The round tower at Ardmore, Co. Waterford is one of my favourites. It stands in a graveyard which overlooks the seaside village of the same name and is one of the finest round towers in Ireland. The site also has some other interesting features, as you’ll find out if you keep reading 😉
The monastery in Ardmore was founded by St. Declan in the 5th century. Perhaps the most notable thing about St. Declan is that he was already busy converting Irish people to Christianity before St. Patrick came along. It is believed that he met the great snake banisher in Rome while he was being ordained as a bishop. There’s more information about him on Wikipedia if you’re interested – he was considered important enough to have had his life documented.
The round tower is believed to be the last one to be built in Ireland. It is thought to have been built in the mid to late 12th century. This is quite late in the life of the monastery that had been here for hundreds of years by then. Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that when the base of the tower was excavated in the 19th century, skeletons were found underneath it.
This sandstone tower is quite distinctive in few ways. While all round towers are narrower at the top than at the bottom, the batter on this one is more pronounced than usual. At its base, the tower is 5 metres. At the top it is just over 3 metres. It also has 3 string courses around its outside. These don’t coincide with what is thought to be its interior floors and are merely decorative. The tower had 6 floors over its basement. Its doorway faces towards the cathedral, which presumably was the site of the original church. According to Brian Lalor’s book, there some decorative non-structural corbels in the tower. Of course, nobody can see these because there is no access to the tower these days.
The 19th century was a busy time for the tower. In the mid-century, some internal floors were installed in the tower but were removed about 50 years later. Repairs were also carried out to the top of the tower. The capstone was repaired and a cross placed on the top. More can be read about the repairs here.
Even if the tower wasn’t here, Ardmore would be worth a visit for the other features to be found in the graveyard. As you can see from the above photo, there are some rather striking sculptures set into the gable end of the ruined cathedral. It is though that the sculptures were moved to here when the cathedral was extended. They denote scenes from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve and the Judgement of Solomon.
The cathedral itself was built in the 11th/12th century. It is thought that some of it incorporates an earlier church. Although the cathedral is now ruined, there is still plenty to see inside. 3 ogham stones were excavated on the site and 2 of them are still to be found here (the 3rd is housed in the National Museum of Ireland). Ogham is an old form of written Irish and it dates back to the 4th to 7th century. Amazingly, it can be read.
Close to the cathedral is St. Declan’s Oratory. It is believed to be built over the grave of St. Declan. If there was ever anything of value in here, it is long gone. All that remains inside is an open stone-lined pit which has been empty for many a year. Still, it is an interesting little building and it is in better condition than similar shrines in Clonmacnoise and Glendalough. The oratory was renovated and re-roofed in 1716.
In 1947, the cargo ship SS Ary capsized off the Waterford coast, killing 15 of its 16 crew. The dead sailors are now buried in the cemetery.
So in conclusion, Ardmore is well worth a visit. The area around it is rather nice too if you’re in the mood for some pretty seaside scenery. And if you fancy long walks, you could always try St. Declan’s Way
Getting There: This is pretty easy to find. The tower overlooks the village of Ardmore and is well signposted.
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