann (Niadh-nar) to the time of Loeghaire, the son of Niall, except three persons, namely, Art, the son of Conn, and Cormac, the son of Art, and Niall of the Nine Hostages.

"We have already mentioned the cause for which Cormac was not interred there. The reason why Art was not interred there is because he 'believed,' the day before the battle of Muccramma was fought, and he predicted the Faith (i.e., that Christianity would prevail in Erin), and he said that his own grave would be at Dumha Dergluachra, where Treoit [Trevet] is at this day, as he mentioned in a poem which he composed—viz., Cain do denna den (i.e., a poem which Art composed, the beginning of which is Cain do denna den, etc.). When his (Art's) body was afterwards carried eastwards to Dumha Dergluachra, if all the men of Erin were drawing it thence, they could not, so that he was interred in that place because there was a Catholic church to be afterwards at the place where he was interred (i.e., Treoit hodie), because the truth and the Faith had been revealed to him through his regal righteousness.

"Where Niall was interred was at Ochain, whence the hill was called Ochain, i.e., Och Caine, i.e., from the sighing and lamentation which the men of Erin made in lamenting Niall.

"Conaire More was interred at Magh Feci in Bregia (i.e., at Fert Conaire); however, some say that it was Conaire Carpraige was interred there, and not Conaire Mor, and that Conaire Mor was the third king who was interred at Tara—viz., Conaire, Loeghaira, and * * *

"At Tailltin the kings of Ulster were used to bury—viz., Ollamh Fodhla, with his descendants down to Conchobhar, who wished that he should be carried to a place between Slea and the sea, with his face to the east, on account of the Faith which he had embraced.

"The nobles of the Tua ha De Danann were used to bury at Brugh (i.e., the Dagda with his three sons; also Lughaidh and Oe, and Ollam, and Ogma, and Etan, the Poetess, and Corpre, the son of Etan), and Cremhthann followed them because his wife Nar was of the Tuatha Dea, and it was she solicited him that he should adopt Brugh as a burial-place for himself and his descendants, and this was the cause that they did not bury at Cruachan.

"The Lagenians (i.e., Cathair with his race and the kings who were before them) were buried at Oenach Ailbhe. The Clann Dedad (i.e., the race of Conaire and Erna) at Temhair Erann; the men of Munster (i.e., the Dergthene) at Oenach Culi, and Oenach Colmain; and the Connacians at Cruachan."


Because Simon Stylites lived in a domicile, sized "scarce two cubits," on a pillar sixty feet high, and because other anchorites lived on pillars and in cells, Dean Richardson suggested that the Irish Round Towers were for hermits; and was supported by Walter Harris, Dr. Milner, Dr. King, etc. The cloch angcoire, or hermit's stone, quoted in aid of this fancy, turns out to be a narrow cell; and so much for the hermits!

The confusion of


is a stupid pun or a vulgar pronunciation in English; but in Irish gave rise to the antiquarian theory of Dr. Smith, who, in his History of Cork, concludes that the Round Towers were penitential prisons, because the Irish word for a penitential round or journey is turas!


never had any support but poor Henry O'Brien's enthusiastic ignorance and the caricaturing pen of his illustrator.

We have now done with the theories of these towers, which Mr. Petrie has shown, past doubt, to be either positively false or quite unproved. His own opinion is that they were used—1, as belfries; 2, as keeps, or houses of shelter for the clergy and their treasures; and 3, as watch-towers and beacons; and into his evidence for this opinion we shall go at a future day, thanking him at present for having displaced a heap of incongruous, though agreeable fancies, and given us the learned, the most exact, and the most important work ever published on the antiquities of the Ancient Irish Nation.


[1] The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. xx. Dublin: Hodges & Smith, Grafton Street

[2] A turbulent and learned Franciscan friar who figured in the Confederation of Kilkenny.—C.P.M.

[3] Author of the Life of Thucydides.—C.P.M.