Clonmacnoise – 2 round towers for the price of 1

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.

Clonmacnoise Co Offaly,Ireland  Early Christian Site

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.

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Photo taken on a boat out on the river

O’Rourke’s Tower

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O’Rourke’s Tower with some humans for scale

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.

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…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 19.3m
Diameter at Base: 5.62m
Height at Door-Sill: 3.5m
Date: 12th Century (Annals references for 1124 and 1135)

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

 

McCarthy’s Tower

mccarthys_tower
McCarthy’s Tower and Temple Finghin

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.

mccarthys_tower_doorway
Entrance into the tower

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 🙂

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 16.76m
Diameter at Base: 3.97m
Height at Door-Sill: N/A
Suggested Date: Mid to late 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

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.

clonmacnoise_castle

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_collage

Getting there

Clonmacnoise is easy to find. It is well signposted and there is a car park outside the visitor centre. It is run by the Office of Public Works (OPW). More info here

Round Towers: The Start of an Occasional Series

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.

ORourkes_tower_1
O’Rourke’s Tower, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
cloigtheach
Cloigtheach/Round Tower as depicted on an old Ordnance Survey map

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 tower on Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh has also been climbable but it is unclear whether it is still the case. If anybody knows for sure and lets me know, I will happily amend this post. 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.

viking raid
A Viking raid on a fictional monastery. Not based on true events.

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

ebc16a21d0abed2d804357b9221c94a4

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.

round_tower_collage

 

Came for the signal station, fell for the scenery

mizen_head
Next stop, America!

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.

mizen_bridge_1

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

mizen_head_99_steps
The 99 Steps

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

mizen_head_folding.jpg
Folding
mizen_hut
Radio Signal Hut. One careful owner

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)

mizen_bridge_stitch

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.

IMG_20190822_131144

Brownshill Dolmen – best not caught under this one

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.

 

Shee Almshouse

Shee_Almshouse
The main entrance into the building – the one for the ladies

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.

shee_almshouse_rear
The entrance for the men which leads straight onto the first floor

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.

Click on a thumbnail to view some more photos

 

Plaster of Paris – in Dublin

The high cross is an early medieval form of Christian sculpture, unique to the British Isles. From around the 6th century onwards, monastic settlements developed all around Ireland. It is thought that high crosses were a way of marking out the sacred areas in the larger monasteries. The first high crosses are believed to have been made of wood and metal. Of course, none of these have survived to the present day. From around the 9th century onwards, the crosses began to be carved from stone. Interestingly, the earliest crosses appear to be replicas of the original wood and metal crosses, though in time their style evolved. There are almost 300 high crosses in Ireland, in various states of repair. They have become one of the iconic symbols of Ireland, appearing on everything from jewelry to postage stamps.

High Cross Stamps (2010)
Postage Stamps from 2010, featuring line drawings by Michael Craig. The price of stamps has certainly gone up since then.

Let’s get plastered

In the late 19th century/early 20th century, a greater interest and awareness of national identity and archaeology took hold around Europe. Seeing as trying to transport rather ancient, rather heavy stone crosses around was out of the question, they went for the next best option. Faithful copies.

At what turned out to be prohibitively expensive in the end, plaster casts of some of the better known high crosses were painstakingly created. From 1898 to 1910 these casts were made and shipped abroad to the UK, the USA and Australia.

Interestingly, in 2005 the replicas were exhibited in Aichi, Japan where they were seen by over 2 million people.

high_cross1
L-R the Tall Cross and Muiredeach’s Cross (Monasterboice, Co. Louth), Drumcliffe (Co. Sligo)

Completely by accident, in May 2011 I came across an exhibition of these replicas in the Museum of Decorative Arts & History in Dublin. And so, all I have to show for my visit are a couple of dodgy pre-smartphone mobile phone snaps and a nice booklet 🙂 It turned out to be a surprisingly compelling exhibition. I’ve seen loads of these high crosses over the years – it’s hard not to miss them- but I had never noticed how tall and imposing they were. In their normal setting, they’re out in the open air and somehow seem smaller. There’s nothing like standing in a darkened room with these crosses looming over you to concentrate the mind!

It was also a unique opportunity to see how these crosses evolved over time. The South Cross from Ahenny is a very basic cross which replicates its original wood and metal ancestors. The later Muireadach’s Cross is awash with scenes from scripture. Dysert O’Dea has a bishop on it and looks quite different to the others.

Interestingly, the Office of Public Works has gradually been making high-quality replicas of the better known high crosses around Ireland and moving the originals indoors. Following on, after a fashion, in the footsteps of the original plaster casters.

3 crosses
L-R South Cross(Ahenny) Tall Cross (Monasterboice, St Tola’s (Dysart O’Dea) and Drumcliffe

The crosses exhibited in this exhibition were:

The North & South Crosses, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary

The two high crosses in Ahenny
The two high crosses in Ahenny

These two 9th century crosses I’ve seen “in the wild”. These days, Ahenny is off the beaten track and I had to drive along some alarmingly narrow and twisty country roads to get to it. The two crosses are situated in a quiet cemetery that’s situated in a field close to the village of Ahenny. They’re all that remains of the monastery at Kilclispeen. The interesting thing about these two high crosses is that they appear to replicate the earlier wood/metal crosses and mostly have abstract art on them. There are some figures from scripture on the base of the North cross but they’re not so obvious on my photo. Both crosses are considered to be very fine examples of Hiberno-Saxon art and are just two of a number of high crosses in this style in the area.

Their plaster casts were made in 1906 by an Italian modeller named Sig. Orlandi. The cost of making the moulds for these two crosses ran to £151. The two casts were produced at a cost of £35.

Tall Cross & Muireadach’s Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth.

2 Monasterboice Crosses
Muireadoch’s Cross and the Tall Cross, both in Monasterboice

These are two crosses I saw on a geography field trip when I was a student. So not only do I not have photos of them (I am rather ancient, after all) but I barely remember them. I mostly remember our lecturer helpfully pointing out how the ground level in the cemetery was rising because of all the dead people buried there and that even when we died, we’d still have a contribution to make. Anyway, enough of that. What about the crosses?

Muireadach’s Cross is considered to be the finest of the high crosses in Ireland. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it was the first cross to be moulded, back in 1896. It dates to the 9th century and depicts many scenes from scripture. In recent years, concern has been expressed over the damage the weather is doing to the cross. The Tall Cross lives up to its name, being almost 7 metres in height. The process of making moulds of this cross proved to be tricky because of the condition of the base.

Drumcliffe High Cross, Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo

Drumcliffe High Cross
Drumcliffe High cross

Now this cross, I have no idea if I’ve ever seen. When I was 14 my family took a holiday in the north-west of Ireland and we visited Drumcliffe. These days it’s mostly known for being the alleged final resting place of W.B. Yeats (there are serious question marks over who’s in that grave) . In olden times, there was a monastery here. There is still a partial round tower remaining. There’s also this cross which I may have seen but not taken any particular notice of. It was cast in 1907 and is from the 11th or 12th century. Along with biblical scenes, it also has animals which is unusual.

St Tola’s Cross, Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare

This cross is unusual in that it has no ring. It also doesn’t look like most Irish high crosses. It is from the later Romanesque series of crosses and instead of having biblical scenes, has a bishop on the shaft. It was one of the last crosses to be copied, work taking place in 1908. It is thought that this cross may have had wooden additions but of course, these did not survive. In September 2020 I finally got to see this one in person.