Timahoe is a village about 12km south of Portlaoise, Co. Laois. It’s a rather pretty place and more importantly, from this blog’s point of view, it has a round tower! A rather fine one at that.
Timahoe gets its name from a monastery which was founded by St. Mochua in the 7th century (Tígh Mochua = St. Mochua’s Church). Little remains of this monastery now, apart from the tower. The former church which stands alongside the tower was built much later and is now a heritage centre.
St. Mochua founded a monastery here sometime in the 7th century. He is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters as having died in 637AD and that “His wondrous acts are mainly legendary”. Now that is what you call an obituary 😀
The tower itself is believed to date from the 12th century and is built from sandstone (bottom 3m) and limestone. It is leaning a little but it is fully intact. What’s striking about it, apart from it being in such good condition, is the doorway. It is unique – no other tower has a Romanesque style doorway. It is also quite a wide tower at its base. 5.58m. The tower itself stands 29.26m and the door sill 4.5m from the ground.
There is little else of note to be seen in the churchyard but it is in a rather nice setting. The ruins near the tower probably stand on the spot of where the original church originally stood. Most of what is there now dates from the 17th century, with parts of an older 15th century church included in its wall.
The tower is very easy to access. It is in a church yard close to the village green in Timahoe and is hard to miss. It’s visible from all routes into the village.
To Irish people of a certain age, the mention of the name Seir Kieran will most likely conjure up memories of the 1980s and 1990s. The days when Offaly could field competitive hurling teams, always featuring handy players from the Seir Kieran GAA club. Ah, those were the days… The Seir Kieran club is located in the small village of Clareen and gets its name from the nearby monastery which has all but vanished. Just like its round tower really
The monastery, known as Saighir, was founded by St. Ciarán the Elder. (Seir Kieran is simply an Anglicisation of the monastery name and its founder) He was given this name to differentiate him from St. Ciarán who founded Clonmacnoise. There is quite a bit of confusion about St. Ciarán’s life and plenty of rabbit holes to go down if you want to figure it all out! The basic facts seem to be that Ciarán was born in the 5th century, possibly in Cape Clear, Co. Cork. He was a Christian before St. Patrick’s arrival into Ireland and may have been studying abroad by then. He seems to have been ordained a bishop in Rome prior to his return to Ireland,planning to be a hermit. He settled in Saighir but instead of being left in peace to do hermitty things, the place turned into a thriving monastery. His monastery became the burial place for the Kings of Osraige (Ossory), something that would have had quite some status at the time. Ciarán met St. Patrick and became one of his helpers. He became the first Bishop of Ossory – that title continues to this day.
Over time, Saighir fell into decline. It wasn’t helped by being raided by the Vikings but being superseded by Aghaboe Abbey in the 11th century was the death knell really. It was finally dissolved in 1568, as part of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Little remains of St Ciarán’s monastery or the round tower. There is now a 19th century Church of Ireland church built on the site. It is possible that it is standing in much the same place as the original monastery church would have stood. The church (which I haven’t been inside) contains a number of early medieval memorial slabs which probably were here prior to it being built. The round tower is close by but there isn’t a lot to see now.
There are just 6 courses of stones remaining of the tower overground and it is sitting in a field at a lower level to the rest of the adjoining grave yard. The basement can still be seen and taking that into account, it brings its height to 2.9m high. Its diameter at the base is 5.14m. Still, it is possible to see just how thick the walls of these towers were.
The entrance gate to the tower was added later. There is a bullaun stone embedded in the wall of the tower under the gate. Nobody knows what these were for but they are often found in old ecclesiastical sites.
Elsewhere, there is the base of a 10th century high cross. And that more or less sums up what’s to be found here.
Date of Visit: 22nd May 2009
The site is just outside the village of Clareen. It is signposted from the road and is easy to get to (link).
Whether it’s worth it or not is debatable. There is quite a bit of history attached to this monastery and to St. Ciarán but not a lot to see if you’re a tower spotter.
Recently, I posted about round towers so I thought I’d write something about the ones I have visited so far. Some of my memories might be a bit shaky but when did that ever stop me? 😀 I shall begin with the first round tower I ever clapped eyes on. O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.
The remains of the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise are located about 11km south of Athlone. It sits on the banks of the River Shannon, in an area that was of great strategic importance at the time. It was originally founded in the mid 6th century by St. Ciarán and went on to become a significant monastery. Some manuscripts, including the Annals of Tighernach (11th century) and Book of the Dun Cow (12th century), were written here. It wasn’t just literature which was a feature of life here. The Clonmacnoise Crozier was unearthed when Temple Ciarán (reputed to be St. Ciarán’s final resting place) was being excavated. It can now be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. Or on a postage stamp (remember those?). There are numerous early Christian carved stone slabs on display too.
Clonmacnoise was a settlement of some importance, growing to include a cathedral, seven churches, three high crosses and two round towers. The monastery was raided numerous times by the native Irish, the Vikings and the Normans. It began to fall into decline around the 12th century, partly because Athlone was starting to rise in prominence by this stage. It was finally destroyed and closed in 1552. Just about all of the monastery remains in ruin, apart from Temple Connor which was restored by the Church of Ireland and continues to be used occasionally. These days, Clonmacnoise is a popular tourist attraction. If navigating the winding roads of west Offaly aren’t for you, you can explore the place without getting out of your chair. Google Streetview has paid a visit.
Photo taken on a boat out on the river
O’Rourke’s Tower was built in the 12th century. It is recorded as having being completed in 1124AD. It is built from ashlar limestone masonry (in other words, the limestone has been cut into square blocks) and it is thought that the master mason had knowledge about European tower building techniques. Sadly, the tower is no longer as tall as it originally was. It is estimated that ⅓ of its original height is now missing. A lightning strike is the most likely reason for this. The stonework on the last 3 metres of the tower is thought to have been added at a later date – if you look you can see for yourself where this newer masonry is. The 8 windows at the top are unusual and it is unlikely the original tower had as many on the bell floor. Today, the tower stands 19.3 m in height, the door-sill is 3.5m from the ground and its diameter at the base is 5.62m.
The doorway of the tower faces towards the cathedral which is to the south-west. The cathedral is the oldest dated stone church in Ireland and is recorded as having been completed in 909AD. If you’re still reading this and are taking a note of the dates, you might have noticed that cathedral is quite a bit older than the tower. In Brian Lalor’s excellent The Irish Round Tower book, he wonders was there a timber predecessor to the tower? These towers were belfries after all…
Clonmacnoise is a little unusual in that there is a second round tower on-site. This tower is shorter than O’Rourke’s Tower and is attached to the remains of Temple Finghin. It stands 16.76m high with a diameter at the base of 3.97m. It is believed to have been built in the mid to late 12th century. Because this is an engaged tower, it doesn’t have the usual features found on free-standing towers. Its doorway is at ground level and would have been accessed from the interior of the church. It has some small windows in the drum but none on the top bell floor.
In 1864, the church attached to the tower was vandalised by “by a person from Birr on a ‘pleasure party’ to the Seven Churches (Clonmacnoise)”. They were prosecuted and the proceeds from this were used to repair the roof of the tower. Unusually, the tower’s roof has a herringbone design, though this is difficult to see in any photos I have. Which is yet another reason for me to pay a visit – it has been a while 🙂
Is there anything else worth looking at while you’re there?
Absolutely. Because Clonmacnoise was such a significant site, there was a lot going on here. The three high crosses are well worth a look. Even the North Cross which is mostly missing. The original crosses were taken indoors to preserve them and are now on display in the visitor centre. There are exact replicas of them standing in their original locations outside. There are also plenty of ruins and old Christian burial slabs dotted around the place. The Nun’s church, as seen in the collage below this, is 1km away but worth the short walk/drive.
Beside the monastery are the rather precarious looking remains of Clonmacnoise Castle. It is now fenced off but it’s still worth taking a look at. If only to try and figure out what is holding it up. The interior of it can be seen in the 1971 film Flight of the Doves. But unless you really really like Oirish films, I recommend you steer clear.
Clonmacnoise is one of the easier sites to access. You won’t get lost, miss the entrance or wonder where to park the car. It’s well signposted and there is a visitor centre run by the Office of Public Works (OPW) here. More info here
I’ve been a bit of a tower enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a small child, no journey in my parents’ car was complete without me spotting water towers and excitedly pointing them out to them. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day 😀 Anyway, I came to my senses and decided that water towers were rather underwhelming and really not worth seeking out. Instead, I turned my attention to round towers.
These are somewhat enigmatic, narrow, cylindrical stone towers which were built almost 1,000 years ago mostly in Ireland. Just three of them exist abroad; one in the Isle of Man, two in Scotland. Even at that, it’s likely there was an Irish hand or two involved it their construction. The first one I ever saw was O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise and it made quite an impression (“What happened to the roof? Where’s the door?”). When I moved into my teens, I led my cousin and her friends on an expedition to explore the nearby round tower in Swords. These towers also inspired me to make a collage at primary school but more of that later.
The clue to what an Irish round tower is lies in the Irish name for them. Cloigtheach means “bell house” or belfry. Indeed, some of these towers still stand beside the churches for which they were built.
It is believed that 80(ish) of them were built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are references to some of them in ancient writings, such as the Irish Annals. The first reference to one dates back to 950AD when the Vikings burned one in Slane, Co. Meath. The latest one was in Annaghdown Co. Galway in 1238. Both these towers have sadly vanished without a trace. As of 2020, there are 74 of them which can be visited. Some are in very good condition and there are still two of them which can be can be climbed (Kilkenny and Kildare). The others are in various states of repair; going from towers which still have their roofs to those which barely exist at all.
Despite the towers being labelled as Cloigtheachs, my primary school teachers didn’t get the memo. Being told that the towers were used as safe refuges for the monks and their treasures when marauding Vikings came-a-raiding fired my imagination. Aged 10 or 11, I made a collage of a daring monastery raid using felt and some other scraps of cloth which were lying was lying around in the classroom. The collage is long gone of course but you will be delighted to know that I’ve replicated it using modern technology. Sadly, drawing apps don’t give you the same smell of glue as 1980s art classes. What the teachers didn’t tell us was that (a) round towers can’t actually hold many people/things and (b) they’re just about the worst place you could hide out in from raiders. They are eminently burnable. Given the shape of the towers and the wooden floors that were in them, they had the potential to become deadly furnaces if they were set on fire. And it appears that that is what happened sometimes. There are records of towers being set on fire and people dying in them. The King of Fermanagh met his end in the tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh. The son of the King of Tara was murdered in Kells. The tower at Dysert O’Dea in County Clare was burned at some point. Nobody knows when or why but there is still a crack in its wall.
No two round towers are alike. There are variations in the building materials used, the style of the doors and windows and in the width and height of them. Still, they all follow a certain formula. They’re slender, stone towers which stand up to 40 metres in height. Their doorways tend to be located 2-3 meters from the ground and can only be accessed by a ladder. The windows are higher up in the tower and are narrow slits. Most of the towers are/were topped with a conical shaped roof. The doors of the towers face the west doorway of the churches they were a bell-tower for. And despite their heights, none of the towers appear to have had particularly deep foundations. Despite this, most of them are still standing
The image on the left isn’t my handwork (I think you can see who the real artist is here…) but it gives a good idea of what the interior of the towers was like. I found it on Pinterest so if by some chance someone knows who drew it, I will happily give credit for it.
Each tower had a basement and then a series of floors going from the doorway right up to the top of the building. It is thought that the floors were connected by ladders. Having climbed the tower in Kilkenny, I can confirm that this isn’t for the faint-hearted. There wasn’t always much room inside the towers either so it’s debatable how many things were ever stored in there.
In the coming weeks, I shall write a little about the round towers I have visited. Here is a selection of them. Being a biased Offaly woman, I plan to start where the madness all began – Clonmacnoise.
Mizen Head is Ireland’s equivalent of Land’s End in the UK. In other words, it’s almost Ireland’s most southerly point but doesn’t quite manage that. That honour falls to the nearby Brow Head which is probably best known to people who like to point out that particular piece of trivia. Anyway, regardless of which headland you’re heading for, getting there can be a somewhat hair-raising experience. The roads are of the narrower, twistier variety and some of the locals seem to be wannabe Formula 1 drivers. So be on your guard, especially at bends.
A Fog Signal Station was built at the tip of Mizen Head in 1909. It was manned until 1993, after which it became a visitor centre. The original visitor centre was housed in the Lightkeepers’ Quarters until 2001, when the new visitor centre was built. There are still interesting exhibits in these old buildings. These include some of the old equipment used by the Lightkeepers, maps and charts. There is a stunning mural dedicated to the birds of the area in one of the buildings which is pure eye candy. Guglielmo Marconi carried out some of his earliest trans-Atlantic radio transmissions from the nearby village of Crookhaven (you can read more about it here) and there is information and equipment about his work in the radio room.
The best known feature at the Mizen Head Fog Signal Station is the beautiful suspension bridge which spans a gorge between the mainland and the tip of the headland. The original footbridge was constructed in 1909 and was one of the first bridges to use precast elements. It was the largest bridge of its kind at the time, with a span of 50m. In the early 2000s, it reached the end of its lifespan. It was decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with an almost identical replica. The new one is wider but is still built from reinforced concrete. If you want to nerd out and read all about the demolition of the old bridge and the construction of the new one, you can take a look at this
Mostly though, it’s the scenery that takes your breath away. Even though you can see that it was an overcast day when I was there, it did little to diminish the impact of the surroundings. It also made me wish I’d bothered to listen more closely in geography class because all around were spectacular real-life examples of all sorts of things we were told about. It’s largely Devonian sandstone in the area and you can really see evidence of how the landscape was formed
The walk out to the signal station itself is punctuated by various exhibits and viewing platforms. These include a sea arch (revives memories of geography class again) and a replica of a floor from the Fastnet Rock lighthouse which is 15km away, out in the Atlantic Ocean)
The Visitor’s Centre is worth a mention too. It has plenty of information, photographs and models of the area. Kudos too to the gift shop for not having cheesy new-wave Celtic mystic trip playing as you browse. And after doing all that walking and exploring, I couldn’t wait to tuck into the haddock and chips which were on the menu in the visitor centre’s cafe.
The Brownshill Dolmen can be found not too far outside Carlow town. What’s nice about this one is that it’s easy to get to. There’s a car park outside and a fenced-off walkway that leads from there to the dolmen itself. So although you still feel like you’re almost in someone’s field, you’re safe from marauding bulls, crops that behave like Triffids and erm…I’ll stop now.
Anyway, if you’re in search of a good dolmen, you can’t do much better than the Brownshill Dolmen. There are approximately 190 of them in Ireland, though they can also be found in other European countries and in Asia. This one has never been excavated, possibly because its capstone is estimated to weigh 150 tons. How the people who built it roughly 5,000 years ago managed it is sadly lost in the mist of times. It is believed that this one is the largest in Europe.
Dolmens usually consist of 2-3 stones, topped by a large capstone. It is believed that they would have originally been topped by mounds of stones. These have long since vanished, leaving behind a “skeleton”. Although they’re generally described as being tombs, there isn’t any concrete evidence one way or the other to say for sure that they were.
The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.
It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.
To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.
The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.