Glendalough – 1.5 towers is better than none

Glendalough is one of my favourite crumbly old ruins sites and that’s not just because it boasts 1.5 round towers. Nestled in a valley in the Wicklow Mountains, the drive to it from any direction takes in some gorgeous scenery. The ruined monastery itself isn’t too shabby when it comes to its location either. Situated an hour from Dublin city centre, the area is popular with hikers who enjoy its many walking trails. As of 2020, there are nine marked walking trails

The monastery at Glendalough was founded by St. Kevin who died in 617AD. He was a hermit so it isn’t clear how much monastery building can be ascribed to him. Still, the site went on to become quite a significant monastic settlement. Even today, there are numerous ruins to be found and not just at the main site. This is where the stand-alone round tower and the one attached to a nearby church are to be found

glendalough_round_tower

The round tower here has survived through the centuries fairly well. It is known that its roof fell in at some point. There is an old photograph taken around 1870 which shows it with its roof missing. It was rebuilt from the original stones a few years later. It stands close to the ruined cathedral and is mostly built from local granite. 30m in height, it is one of the more impressive towers.

glendalough1_stats

 

The Partial Tower

glendalough_st_kevins_kitchen2
St. Kevin’s Kitchen. Not the local tea-room

St. Kevin’s Church, more commonly known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen is not too far away from the tower. This is a little 12th century church which has a partial round tower attached to its roof. It’s the “chimney” that gives the church its kitchen nickname. The tower would have served as the church’s belfry and is accessed from there. Sadly, the church is locked up so all anyone can do is look in through the gate. Still, it is an interesting variation on the classic round tower. It is believed that the church and the tower were built in the 12th century. The tower may have been a slightly later addition to the church.

glendalough2stats

Visit date: 5th March 2013

Getting There

Glendalough is easy to find and to access. The area is a popular hiking destination so there are car parks and good facilities. The monastery can be accessed by the original gateway. It is the only surviving medieval gateway to a monastic settlement in Ireland so that’s worth walking through. There is also a visitor centre on the site but unlike at Clonmacnoise, you don’t have to walk through it (and pay) in order to visit the extensive ruins.

Click on a thumbnail to view the gallery

The third (missing) tower I haven’t visited yet

Trinity Church isn’t part of the main monastic site at Glendalough. A ruined church, there are 18th century drawings of it with a round tower attached to its roof. A storm in 1818 led to the collapse of the tower. It can be seen from the road on Google Maps.

 

St. Mullins – so where’s the tower?

St. Mullins in rural Carlow is one of those sites where there’s very little round tower to be seen. Yet, it is still somewhere worth visiting if you’re interested in crumbly old ruins. There is plenty more to see besides the stump of the round tower in this pretty location.

st_mullins
St Mullins, as seen from the top of the nearby Norman Motte

The original monastery was founded by St. Moling who was Bishop of Ferns in the 7th century. He died in 696. He may have been descended from a King of Leinster, though a lot of his back story sounds more like mythology than fact. Before establishing the monastery here, he was a monk in Glendalough. The Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, referred to him as “”good and wise man, excellently versed in the knowledge of the Scriptures”. The 8th Century Book of Mulling (now digitized and available online) was possibly written here. It has been speculated that it is a copy of an earlier book. Possibly even one dating back to St. Moling’s time.

St Mullins Round Tower
This is all that remains of the tower. It was found in 1880 during excavations by the Office of Public Works

The round tower (or what’s left of it) is built from granite. It now stands just 1 metre in height, with five courses of masonry.  The church it stands beside was built at a later date. While it goes without saying that it is a real shame the tower has all but disappeared, its stump does give a good idea of how these towers were constructed.

St Mullins Round Tower 2

 

Getting There

The roads to St. Mullins won’t win any prizes for wideness or straightness. It is easy to find though and there’s plenty of room to park. It is something of a popular local beauty spot so there are public toilets close to the graveyard and a cafe beside the nearby river.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: Unknown
Diameter at Base: 5.1m
Height at Door-Sill: Unknown
Suggested Date: 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

Visit date: 5th March 2020

Kilkenny – this one is climbable!

IMG_3496
I nearly got locked into the cathedral grounds overnight when taking this photo (oops!)

The round tower in Kilkenny stands beside the rather wonderful and historic St. Canice’s Cathedral. It is a complete tower, although it lacks the usual capped roof. Instead, the top of the tower is a low stone wall with a modern day cage around it. This is to stop people who’ve climbed to the top of it (yes!) from falling off. The ground is a long way down – just over 30 metres in fact. And yes, it does lean a bit but let’s not think about that. The cathedral and the tower are built on top of a hill, which gives it a fine view over Kilkenny. It is thought that this led to the tower doubling up as a watchtower and why the roof was either removed or not added in the first place.

The original monastery here was founded by St. Canice in the 6th century. The original church for which the tower was a belfry has vanished without a trace. The doorway of the tower faces away from the cathedral, suggesting that the church stood elsewhere.

IMG_3977
Weather permitting, the tower can be climbed. As you can see from this photo, the weather was not permitting on this particular day.

The original ladders and floors in the tower are long gone but happily, it can still be climbed. There are a number of wooden floors and connecting ladders which will bring you right up to the top. It’s probably not a climb for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. The interior of of the tower is quite small and the climb to the top involves ascending a series of steps which are glorified wooden ladders. Still, if you make it to the top, the view is worth the effort. There are so few of these towers which can be ascended, it’d be a shame to pass up the opportunity.

blurry_me
A more youthful me atop the tower

Getting There

The cathedral and tower are best visited on foot. Parking is limited in the area and a quick glance at Google Streetview  might dissuade you from driving the lane-way that goes past the front gate 😉  There is ample parking in the city’s car parks (Market Yard and Market Cross Shopping Centre are 5 minutes walk away). Besides, nobody visits Kilkenny just for the tower…

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 31m
Diameter of Base: 4.77m
Height of Door Sill: 3.3m
Suggested Date: 11th 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

There’s a round tower in Seir Kieran? Ye Gods!

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 in their. 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

seir_kieran_round_tower
Seir Kieran Round Tower ^

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. His plan was to be a hermit and he settled in Saighir. However, instead of being left in peace to do hermitty things, people started to flock to him and the place turned into a thriving monastery. In time, Ciarán’s 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 though the seat is elsewhere.

Over time, Saighir fell into decline. It wasn’t helped by being raided by the Vikings but being superseded by Aghaboe Abbey 30km away 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.

seir_kieran_round_tower_interior

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.

seir_kieran_bullaun

Elsewhere, there is the base of a 10th century high cross. And that more or less sums up what’s to be found here.

Seir Kieran (3)

Date of Visit: 22nd May 2009

Getting there

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.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 2.9m
Diameter at Base: 5.14m
Height at Door-Sill: Unknown
Suggested Date: Unknown

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

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.

clonmacnoise_from_shannon

Photo taken on a boat out on the river

O’Rourke’s Tower

ORourkes_tower_2
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

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.

 

Duncannon Fort

I’ve been in or around the seaside town of Duncannon many times but until this year had never got around to visiting its star-shaped fort. I’ve seen it from a distance, I’ve looked up at it from the beach that lies underneath it and I’ve even walked past the entrance gates. The fort, which has long since ceased to be an active facility, is open to the public during the summer months. And as I discovered when I finally did get around to visiting and took the excellent guided tour, it’s a fascinating work in progress.

duncannonfort
The layout of the fort as it is today

A Brief History

The fort is built at the tip of a peninsula, overlooking the entrance into Waterford Harbour. As strategic locations go, it’s one of the better ones.  The width of the bay and the layout/depth of the channel means that one fort is enough for keeping an eye on anything coming and going by sea. More bang for your buck when it comes to forts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fort which stands here now isn’t the first one to have been built on the site. The present fort dates from the 16th century but it was had previously been home to a Norman fort of some sort in the 12th century. There is also evidence that suggests there was a wooden fort here going further back into history. Old maps from the 16th/17th century show a ruined church, a castle and some defensive structures on the site. These are long gone but the stone from them has no doubt been reincorporated into what’s here now.

Some of the rebuilt buildings in the yard

Fearing an invasion by the Spanish Armada, the present fort was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587-88. They never arrived but that didn’t mean that it didn’t get to see some action. In 1645 it was captured by  Irish Catholic Confederation forces and remained under their control until 1650. Oliver Cromwell, arguably the least popular Englishman to ever tread on Irish soil, tried but failed to recapture it a year earlier. His son-in-law Henry Ireton got his hands on it a year later. It is believed that both monarchs who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 stayed in Duncannon Fort before leaving the country.  King James II left for France on 3rd July 1690 whilst the victorious William of Orange stayed there in September of the same year.

During the 1798 Rebellion, the fort remained under British control. Indeed, it became a prison for captured Irish rebels and a place where some of them were executed. Depending on which version of the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy” you listen to, the title character meets his end in Duncannon. Or Dungannon which is at the other end of the country..

The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat
The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat

In Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) the fort is described as “..adapted for mounting 42 pieces of cannon, and, including ” the bombproof” erected in 1815, contains barracks for 10 officers and 160 men, residences for the chaplain, fort-major, storekeeper, and other officers, and a chapel for the garrison; the whole is surrounded by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge, and the only entrance is defended by a portcullis.” 

The buildings in the fort were built at different times but look more uniform these days because of changes made to the site in the run-up to World War I. They were covered with roughcast and Tarmacadam was poured on the ground. This covered over the cobblestones which had been there. At least one archway was knocked so that tanks could be driven into the fort. Despite the alterations, there are still many older features remaining intact. The dry moat and sloping walls, circular lunette fortifications, tunnels and gun batteries being some of these.

The fort was handed over to the Irish Army in 1922 when British rule ended here. It was largely burnt down during the civil war the following year. With the onset of World War II (a.k.a. “The Emergency” because we didn’t do wars here) the fort was partially rebuilt and a military presence reinstated. The old Governor’s house now has 1943 (the year it was rebuilt) and the logo of the Irish army on the front of it.

IMG_5710
Burke’s House

A caretaker’s house (locally known as Burke’s house, after the family who lived in it) was built in 1939 as part of the refortification. Unlike the other buildings here, its front door isn’t level with the ground but has steps up to its front door. This is because when they began to excavate the foundations, they found some human remains. It’s thought this is where a graveyard had been. It’s known that at one stage there was a church close by.

The fort was used as a camp for the Reserve Defence Forces for many years, before finally being handed over to Wexford County Council in 1993. As of 2018, there are still parts of the fort which are too dangerous for members of the public to access. Happily, there are still many places which are safe and will give the visitor a good overall view of what life was like in a place like this.

The fort is also visible from the beach below. As the tour guide remarked, the window which overlooks the beach now has iron bars on it to ward off a newer type of invader.

fort from the beach

Visitor Information

Duncannon Fort is only open during the summer months. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day. The official website for opening dates/times is https://duncannonfort.ie/ Admission is by guided tour only but it’s well worth it.

– Click on a thumbnail to launch the gallery –