By Garreth Byrne
I have pleasant childhood memories of going on school excursions in May in a hired CIE bus from a village in Kildare across the Wicklow mountains to the ecclesiastical ruins in Glendalough. The journey lasted an hour. The peaty fresh air and colours of the mountains were such a joyful change to the flat pasture land of Kildare, the short grass county with its race horses, its thriving cattle farms and the huge wheatfields around Athy.
The Valley of the Two Lakes (Gleann Dá Loch) is enclosed by mountain woodland, some of which can be explored easily on foot by strollers. For us children and our teachers, it was a wonderland and a mind-opening encounter with ancient Gaelic civilisation. St. Kevin’s old church, with its curious belfry in the shape of a miniature tower, is impressive with its skilful dry stonework and the slanted roof of overlapping stone tiles. Fully grown yew trees decorate the old churchyard where to this day local people are still buried. The modern Celtic cross headstones that abound add to the atmosphere of historic times. Most spectacular is the stone round tower, believed to date from the 11th century, although St. Kevin died in the early 7th century.
After a picnic lunch, we children were taken in small groups across the upper lake in rowing boats to view the rocky cave above the water level, known as St. Kevin’s Bed. This is said to be the isolated spot where the saint spent periods of fasting and prayer. The poet, Seamus Heaney, has left us a joyful poem about St. Kevin and the Blackbird.
Archaeologists and students of architecture have drawn, photographed, surveyed and excavated selected round towers of Ireland in efforts to understand their origins and uses. It is generally agreed that churches and monastic constructions came first and tall round towers were added later. Monks who had visited Britain and the continent studied Roman building techniques and copied them in Ireland. Limestone, red sandstone, clay slate and granite were the abundant materials for building the walls. Two walls of block and mortar construction were built a few feet from one another, and the space between was then filled in with a core of rock rubble. The foundations were shallow, so entrance doors were raised a metre or more above ground level in order to stabilise the lower half of the structure. Sometimes the bottom of the tower was filled in with rocks and clay for extra support. Scholars nowadays discount the view that towers were for defence against raids by Viking marauders. Upper floors were built of wood and it is likely that church equipment and artistic liturgical objects were kept in safe storage there.
Kilmacduagh Round Tower – The Tallest
This is the tallest round tower in Ireland, 34 metres high, tilting slightly beside a 7th century monastery. The tower was built in the 10th or 11th century in the county of Galway, north of Limerick.
Clondalkin Tower Near Dublin
On the southern outskirts of Dublin stands a tower, 27.5 metres high in the centre of busy Clondalkin. There are other towers in the Dublin area, at Lusk and Swords notably. Clondalkin tower has a narrow diameter and unusually has a buttress at its base, which was added some centuries after the original construction. In the 19th century, stone steps were built into the buttress to allow access to the raised doorway.
Killala Tower in Mayo
This impressive structure has been damaged and repaired in recent centuries. Lightning struck the cone-shaped cap in the 18th century and the drum was also badly damaged. Repairs were carried out around 1840 and there is a perceptible bulge halfway up on the south-west side of the tower. A metal conductor adorns the top of the cone. The tower can be seen from a distance and must have served as a naval landmark when the French fleet, led by General Humbert, landed at nearby Kilcummin Strand in 1798 before fighting its first battle at Killala in the national rebellion.
Ardmore, Co. Waterford
The round tower at Ardmore on a high area along the coast of Waterford is another structure standing magnificently in a churchyard with the ruins of a monastery and a small oratory where St. Declan is supposed to be buried. He founded a monastic settlement here (not the present structures, which date from the 12th century) and evangelised in the south-east of Ireland, possibly ten years before St. Patrick began is island-wide mission.Walking along the trail from Ardmore village, you encounter an old well and some ruins, then ascend a route that looks down sheer, jagged cliffs at the rusting remains of a crane used many years ago in the salvaging of a shipwreck. After passing a coastal watchtower used during the Second World War, the walker proceeds through agricultural land until reaching the roadside, where the walled cemetery with the round tower and monastic remains beckons the attention of curious visitors. After that, there is a brisk downhill walk to the village.
There are several other monastic sites around Ireland, such as Clonmacnoise beside the River Shannon in Offaly, with two round towers and ancient Celtic crosses. The day I visisted this place in the mid-1980s, I was lucky that the late Professor Liam de Paor, an international authority on archaeology, was leading a group of local history enthusiasts from Athlone on a guided tour of a spot he had excavated during the early days of his career. I tagged along and listened eagerly to de Paor’s expert commentary.
Another exciting place to visit is the historic Rock of Cashel in Tipperary, with its tower and partially reconstructed ecclesiastical ruins. Queen Elizabeth II was impressed during an official visit there in recent years.
The round towers of Ireland take their rightful place among the building achievements of the ancient world. They hold their own with the ancient Greek temples, the stone Maya remains in Central America, the pagodas of old China, and the stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe.