Oughterard – Pint Sized

The original monastery at Oughterard is said to have been founded by St. Briga (aka. St Brigid). Confusingly, this isn’t the same St. Brigid who is connected with the settlement in nearby Kildare or one of the many other Brigids out there. Honestly, your head would start to spin if you try to figure all of it out. Less confusingly (and more of that in a moment), it is also the final resting place of Arthur Guinness, who founded that brewery.

Little remains of the original monastery now, apart from the round tower. It stands at the back of a cemetery which is found at the top of a hill. Indeed, the Irish name for Oughterard is Uachtar Ard or high upper place. Like many other monasteries, it was raided by the Vikings. In the case of Oughterard, it was raided by the wonderfully named Sigtrygg Silkbeard who was a well-known Dublin-based Viking. At one point, the area was owned by Dermot MacMurrough, who’s possibly buried near another round tower

Now partially ruined, the tower here is built from shale rubble. Its doorcase is round-headed and made from granite. There is a padlocked metal door now in the doorway, ensuring that nobody’s getting in.

Close to the tower is a ruined church which dates from the 14th century. Its most striking feature, apart from the window which faces the cemetery gate, is the stairs turret which looks like it’s ready to topple over o_O Looking at other photos online, it is still possible to climb it but it wasn’t for me!

Inside the wall of the church is a plaque which begins “In the adjoining vault are deposited the mortal remains of Arthur Guinness…..” Guinness was born locally in either 1724 or 1725 – the date and place of his birth are disputed. Tradition has it that his grandfather and his father brewed ale, so it was inevitable that he’d end up continuing that line of business. After initially leasing a brewery in Leixlip, he signed a 9,000 year lease at a site in St. James’s Gate, Dublin. This is where the Guinness brewery and adjoining tourist trap continue to operate to this day.

Getting There

These days, the cemetery is marketed as part of “Arthur’s Way”, a Guinness related tourist trail run by Kildare County Council. The entrance is near a bend in a country road but there is room to park along there. It is a well-maintained site and even though there isn’t a lot here, it’s quite a pleasant place to spend a while. There are some nice views too.

Taghadoe

I went to university in Maynooth in the early 1990s and spent my time there blissfully unaware that a 2o minute bike ride out of town would’ve taken me to a round tower. Anyway, I took the opportunity to finally take a look at the round tower in Taghadoe after all these years. What’s 30 years in the lifespan of a round tower anyway?

Sorry about the overcooked looking photo – this is exactly what came out of my phone. Visiting at 8:30pm on a summer’s evening isn’t the best time for tower snaps

Very little is known about the monastic site which once stood here. Taghadoe is attributed to St. Tua (also known as St. Ultan the Silent). The only other thing known about the monastery is that one of its abbots (Folachtach of Tech-Tua, died 770AD) had previously been abbot of Clonmacnoise.

All that remains of the monastery is the tower. It stands in a small, well-kept graveyard beside a ruined 19th century church. It is built from limestone and stands 19.9 metres high. Above the round-headed doorway is what appears to be a heavily worn head. There is a similar feature in Monasterboice, some 80km away. At one point, the tower was used as a coal store of all things and doorway was cut into the wall. It was closed up in the 19th century and my untrained eye couldn’t say for sure where the doorway once was.

Taghadoe Round tower
How dairy come along and take photos of our tower

And there you have it…. There isn’t a lot to see here other than the tower. The church beside it was built in 1821 and abandoned 40 or so years later. The site surrounded by a dairy farm and fields of cattle – as a result, my visit was soundtracked to the sound of vigorous mooing and the scent of cow dung 🙂

Getting There

The tower is easy to find – it is on the side of a country road, 5km south of Maynooth. There isn’t a lot of parking around here, so be mindful of where you leave your car and don’t block any gateways.

Kells – the one in Meath

There are two monastic sites in Ireland which are called Kells. One is in Co. Kilkenny (note to self, write about that one soon) and the other is in Co. Meath. The Co. Meath Kells has a round tower but as you’ll soon see, there is a lot more to the place than that.

The founding of the monastery here is attributed to St. Colmcille (a.k.a. St. Columba) around 554AD. Colmcille spent most of his life in Scotland and founded Iona Abbey in 563. The monastery at Kells was re-founded around 807AD, still with strong connections to Iona. This explains how the world-famous Book of Kells came to be in Kells. It isn’t clear when or where the book was written but it is generally believed that it came from Iona. It was likely moved to Kells for safekeeping because Iona, which is on an island, was frequently being raided by Vikings. The book went on to spend several centuries in Kells. It was moved to Dublin for safe keeping in 1654 and then given to Trinity College where it can still be seen. Most of what is to be found here now dates from after the monastery’s “reboot”.

The tower, as seen from the street

The round tower stands in the corner of a churchyard and when viewed from the street, can be seen in its entirety. It has a plinth at its base, which isn’t often seen on these towers. Inside the churchyard, the ground is about 2m higher. And so, unlike many towers the doorway is now lower and can be seen without craning one’s neck 🙂

Less neck cranage required!

The tower no longer has its cap but is in good condition otherwise. Unusually, it has five windows on the top floor, rather than the usual four. It is thought that these were to symbolise or overlook the five ancient roads leading into Kells. Originally it had six floors but they are long gone, along with the ladders which brought people to the top.

The doorway

What else is there?

The church for which the tower served as a belfry has long gone, replaced by a more modern building. Still, there are some 9th and 10 century high crosses in the churchyard. The South Cross stands near the round tower and is the oldest of these. It is somewhat worn but still fully intact.

The South Cross

The same can’t be said for the West Cross which is now just a shaft.

The North Cross

The East Cross was never finished. Still, it’s interesting to see how these crosses may have looked while they were being created

Work in progress…

As for the North Cross…

Kells also has two other significant monuments, related to this monastery.

St Colmcille’s House is nearby. He never actually lived in it, being long dead before it was actually built. It is thought his remains were stored here for a while though. The Book of Kells was stored here too. You can see photos of the interior here

St Columb’s House

The Market Cross used to stand in a different location but was moved after one traffic collision too many. It now stands under a perspex roof near the old courthouse

Getting There

The round tower and crosses are in the centre of Kells and are easy to find. St. Colmcille’s house is close to the churchyard. The market cross is a little further away but hopefully safe from being hit by marauding buses.

Gallery – Click on an image to launch

Roscrea – Sliced and Diced

Unlike most of its contemporaries which are to be found in the countryside, the round tower in Roscrea is in an urban setting. It stands on the side of a street close to the town centre. The original monastic site is now split by a road, though if you stand back from the tower you can still see the tower’s relationship to the church it served as a belfry.

Roscrea Tower and Church
The tower faces the remnants St. Cronan’s church

The monastery which once stood here was founded by St. Cronan in the 7th century. Most of what is to be found here now dates from the 12th century. The tower is thought to have been built during this century. There is a record of it being struck by lightning in 1135. As it turned out, it wasn’t just lightning which caused problems for this tower. During the 1798 rebellion, it was used by insurgents to attack nearby buildings. As a result, the top of the tower was removed. This reduced its height by about 6 metres 😦 The tower has an unusual large (by round tower standards) window on its first floor. It is thought that this was to let more light into the tower so activities could take place. As to what activities they might have been, who knows?

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Romanesque façade of St. Cronan’s Church

It wasn’t just the tower which was sheared of its original bulk. Across the road from it stands the gable end of the 12th century St. Cronan’s Church. Alas, it was largely demolished in 1812 to make way for the less interesting church which now stands behind it. Soem of the material from the old church was used to build the new one. A replica of a high cross stands nearby – the original is now housed in the nearby Black Mills Centre.

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Getting There: This tower is easy to find. It stands on Church Street, close to the town centre

ardmore-tower-stats

Click on a thumbnail to open the gallery

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

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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.

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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

st-mullins-stats

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.

Visit date: 5th March 2020

Kilkenny – this one is climbable!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.