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

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Ardmore – Pointy!

The round tower at Ardmore, Co. Waterford is one of my favourites. It stands in a graveyard which overlooks the seaside village of the same name and is one of the finest round towers in Ireland. The site also has some other interesting features, as you’ll find out if you keep reading 😉

Ready for lift off….5….4….3….

The monastery in Ardmore was founded by St. Declan in the 5th century. Perhaps the most notable thing about St. Declan is that he was already busy converting Irish people to Christianity before St. Patrick came along. It is believed that he met the great snake banisher in Rome while he was being ordained as a bishop. There’s more information about him on Wikipedia if you’re interested – he was considered important enough to have had his life documented.

The round tower is believed to be the last one to be built in Ireland. It is thought to have been built in the mid to late 12th century. This is quite late in the life of the monastery that had been here for hundreds of years by then. Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that when the base of the tower was excavated in the 19th century, skeletons were found underneath it.

The tower, as featured in a 2005 postage stamp
2005 postage stamp

This sandstone tower is quite distinctive in few ways. While all round towers are narrower at the top than at the bottom, the batter on this one is more pronounced than usual. At its base, the tower is 5 metres. At the top it is just over 3 metres. It also has 3 string courses around its outside. These don’t coincide with what is thought to be its interior floors and are merely decorative. The tower had 6 floors over its basement. Its doorway faces towards the cathedral, which presumably was the site of the original church. According to Brian Lalor’s book, there some decorative non-structural corbels in the tower. Of course, nobody can see these because there is no access to the tower these days.

The 19th century was a busy time for the tower. In the mid-century, some internal floors were installed in the tower but were removed about 50 years later. Repairs were also carried out to the top of the tower. The capstone was repaired and a cross placed on the top. More can be read about the repairs here.

Tower repairs in the 19th century. No, I didn’t take this photo…

Even if the tower wasn’t here, Ardmore would be worth a visit for the other features to be found in the graveyard. As you can see from the above photo, there are some rather striking sculptures set into the gable end of the ruined cathedral. It is though that the sculptures were moved to here when the cathedral was extended. They denote scenes from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve and the Judgement of Solomon.

One of the panels in the gable end

The cathedral itself was built in the 11th/12th century. It is thought that some of it incorporates an earlier church. Although the cathedral is now ruined, there is still plenty to see inside. 3 ogham stones were excavated on the site and 2 of them are still to be found here (the 3rd is housed in the National Museum of Ireland). Ogham is an old form of written Irish and it dates back to the 4th to 7th century. Amazingly, it can be read.

This one reads LUGUDECCAS MAQI[  ̣  ̣ ?   ̣  ̣MU]/COI NETA SEGAMONAS/ DOLATI BIGAISGOB… which translates as ‘of Luguid son of …? descendant of Nad-Segamon’.

Close to the cathedral is St. Declan’s Oratory. It is believed to be built over the grave of St. Declan. If there was ever anything of value in here, it is long gone. All that remains inside is an open stone-lined pit which has been empty for many a year. Still, it is an interesting little building and it is in better condition than similar shrines in Clonmacnoise and Glendalough. The oratory was renovated and re-roofed in 1716.

St Declan’s Oratory
An aerial view of the site, as stolen from the BBC series “Coast”

In 1947, the cargo ship SS Ary capsized off the Waterford coast, killing 15 of its 16 crew. The dead sailors are now buried in the cemetery.

So in conclusion, Ardmore is well worth a visit. The area around it is rather nice too if you’re in the mood for some pretty seaside scenery. And if you fancy long walks, you could always try St. Declan’s Way

Getting There: This is pretty easy to find. The tower overlooks the village of Ardmore and is well signposted.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Kinneigh – The one with the hexagonal base

The monastery at Kinneigh was founded in the 6th century by the wonderfully named St. Mocholmóg. Little is known about the monastery or its founder. All that remains is the unusual round tower which stands on a rocky outcrop to the rear of a cemetery.

The lower 6 metres of the tower are hexagonal in shape. This section houses the basement and entry floors. The skill with which the tower transitions from being hexagonal to round suggests that this was the work of a particularly talented master mason. The work bears some resemblance to cathedral towers in Europe, suggesting that this could have been built around the 12th century. The tower itself is built from slate, a material local to the area. The base of the tower cracked quite severely in the past, possibly because of its hexagonal shape. It would appear that the classic cylindrical shape is the best design for these structures.

These days there is no access into the tower. Brian Lalor, whose book on round towers is well worth a read, climbed the tower in the 1980s. He has some useful observations about it, starting with a reference to the rickety metal internal ladders. At least one of these ladders is now gone, saving or denying visitors a hair-raising climb to the top. It’s up to you which description you prefer…

The entrance floor is thought to be original and made from large slate slabs. It has a rectangular hole in its centre, which gives access to the basement. The upper floors in the tower are made from rough poured concrete. It is unknown when the tower had a cap on it.

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Just to the west of the tower is St. Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland. It was built around 1857. During this time, the tower was again put to use as a belfry. This might explain the concrete upper floors. The top 1.5m of the tower may be work done to help fit the bell. According to the Irish Round Towers website, the bell was removed and is now on display in the museum at Charles Fort, Kinsale.

There isn’t a lot else to see here. St Bartholomew’s church is still in use but closed up most of the time. Inside the grave yard is a slab commemorating the people buried there during the Great Famine of the 1840s, plus victims of a different sort. As to whether it’s worth visiting especially, the jury is out. The tower is an interesting curio but there isn’t much else to see here.

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Getting There

Kinneigh is out in the countryside so be prepared for some nice, winding country roads. Unless there happens to be hordes of round tower enthusiasts visiting at the same time, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding somewhere safe to park your car.

Vital Tower Stats

measuringHeight: 21.5m
Diameter at Base: 6m
Height at Door-Sill: 3.24m
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: 22nd August 2019

 

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

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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.

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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