The Round Towers of Ireland

Jun 8, 2022 0 comments

A unique feature of the Irish landscape are its free-standing round towers or Cloigtheach, which literally means “bell house”. As their name suggests, they were originally thought to be bell towers, because nearly every tower was found near a Celtic church, though they might have been used for additional purposes, such as for temporary refuge during sudden attacks.

Round Towers of Ireland

Devenish round tower. Photo: Caroline Johnston/Flickr

The towers were probably built between the 9th and 12th centuries. They were built of stone and mortar. In those times, masonry construction required skill and organization, and was reserved only for the construction of prestigious buildings, in particular important churches and round towers, and nearby monasteries. Such stone and mortar buildings were usually the result of a local king’s patronage. According to the Irish Times, these towers were symbols of prestige, power and wealth, not only of the ecclesiastical community that built them but also of their patrons.

The round towers ranged in height from 20 to 40 meters. The lower portion is solid masonry, packed with soil and stones, with a single raised door about two to three meters above the ground, and only accessible by a ladder. It has been suggested that the doors were raised for security, to enable the monks to take refuge inside the towers during times when Viking raiders or bandits were attacking the monasteries. While there might be some truth to this theory, the main reason the entrance way was built above the ground level was to maintain structural integrity of the building rather than for defense. These towers were generally built with very little foundation. The tower at Monasterboice, for instance, has an underground foundation of only two feet. Building the door at ground level would have weakened the foundation.

Round Towers of Ireland

Ardmore Round Tower. Photo: James Stringer/Flickr

Inside the towers are wooden floors connected by ladders. The windows are simple slits in the stone and are located high up. The towers are usually crowned with a conical top, although some of the towers are now crowned by a later circle of battlements.

About sixty round towers survive today. About 120 of them is thought to have once existed. Most are in ruins, while eighteen to twenty are in perfect condition.

Round Towers of Ireland

Ardmore Cathedral and Round Tower. Photo: Michael Foley/Flickr

Round Towers of Ireland

Round Tower of Glendalough. Photo: Stefan Jürgensen/Flickr

Round Towers of Ireland

Oughter Ard Round Tower. Photo: Bart Busschots/Flickr

Round Towers of Ireland

Timahoe Round tower. Photo: Eerko Vissering/Flickr

Round Towers of Ireland

Taghadoe Round Tower. Photo: Bart Busschots/Flickr


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