Essay: Round Towers of Ireland Origins Functions and Date

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¶ … mysteries of Ireland came yet another one that historians and archaeologists have been trying to decipher for some time: the Irish Round Towers. The name itself carries enough to become a description in its own right of these wonders of the Irish architecture. However, what is behind the notion of round tower in Ireland and, most notably, what the origins of these towers was, what their purpose eventually became, and how they influenced the development of the Irish civilization, is still a subject of debate.

Several theoreticians and historians attempted, throughout the period from the 17th to the 19th centuries, to provide explanations for the round towers in Ireland, ranging from a purely defensive role, to a potential role as a treasury, around the churches and monasteries where the round towers were built and going through to their function as a bell tower, similar to several found throughout Europe at that time.

The overall objective of this paper is to draw upon existing research in order to create a concentrated analysis of the different opinions and knowledge trend in the area of round towers. The aim of this paper will be to examine the origins of these architectural structures and provide background on some of the dating techniques, as they have been used up to our times. At the same time, a significant part of the paper will concentrate on the analysis of the different roles and functions potentially assigned to round towers, as well as to the arguments pertaining to each of these functions in part.

General structure of round towers

Round towers are almost unique through their structure. The general description used for them is that of "great tubes of stone" to show their cylinder nature, as well as the predominant element of construction, stone. The respective stone cylinder was generally divided into several floors with the use of wooden planks that provided for each storey in part. The upper part of the construction was completed with a conical roof made of stone. Usually, many of the round towers also had an additional wooden ladder on the outside of the building, which was sometimes used as an element to further emphasize the alleged defensive role that the round towers had in the Irish monastic history.


Some historians and theoreticians initially believed that the Irish Round Tower had a Danish origin. This was a belief especially spread during the 17th and 18th centuries, while modern historians, starting with General Vallancey at the beginning of the 19th century, supported the theory according to which the round towers were, in fact, Phoenician or Indo-Scythic origin. While explaining the origins of the towers, Vallancey also proposed their most important function, that of acting as safe keepers of fires from which all others in the nations could be lit.

Several historians continued to follow on Vallancey's proposals on the matter of the origin and function of the round towers in Ireland, but it wasn't until Dr. Petrie that all these theories would be organized and made relevant as closer to what we may believe today to be the truth. W. Wakeman presents in his book the three main conclusions that Dr. Petre gives in his research. First of all, he shows that the round towers are, in fact, of Christian origin. Second, they served as keeps, for defense purposes, or as belfries, and third, that they also performed a function as watch-towers, corroborated with the defense function previously shown. All of the above seem to provide a more logical explanation as to why the round towers were generally discovered close to a monastery or church and why they were build of stone rather than wood.

The debate, however, has definitely not ended here. Some of the sources have pointed out to the fact that many of the round towers have names of heathen divinities, while at the same time, some of them were already destroyed by the great earthquake in Ireland in 448. Corroborated, these two statements tend to show that the round towers may have an earlier origin, perhaps even going back to Antiquity.

Their origins can thus be included, from this perspective, in a wide interval of time, going from the Antiquity to almost as late as the 9th or the 10th century AD.

The origins of the round towers in Ireland are also difficult to determine because they are mentioned in documents only during the 10th century, although this obviously does not necessarily emphasize the idea that they were also built during that period. Nevertheless, the first mention of round towers as cloigtheach comes around the year 950 AD, with several other documentary sources mentioning the round tower throughout the 10th century, in 964, 981, or 995-996. This has led many historians, such as Roger Stalley, to show that the building of the round towers can thus be dated between this period of time (approximately 950 AD) to the time when the construction of a round tower is last mentioned in a document, somewhere in the 13th century (1238).

One does not necessarily need to take this approach as the only valid one. In my opinion, Roger Stalley bases his information only on documentary sources that point to some of the destructions incurred by round towers to draw conclusions as to when these were initially built. However, one may point out that the fact that the burning down of a round tower in 950 AD is mentioned in a written document does not necessarily mean that it was also built during the same period of time. The theory according to which the round towers may have their origins much before that can still stand under these conditions.

It is difficult to scientifically date the round towers, however, there are distinct methodologies that have been used in time to provide relevant clues as to when these buildings were constructed. The masonry is sometimes used as a reasonable technique of dating the round towers. For example, some of the masonry used in some of the round towers has certain characteristics that can help date the construction during the 12th century. At the same time, architectural additions and ornaments could point to the use of the Romanesque style in some of the decorations on the round towers.

Another important technique sometimes used in dating Irish round tower is based on the geological composition of the existing rocks. Some of these, using the superposition of large pieces of stone, have the characteristics of early Irish churches, which would help move the creation of these round towers as far back as the 5th or the 6th century. Other dating techniques go into deeper detail, such as the doorways which can resemble either the Gothic arched style (dating the overall construction to the 11th or 12th century), or simple, non-arched doorways, making the construction much older than the one with arched doorways.

Carbon dating has been used on round towers to determine the period of time during which they were built. For Clondalkin, close to Dublin, for example, a reasonable period of time ranging from 890 to 1150 was determined as being the time during which this tower was built. The problem with carbon dating is relevant from this very description: the intervals of time provided through this methodology are significantly wide, spanning over a period of almost three centuries. This is not very exact in determining when a particular round tower was built.

Some of the dating techniques are not necessarily as scientific as carbon dating. Chronicles, for example, generally mention the existence, construction or destruction of different round towers. The earliest reference of a round tower dates back, as previously mentioned, to 950 AD, while the latest one is as late as 1238. The problem with this type of dating technique is that it simply shows that there were round towers in Ireland during that respective period of time rather than create a certain interval of time during which these towers were built. The chronicles cannot guarantee, for example, that these towers were not built before the time they were mentioned in the chronicle.


The detailed discussion surrounded the origin of the round towers have affected, in many ways, the debates around the actual function of these round towers. Passing swiftly through theories that, even in the 20th century, propose ideas according to which the round towers are somehow interrelated to concentrate cosmic energy, let us focus on some of the more rational analysis.

One such analysis proposed the defensive function as the essential function of the round tower. There are, indeed, supportive elements for such a theory. First of all, historically, if we believe these towers to have been built somewhere in the Early Middle Ages, perhaps as far back as the 5th or 6th centuries, we can identify this period of time as the one immediately following the collapse of the Roman Empire. At this point, civilization in the West comes under extended pressure from hordes of invading… [END OF PREVIEW]

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