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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Ireland’s Mystery Towers

The only form of architecture unique to Ireland is the Round Tower. There are 73 still standing after a thousand year, though 47 have lost their conical cap.

We are proud of them but don’t know who built them or why. Where was the first one built and by whom? We don’t have the answers but have plenty of theories.

It has been claimed that they were fire temples of Hindu origin, druidic celestial observation posts and penitential prisons.

In 1832 a Mr Henry O’Brian was awarded £20 by the Royal Irish Academy for his paper suggesting they were sexual symbols of Indian origin.

More recent theories insist they stored treasure and provided refuge from Nordic raiders.

In 1845 George Petrie’s scientific study concluded they were of Christian origin, their single door pointing in the direction of the main entrance of the church beside them. He suggested that they functioned as bell towers.

Each theory has its own justification and weaknesses. The towers were not good defensive structures, they could be surrounded easily and the occupants smoked out. They were often called ‘bell houses’ but there is no trace of bells been hung in them. The tradition Irish bell was hand held and shaking it out of a narrow window was hardly worth the climb up.

I have my own theory. When the towers were built between the early 10th and 13th centuries a reform movement was underway led by the Culdees (Ceili Dei). They sought a return to the roots of Celtic spirituality, the teaching of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. One of their handbooks was the interviews of John Cassian with the desert masters in the year 390. In it he speaks of visiting a monastery on the banks of the Nile that was ‘located on a height and stood like a tall lighthouse for the area or, to use a gospel expression, a city on a hill’. This image of a guiding light may have inspired tower-raising at a time of spiritual renewal.

Once a round tower was built it could serve many purpose – safe-box, bolt-hold, look-out. A stone building was a novelty so people would have flocked to see it. Soon it became a status symbol – every self-respecting monastery had to have one.

Today the Round Tower is a reminder that we have a rich past that we do not fully understand and appreciate. May they stand for another thousand years!

(You can read of my visits to forgotten roots of Irish culture on the Facebook pages of Hugh MacMahon.)


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