Irish round tower

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This is about Irish-style round towers. See round tower for other types of towers.
The round tower at Glendalough, Ireland, is approximately thirty metres tall

Irish round towers (Irish: Cloigtheach (singular), Cloigthithe (plural) – literally "bell house") are early medieval stone towers of a type found mainly in Ireland, with two in Scotland and one on the Isle of Man. Though there is no certain agreement as to their purpose, it is thought they were principally bell towers, places of refuge, or a combination of these.

Generally found in the vicinity of a church or monastery, the door of the tower faces the west doorway of the church. In this way it has been possible to determine without excavation the approximate site of lost churches, where the tower still exists.

Construction and distribution[edit]

Surviving towers range in height from 18 metres (59 ft) to 40 metres (130 ft), and 12 metres (39 ft) to 18 metres (59 ft) in circumference; that at Kilmacduagh being the highest surviving in Ireland (and leaning 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) out of perpendicular).[1] The masonry differs according to date, the earliest examples being uncut rubble, while the later ones are of neatly joined stone work. The lower portion is solid masonry with a single door raised two to three metres above, often accessible only by a ladder. Within, in some, are two or more floors (or signs of where such floors existed), usually of wood, and it is thought that there were ladders in between. The windows, which are high up, are slits in the stone. The cap (roof), is of stone, usually conical in shape, although some of the towers are now crowned by a later circle of battlements.

The Round Tower at Kinneigh has a unique hexagonal base.

The towers were probably built between the 9th and 12th centuries. In Ireland about 120 examples are thought once to have existed; most are in ruins, while eighteen to twenty are almost perfect. There are three examples outside Ireland. Two are in north-eastern Scotland: the Brechin Round Tower and the Abernethy Round Tower, and the other is in Peel Castle on St. Patrick's Isle, now linked to the Isle of Man.

Famous examples are to be found at Devenish Island, and Glendalough, while that at Clondalkin is the only Round Tower in Ireland to still retain its original cap. With five towers each, County Mayo and County Kildare have the most. Mayo's round towers are at Aughagower, Balla, Killala, Meelick and Turlough, while Kildare's are located at Kildare Cathedral (which is 32 metres (105 ft) high), and also at Castledermot, Oughter Ard, Taghadoe (near Maynooth) and Old Kilcullen. The only known round tower with a hexagonal base is at Kinneigh in County Cork, built in 1014.


The purpose of the towers has been somewhat unclear until recent times. A popular hypothesis in the past was that the towers were originally a redoubt against raiders such as Vikings. If a lookout posted in the tower spotted a Viking force, the local population (or at least the clerics) would enter, using a ladder which could be raised from within. The towers would be used to store religious relics and other plunderables.[2]

However, there are many problems with this hypothesis. Many towers are built in positions which are not ideal to survey the surrounding countryside and would not work efficiently as watch towers for incoming attacks.

The doors to these towers would have been wooden and therefore easily burned down. Due to the almost chimney-like design of the towers, the smoke from the burning door would have been carried upwards inside the tower causing any occupants to suffocate. Indeed, the round towers at Dysert O'Dea and Aghagower show evidence of fire damage around the doorway. There are also records of people being burned to death in round towers.

The main reason for the entrance-way being built above ground level was to maintain the structural integrity of the building rather than for defence. The towers were generally built with very little foundation. The tower at Monasterboice has an underground foundation of only sixty centimetres. Building the door at ground level would weaken the tower. The buildings still stand today because their round shape is gale-resistant and the section of the tower underneath the entrance is packed with soil and stones.

The distance from the ground to the raised doorway is somewhat greater than that from the first floor to the second; thus large, rigid steps would be too large for the door. Excavations in the 1990s, revealing postholes, confirm that wooden steps were built. However, the use of ladders prior to the construction of such steps cannot be ruled out.

Therefore, according to the arguments immediately above, the primary reason for the round tower was to act as a belfry imitating the continental European style of bell tower which was popular at the time.[citation needed] The Irish word[3][4] for round tower, cloigtheach, literally meaning bellhouse indicates this, as noted by George Petrie in 1845.

However, the Irish language has greatly evolved over the last millennium. Dinneen[3] notes the alternate pronunciations, cluiceach and cuilceach for cloigtheach. The closely pronounced cloichtheach means stone-house or stone-building.[3] The round tower seems to be the only significant stone building in Ireland before the advent of the Normans in 1167 AD. Although the physical evidence pointing towards a bell tower is strong, we must await confirmation from original sources such as glyphs on medieval manuscripts.

Modern symbolic towers[edit]

Daniel O'Connell's tomb at Glasnevin Cemetery had a round tower built above it after his burial in 1847.

At Saint Mary's Cemetery in Milford, Massachusetts a round tower was built of Milford granite in the late 19th century as a memorial to central Massachusetts' Irish immigrants, of whom thousands are buried there.

Another "revival" round tower was built in 1997 in the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium, as a war memorial to the soldiers of the island of Ireland who died, were wounded or are missing from World War I. The 110-foot (34 m) tower[5] is in the traditional design of an Irish round tower and is partially built with stone from a former army barracks in Tipperary.[6]

In 2002 Tony Ryan, a native of Tipperary, built a round tower at his Castleton Lyons Stud in Kentucky.[citation needed]

List of Irish round towers[edit]

The following is a list of surviving Irish round towers, excluding modern reconstructions.

Aghadoe Round Tower and Church - - 499563.jpgAghadoeKerryMunsterIncomplete05.4m
Aghaviller ruined church and round tower, Newmarket, Co. Kilkenny - - 206920.jpgAghavillerKilkennyLeinsterIncomplete09.6m
Ardmore round tower.jpgArdmoreWaterfordMunsterComplete30.0mhas three string courses and a noticeable lean
Ardpatrick Irish Round Tower, County Limerick, Ireland.jpgArdpatrickLimerickMunsterIncomplete03.0mBarrow[7] states that the Down Survey of 1655 marks the site with a tower of 3 stories with a broken top. Fitzgerald and McGreggor writing in 1826 state that it was a fine tower that "fell a few years since"

A stump 3m tall at its highest point, surrounded by rubble from its collapse, is all that remains. Barrow speculates that some of the stones from the tower were used to build the nearby wall surrounding the cemetery, including one at the top of the entrance 1.07m long with a raised moulding that may have been the sill stone from the tower's doorway.

Ardrahan Round Tower - - 1475473.jpgArdrahanGalwayConnachtIncomplete03m
Armoy round tower County Antrim.jpgArmoyAntrimUlsterIncomplete10.8m
Castledermot monastic remains.jpgCastledermotKildareLeinsterComplete to cornice20.0mthe conical cap has been replaced with battlements and the tower has been attached to a church (which was built later)
Round Tower - Clondalkin - - 108911.jpgClondalkinDublinLeinsterComplete27.5mStrengthened by a stone buttress, has a stone staircase to the doorway. It is the narrowest known tower with a base diameter of just 4.04m
Clones Round Tower - - 289630.jpgClonesMonaghanUlsterComplete to cornice22.9m
Clonmacnoise - - 585616.jpgClonmacnoise
O'Rourke's Tower
McCarthy's Tower

two towers a short distance from each-other
O'Rourke: full height but capless; has 8 windows at top
McCarthy: attached to a church
Cloyne Round Tower.jpgCloyneCorkMunsterComplete to cornice30.5mthe conical cap has been replaced with battlements
Round Tower, Devenish Island - - 1752272.jpgDevenishFermanaghUlsterComplete25.0mclimbable
Donaghmore Church and Round Tower - - 166124.jpgDonaghmoreMeathLeinsterComplete to cornice26.6mfull height but without cap
Round Tower at Dromiskin, Co. Louth - - 1775014.jpgDromiskinLouthLeinsterIncomplete15.2ma conical cap was added to what remains of the tower
Dumbo Round Tower - - 1746623.jpgDrumboDownUlsterIncomplete10.25m
Round-Tower-Drumcliff-Ennis.jpgDrumcliffe (near Ennis)ClareMunsterIncomplete11.0m
Drumcliffe tower.jpgDrumcliff (near Sligo)SligoConnachtIncomplete09.0m
The round tower, Drumlane Abbey - - 1405855.jpgDrumlaneCavanUlsterIncomplete12.0m
FaughartLouthConnachtIncomplete00.05mOnly a single circular course of large stones remain
The round tower at Glendalough - - 1545666.jpgGlendaloughWicklowLeinsterComplete30.5mnearby Saint Kevin's Church includes a miniature round tower
Photo of the Irish Round Tower at Grangefertagh County KilkennyGrangefertaghKilkennyLeinsterComplete to cornice[8]30.0mfull height but without cap, located in the parish of Johnstown
InisCealtraMonastery.JPGInish Cealtra (in Lough Derg)ClareMunsterIncomplete22.3m
Inniskeenroundtower.jpgInishkeenMonaghanUlsterIncomplete12.6mthe top has been sealed with brick and cement
Kells roundtower highcross.jpgKellsMeathLeinsterComplete to cornice26.0mfull height but without cap
Kilbennan Round Tower E 2010 09 16.jpgKilbennanGalwayConnachtIncomplete16.5m
Photo of Kildare Irish Round Tower in the town of Kildare, in the County of Kildare IrelandKildareKildareLeinsterComplete to cornice32.0mclimable; the conical cap has been replaced with battlements
Saint Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny - - 1538927.jpgKilkennyKilkennyLeinsterComplete to cornice30.0mclimable; the conical cap has been replaced with battlements
KillalaRoundTower.jpgKillalaMayoConnachtComplete25.5mthere is a noticeable bulge about halfway up the tower
Killeany Inishmore Aran IslandsGalwayConnachtIncomplete03.02m
Photo of Kilmallock Irish Round Tower, County Limerick, IrelandKilmallockLimerickMunsterIncomplete03.0mOnly the lower 3m of the tower is original, what stands above (tower of the Collegiate church) is a late medieval addition/reconstruction
Kilmacduagh05(js).jpgKilmacduaghGalwayConnachtComplete34.5mThe tallest standing of the ancient round towers. It has 11 windows (more than any other tower) and the door is 8m from the ground (higher than any other tower). Leans 1.02m from the vertical.
Kilree.jpgKilreeKilkennyLeinsterComplete to cornice27.0mthe conical cap has been replaced with battlements
Kinneigh Round Tower - - 537605.jpgKinneighCorkMunsterComplete to cornice24.5mhas a hexagonal base and a sealed top
Liathmore/LeighTipperaryMunsterIncomplete00.01mDiscovered in 1969 only the 2.6m foundations remain (unusually deep for an Irish round tower)
Church and Round Tower at Lusk - - 1833150.jpgLuskDublinLeinsterComplete to cornice26.6mfull height but without cap; is attached to a church (which was built later)
Maghera Round Tower, May 2011 (02).JPGMagheraDownUlsterIncomplete05.4mstump with a large hole in the side
DysertRoundTower.jpgMollaneen (Dysert O'Dea Monastery)ClareMunsterIncomplete15.0m
DysertMonastery.jpgCarrigeen (Dysert Monastery)LimerickMunsterIncomplete
Monasterboice 05.jpgMonasterboiceLouthLeinsterIncomplete28.0m
Photo of Old Kilcullen round tower, County Kildare, IrelandOld KilcullenKildareLeinsterIncomplete11.0m
OranRoscommonConnachtIncomplete03.9mLargest base diameter of any known original Irish round tower at 6m
Photo of Oughterard Irish Round Tower, County Kildare, IrelandOughter ArdKildareLeinsterIncomplete09.5m
Ram's IslandAntrimUlsterIncomplete12.8m
Rattoo Round Tower - - 12548.jpgRattooKerryMunsterComplete27.4mincludes a Sheela na Gig
Photo of Roscam Irish Round Tower County Galway IrelandRoscamGalwayConnachtIncomplete10.98m7 levels of putlock holes clearly visible
Roscrea Round Tower 2010 09 03.jpgRoscreaTipperaryMunsterIncomplete20m
Scattery Island 01.jpgScattery IslandClareMunsterComplete to cornice, with a partially truncated cap26.0mDoorway is at ground level
Seir Kieran Round Tower and Priory Wall 2010 09 09.jpgSeir KieranOffalyLeinsterIncomplete02.6m
St Mullin'sCarlowLeinsterIncomplete01m
Rock of Cashel - 33.jpgSt Patrick's Rock (near Cashel)TipperaryMunsterComplete28.0mattached to a church (which was built later)
AntrimRoundTower.JPGSteeple (near Antrim)AntrimUlsterComplete28.0m
Swords Round Tower - - 526767.jpgSwordsDublinLeinsterComplete26.0mhas a deformed top floor, which is topped by a stone cross
Photo of Taghadoe Irish Round Tower County Kildare, IrelandTaghadoeKildareLeinsterIncomplete19.8m
Tory IslandDonegalUlsterIncomplete12.8m
Round tower and ruined church, Tullaherin, Co. KIlkenny - - 207642.jpgTullaherinKilkennyLeinsterIncomplete22.5m
Turlough Round Tower and Church 2007 08 14.jpgTurloughMayoConnachtComplete22.9m


List of missing Towers[edit]

This is a list of Irish Round Towers known to have existed, but no trace now remains.

NameCountyNotes: Taken from George Lennox Barrow's -The Round Towers of Ireland 1979[7] and Brain Lalor's - The Irish Round Tower-Origins and Architecture Explored 1999[9] unless otherwise stated
AnnadownGalwayLalor states that there is a reference from The Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1238 "The Cloicteach of Enachduin was errected". All trace of the tower has vanished
ArdbracconMeathThe Annals of Clonmacnoise for the year 1181 record "The steeple of Ardbreakean fell this yeare". No trace of the tower now remains
ArdfertKerryThe tower fell in a great storm in 1771. Descriptions of the tower vary with Samual Molyneux passing the tower in 1709 stating that is was "very low" with seamen often mistaking it for Scattery round tower. Charles Smith in 1756 describes the tower as being near 100 ft (30m) tall being mostly constructed of "a dark kind of marble" and "not composed of freestone", "the finest [tower] I have met with". Later accounts in 1878 (O Halloran) and 1884 (Tralee Chronicle) put its height at 120 ft and 150 ft respectively. The Parliamentary gazetteer of Ireland 1846 states that the tower was "slated" (but being written over 70 years after it fell it is difficult to say for certain if this was so, if it was it would certainly be a unique feature)

Brain Lalor states that fragments of the tower have been found onsite and its location is marked on OSI maps from c1850

ArmaghArmaghThere are several references to this tower from the annals:

995/6 "Ard-Macha was burned by lightening, both houses damhlaig and cloigteach and fidnad" - Annals of Tigernach
1020 "Ard-Macha was burned with all the fort....and the Cloicteach, with its bells" - Annals of the Four Masters
1121 "A great wind storm happened in December of this year, which knocked off the conical cap of the cloicteach of Ard-Macha"- Annals of the Four Masters
The tower is said to have stood 12 m north of the present cathedral (based on a map drawn in 1886 during the restoration of the cathedral) and possibly finally met its demise in 1642 when the town and cathedral were burned by Phelim O'Neill
No trace of the tower remains.

Brigown (near Mitchelstown)CorkBarrow's research indicates that this tower collapsed in a storm in 1720, and the remaining stump (around 4.6m tall) disappeared by degrees with the last dug out in 1807 and the stones used to build a local glebe house. The tower reputably stood around 18 m to the south-west of the ruined church.
No trace of the tower remains.
ClonardMeathThe Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1039 records "The Cloicteach of Cluain-Iraid fell"

This is the only known reference to the tower and no trace of the it now remains.

CorkCorkBarrow's evidence indicates that this tower fell in 1738. A French traveller, Boullaye le Gouz passing it in 1644 describes the tower as "dix ou douze pas de circuit et plus de 100 pieds du hait" (10 or 12 paces around and over 100 feet tall). An engraving on the foot of a moonstrance (dating from 1669) in the Dominican friary at Pope's Quay, Cork depicts St. Fimbar with a church behind him and a capless round tower at one end. The tower has a broken top with 6 windows directly in line above a round headed doorway.

No trace of the tower now remains and the cathedral built in 1865 evidently covers the site where it once stood.

DerryLondonderryBarrow states that a tower known as "The Long Tower" stood in the city of Derry where Long Tower Church of St Colomba (built in 1784-6) now stands. The tower is said to have survived the siege of 1689 and it is unclear when it finally met it's demise. <bd>

The OS of County Londonderry of 1837[10] Has the following: "In the charter of Derry it is called Columb kille's Tower In Raven's plan of the city in 1621 it appears as a very high and slender belfry....In the popular traditions of Derry and its vicinity this tower is still invariably spoken of as a lofty round tower built by St Columb himself and many legends are current of its miracle working silver bell"
No trace of the tower now remains.

DownpatrickDownThe Annals of he Four Masters for the year 1015 record "Dun-de-leathghlas was totally burned with its Daimhlaig and its Cloicteach by lightening"

Harris (from Ware's Antiquities 1746) in 1744 describes the remains of the tower at that time as being 66 feet tall with walls 3 feet thick standing 40 ft from the old cathedral. The doorway was at ground level. (Barrow speculates that the ground level may have been raised by the rubble of the old cathedral)
A painting by Charles Lilly from 1790 and a print from 1789 show the round tower with a broken top standing to the south-west corner of the cathedral next to St. Patrick's grave. The remainder of the tower is said to have been pulled down in the early 19th century during the renovation of the cathedral as it was in a dangerous state.
No trace of the tower now remains but the site is pointed out next St Patrick's grave on raised ground which Barrow speculates may conceal its foundations.

Dublin, St Michael Le PoleDublinThe tower stood in an old churchyard just south west of Dublin castle. In 1706 the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral granted the ruins of the church (where the tower stood) to Dr. John Jones to build a school, with one of the conditions being that he would not pull down the tower. The formerly free-standing tower then had the school built around it. Drawings by Beringer from 1766 and 1776 show this school building with the tower projecting through the west end of the roof. in 1775 the tower was badly damaged by a storm and the Dean and Chapter agreed that it must be taken down because it was too dangerous to repair. This was done 3 years later with the upper portion of the tower removed down to the level of the church roof. It is unclear when the remainder of the tower was demolished, though this was possibly done in 1789.

Barrow states that Petrie in his notes (c.1830s) quotes old locals describing the tower as of rude construction of large stones c.70 ft high with 2 windows at the top. A car park now marks the site of the former school and no trace of the tower now remains, though its stones are said to have been used in a nearby cemetery wall (this wall is no longer present).

DuleekMeathThe Annals of he Four Masters for the year 1147 record "A thunderbolt fell this year upon the cloicteach of Daimhliag-Chianain and knocked off the beannchobhair (conical cap)"

The tower survived at least until medieval times. Evidence of this is clearly visible in the imprint of the tower in the north wall of the square 15th century. The tower was incorporated into the medieval belfry in a similar manner to the Irish Round Tower at Lusk. The tower collapsed or was demolished at an unknown date leaving a scar in the side of the belfry. The scar rises to 14m high where the tower diverged from the later builing. There is a large window/opening (9.6m from the ground) within this scar suggesting that this opening allowed access between the tower and belfry.
Fragments of the foundation remain showing that the external diameter at the base of the tower was 5.18m.

EmlyTipperaryThe Annals of he Four Masters for the year 1058 record "Iarleach-Ibhair was totally burned Daimhliag and Cloicteach"

Thomas Dineley in his book [11] from 1681 has a sketch of the old cathedral at Emly with a stump (possibly that of the remains of a round tower) behind it at one side reaching to the hight of the eaves of the cathedral. The stump appears to have 11 regular even courses of masonry with an opening, possibly representing the doorway. The site of the cathedral is an old graveyard beside the modern catholic church.
All that remains of the cathedral is an old stone cross and no trace of the tower remains.

KellistownCarlowAnthologia Hibernica Volume 4 (1794) (which refers to the place as "Kellet's Town") states "The tower which stands on elevated ground about five miles NE of Carlow and not on the Barrow as asserted in some late publications is built of grit stone with which the country abounds and about twelve feet internal diameter but at present much destroyed" A sketch of the ruin of this tower is also in this book. It depicts the tower standing about 10m tall with 23 stone courses, broken down its left side to ground level, with a breach near the top which could represent the remains of a window.

A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland [12] states "One of the ancient round towers stood here till 1807 when it was pulled down to make room for the belfry of the church"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alan Van Dine, Unconventional Builders, Doubleday Ferguson, 1977, p. 29, 34
  2. ^ Peter F. Stevens, "One of a kind: America's Irish round tower", World of Hibernia, 22 June 1998
  3. ^ a b c Patrick S. Dinneen, An Irish English Dictionary, The Educational Company of Ireland, Dublin, 1927
  4. ^ Tomás de Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary, An GUM, Dublin, 1959
  5. ^ "The Tower of Peace" World of Hibernia, December 1998, quoted in Find Articles
  6. ^ British Military Garrison – Tipperary Co. Tipperary Ireland (retrieved 31 January 2010)
  7. ^ a b The Round Towers of Ireland by George Lennox Barrow 1979
  8. ^
  9. ^ The Irish Round Tower-Origins and Architecture Explored - Brain Lalor 1999
  10. ^ Ordnance survey of the county of Londonderry By Great Britain. Ordnance Survey, Thomas Colby, Sir Thomas Aiskew Larcom (Gart.)
  11. ^ Observations on a voyage through the kingdom of Ireland - Thomas Dineley (1681)
  12. ^ A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland: Comprising the Several Counties; Cities; Boroughs; Corporate, Market, and Post Towns; Parishes and Principal Villages; with Historical and Statistical Descriptions: Embellished with Engravings of the Arms of the Cities, Bishoprics, Corporate Towns, and Boroughs; and of the Seals of the Several Municipal Corporations, Volume 2 (1849)


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