Round Towers (in Irish “Cloigtheach” meaning bell-house) are a distinctive feature of the Irish landscape and are evidence of the rich history of Ireland. Nowadays many of them survive as ruins and only some have been restored.
Round Towers were free-standing structures shaped as a stony tube and covered by a conical roof of stone. They were around 30m high and had a single doorway, normally built several metres above the ground. Inside wooden floors divided the space in storeys and the last one, under the roof, was illuminated by four windows. Step ladders led to the upper floors.
From the distance their silhouettes have a natural elegance due to the gradual reduction in diameter as the tower’s height increases. They were built from the early tenth to the early thirteenth century spanning over three hundred years of history.
During the nineteenth century archaeologists and scholars tried to discover the purpose of the towers. They came to eccentric answers: round towers could have been used as fire temples (for sun worship) or astronomical observatories or monuments to Priapus.
Some of them understood they were Christian buildings and gave different interpretations. They could have been built by the Irish followers of St Symeon Stylites who spent his life in isolation on top of a column or used as penitential tower.
In 1845 George Petrie (artist, scholar and antiquary) published a book in which he demonstrated the ecclesiastical origin and function as bell towers of these peculiar buildings. This theory seems to be confirmed also by the Irish word “Cloigtheach” meaning bell-house.
He also showed the towers were associated with monasteries where the ringing of the bell was essential for the monastic life calling the monks to prayers.
Other investigations encouraged the belief they were places of refuge used especially during the Viking invasions. It was easy to imagine monks climbing up a ladder to the doorway, taking refuge inside, pulling up the ladder and locking the wooden door.
However wooden doors could be easily burned or broken down and often rounds towers weren’t built in a safe and strategic position.
So one can conclude that the towers were erected as bell towers and only secondly as refuge during emergencies.
They were built with external scaffoldings showing the builders had a very skilled expertise in the use of pulleys and hoists.
At first the roofs were made of wood and then, because of vulnerability to fire and lightening, the stone roofs were introduced in order to reduce the dangers. Also the stone roofs improved acoustics and bells’ resonance.
Irish builders didn’t care about the importance of deep foundations, which, in some cases, were only at 0.5-1 m below the ground level or over graves.
Anyway the building of the round towers represents a big technological and architectural milestone in Irish society along history.
County Mayo boasts five of the best well preserved round towers in Ireland. They are located at Aughagower, Balla, Killala, Meelick and Turlough. They are magnificent relics of medieval Christian Ireland and superb examples of medieval stone masonry in the County.
Aughagower round tower was built between 973 and 1013 AD. It is 16m high and well preserved up to the fourth floor and open to the sky having no roof. The original round-headed doorway faces East and stands at 2.2m above the present ground level. It is about 1.5m high and 65cm wide. In recent centuries a second doorway facing North-West was inserted at ground level; it is 1.6m high and 75cm wide.
According to legend the top section, having been struck by lightening, landed on the hill of Tavenish, half a mile distant. An enterprising local woman picked up the cap stone and wrapped it up in her apron and took it to the church where it is still to be seen today.
Balla Round Tower is incomplete and survives to a height of 10m. It was built sometime along the 12th century as the traces of Romanesque moulding on the lower course of the upper door suggest. It is estimated to be once at a height of 30m. The tower has two doorways, the original which boasts a lintel reused an early medieval cross slab and a late medieval second one at ground level.
Two bullaun stones are incorporated within the walls.
Killala Round Tower dated back to the 12th century and is a testament to the historic distinction of the village as an ecclesiastical centre. It is one of the best examples of complete round towers in Mayo and is 25.5 metres high standing on a 1 metre plinth comprised of 20 large stones. The doorway is at a height of 3.5 metres and faces SSE. There are three windows facing ENE, SSE and W. At the last floor under the roof the traditional four windows face NNE, ESE, SSW and WNW. The round tower was built out of large stones of limestone, while the doorway bears some light brown sandstone blocks which contrast with the grey of the entire tower. There is also a noticeable bulge in the stonework about halfway up the tower.
Meelick Round Tower is a fine well preserved tower situated on a hill 3 miles South-West of Swinford Town. The tower was built between 923 and 1013 A.D. on the site of an ecclesiastical foundation attributed to Saint Broccaidh. Meelick was once the principal abbey in the Barony of Gallen.
It is one of five round towers in the county and is 22metres high. The circumference of the tower at the base is over 17metres and its doorway is visible about 3.5 metres from the ground. There is a stone floor over a vault above the doorway. The stonework from which it is made consists of sandstone that gleams with quartz and has patches of lichen in places making it an attractive monument. The tower was restored in 1880, however the conical cap is still missing.
There is an early gravestone, with crudely interlaced cross and border bearing an Irish inscription dating from the 10th or 11th century, situated at the foot of the tower. The tombstone bears the inscription: "AR PAIDIR DO GRIENI" ("A prayer for Griene.").
The 23 metres high Turlough Round Tower stands on a hillside overlooking the gardens for the National Museum of Country Life. It was built sometime along the 9th century and is abutted by a 18th century church and a graveyard.
The original arched doorway stands at a height of 4 metres and is blocked up. A later dated doorway was added to the tower. Four large windows, facing the four cardinal points, were built at the bell floor level. The drum bears four small windows.
The capstone was substantially repaired in 1880 and looks lower and fatter than most other examples still in existence.
Little is known about the ecclesiastic settlement but traditionally it is believed St Patrick founded the first church here
in 441 long before the tower was built.