All over the island of Ireland there are ruins from past ages spread everywhere, which give us all a wonderful insight into the mysterious lives of our ancestors who built these monumental structures. There are few of these structures, however, that are more remarkable than the round towers that are found in almost every historically renowned locality. At one time there were a great number of these towers, but some were destroyed by the ravages of time, some of them were used as convenient sources of ready shaped stone, and some suffered from the intentional destruction carried out by intolerant or thoughtless people. Whatever the reason for their demise, these structures have gradually disappeared from the landscape until only about eighty remain, and out of these less than twenty-per-cent are in almost perfect condition. The remaining towers exist only in various stages of dilapidation.
The round towers stand at varying heights to each other. Those towers that remain in perfect, or near perfect, condition reach up to somewhere between seventy to two hundred feet in height, and their bases vary from eighty to thirty feet in diameter. The entrance into the towers themselves are usually twelve to eighteen feet from the ground, while inside the tower there are several stories, each averaging a height of about ten feet. Each of these stories illuminated by a single narrow window, with the highest level invariably having four slender pointed arched windows (Lancet Windows) which are open to the cardinal points of the compass. The roof of the tower is conical, made of overlapping stone slabs, and beneath the projecting cornice it is encircled by grotesquely carved heads and type of zig-zag ornamentation. The masonry is of granite stone, cut and chiselled into shape but, without the least regularity the size of the blocks. In one single round tower, some stones are very large, others small, and even more shaped into every geometrical shape known.
All the round towers that remain standing, as previously stated, occupy sites of special historical note. This could be considered as sufficient evidence to suggest that almost every historic spot in Ireland, at one time or another, could boast of being the site of one or more of these interesting structures. As further evidence of this can be added the fact that the existing towers are generally to be found close by the ruins of churches, abbeys, or other ecclesiastical buildings. The effect on the landscape of these massed ruins being surmounted by a single tall shaft is often picturesque, and almost a symbol of Ireland in tourist brochures. In fact, the proximity of the tower to the ecclesiastical ruin is so common, that many writers on Irish historical sites put forward the theory that the tower was built by the monks who had built the church. Many of those who advocate just such an origin of the round tower also put forward the theory that they were built, either as a place of safekeeping for valuable property, as a belfry for the church, or for the purpose of providing accommodation for the monks. But closer examination of these theories show that none are truly acceptable.
In all the troubled ages of Ireland, and, unfortunately, they have not been few in number, the monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings of every description were generally spared. If this had not been the case, those monasteries, abbeys, and Cathedrals that possessed valuable property, which they wanted to hide from the most ruthless marauders, would not have advertised their wealth by erecting a tower. They would have been far more likely to seek out an inconspicuous hiding place for their treasures rather than erect a tower that was the most conspicuous feature of the landscape.
These towers were not built to provide belfries, either. This is evident from the fact that, in almost every case, the nearby churches had been built with belltowers, which formed a part of the sacred building. This would not have been the case if the round towers had been conceived and built as a place in which to locate bells.
Moreover, that these towers were not built for providing hermit-cells is apparent from the fact that hermit-caves and cells are abundant throughout Ireland, and, almost without exception, they are to be found in secluded spots. There is nothing to suggest that, on occasion, some of the round towers were not adapted to each of these uses. But, in every case, the monks and church builders’ only reason to change the use of an existing structure was to meet an urgent need. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that these round towers were not built by the monks at all. It is a well-known fact that Irish monks were fond of writing and they recorded, in detail, every action of their daily life and, to date, there is no passage in which they record the building of a round tower. Whenever church historians make a reference to these structures, even those who mention the raising of churches at the foot of a round tower, they demonstrate that quite clearly that the tower pre-dates the introduction of Christianity into Ireland.
Most historians in Ireland agree that the round towers were pagan constructions, and that they are so old that they even precede written history in this land. There is no doubt that the early people of Ireland worshipped fire and the sun, and this fact alone gives us many reasons to believe that the round towers were built by the Druids for purposes of religion. Every tower has an extensive view to the East, which gives the observer and excellent early sight of the rising sun, with the dawn being the favourite hour for celebrating sun-worship. Furthermore, every tower has, at its base, the remnants of an extraordinary quantity of ashes and embers that suggest that, in each of these towers, a sacred or perpetual fire was kept burning.
Adding to this evidence is, that in every locality where a round tower stands, there still exists among local folklore and traditions suggestions that these structures were for sacred use, but not Christian. Among these traditions are indications of their former use as places sacred to sun and fire-worship, namely the names by which they commonly known among the local people. The generic Irish name for the round tower is Colcagh, ‘Fire-God’, but the proper names designating individual towers are still more characteristic. E.g. Turaghan, the ‘Tower of Fire’; Aidhne, the ‘Circle of Fire’; Aghadoe, the ‘Field of Fire’; Teghadoe, the ‘Fire House’; Arddoe, the ‘Height of Fire’; Kennegh, the ‘Chief Fire’; Lusk, the ‘Flame’; Fertagh, the ‘Burial Fire Tower’; Fertagh na Guara, the ‘Burial Fire Tower of the Fire Worshippers’; Gall-Ti-mor, the ‘Flame of the Great Circle’; Gall-Baal, the ‘Flame of the Community’; Baal-Tinne, the ‘Fire of the Community’, and many similar names, retain the memory and worship of the Druids when no written records have been left to us.
In addition to such important information the names of the hills, mountains, or islands on which the towers are situated have designations that refer either to the circle, a favourite and sacred figure in Druidical holy places, or to the sun or fire worship. Yet another curious circumstance strengthening the round tower’s relationship to the rites of sun worship, can be found in the fact that wherever this form of religion held sway, it has been accompanied by well or spring worship, and, generally, by the veneration of the ox as a sacred animal. Close to most of the Irish round towers there are springs or wells, which are still regarded as being holy. Of these places many tales are told of miraculous cures, while in many places there remains, in the same neighbourhoods, legends concerning sacred cows that were usually the property of some famous local saint or hero.
The round towers of Ireland are, in fact, only a part of a vast system of towers of identical construction. If you follow the geographical locations of these structures, you will find the advance of fire worship from the East may be accurately tracked. If you travel from Ireland to Brittany, in France, you will see, in the mountainous or hilly districts, several towers that exactly like those of Ireland. In the north of Spain several remain, while in Portugal, there is one, and in the south of Spain there are numerous similar towers. Cross from Spain to north of Africa and you will discover that there are numerous towers, which are to be found in such places as Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, several hundred are still standing; and written testimony as to their original purpose abundant among the Sardinian records and are readily available. In Minorca, among the Balearic Isles, is the famous Tower of Allaior, and the mountain districts of southern Italy, as well as Sicily’s hills, contain numbers of them. Malta has the Giant’s Tower, which in its appearance and construction is identical with the ‘Tower of Cashel’ in Ireland. Cyprus has several, and they remain on the coast of Asia Minor.
In Palestine none have yet been found, which might indicate just how the Hebrews of old destroyed every vestige of Canaanite idolatry. But it is probable that the “high places” broken down may have been towers of the sun, for the Canaanites were fire worshippers, and the name Baal is found in Palestine and in Ireland. In Armenia, and in the Caucasus, they are so numerous that they seem to crown almost every hilltop. But, returning to the Mediterranean shores, we mentioned their existence on the northern coast of Africa, while in Arabia and on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea, they stand in considerable numbers. They are to be found in Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, and Sumatra, where, in some places they are apparently still used for fire worship.
Throughout this vast extent of territory there is no material difference in the shape, appearance, or construction of the round tower. In Sumatra and Java, as in Ireland, the door is elevated, and the building divided into stories. The walls are constructed of many-sided hewn stones, the upper story is lighted by four windows looking to the cardinal points, the cornice has the same kind of zigzag ornamentation, and the roof is constructed in the same manner, with overlapping stones. Even the names of these structures are nearly the same, for in India and Ireland these buildings are Fire-Towers, Fire-Circles, or Sun-Houses. Yet, another bit of circumstantial evidence that goes to prove that the round towers of Ireland were erected by a people who had the same religion, and similar religious observances, as the natives of India is apparent in the legends around Indian towers. In India, the local traditions tell how each of these towers was built in one night by some notable character who was afterwards buried in it. In Ireland, the same legend is also found, while the local folklore tells us the tower was built overnight. The ‘Tower Tulloherin’, for instance, was allegedly built in one night by a monk who came to the neighbourhood as a missionary. But, finding the local people inhospitable, and unwilling to give him lodging for the night, he decided he would remain since there was no place in Ireland that was in more need of his missionary work. So, on the evening he arrived, he began to build the tower, and by morning it was finished. In that place he the monk now set up his residence and began to preach to the crowds of people attracted by the wide-spread fame of the miracle. The story of the Tower of Aghagower is similar, except that the saint in this case was aided by angels. Kilmackduagh, on the other hand, was built in one night by angels without human assistance, the work being undertaken after the pleas of a saint, who watched and prayed while the angels toiled. Ballygaddy’s history is somewhat different in that the local folklore attributes its origin to a local “giant” who, having received a challenge from another “giant,” decided to take his stand on Ballygaddy hill to watch for the coming of his enemy, declaring that he was ready, “to beat the head off the bragging blackguard if he was to say as much as Boo.” It is said that he stood upon that hill for seven days and nights, at the end of which time, “his legs were that tired he thought they’d drop off him.” To rest those legs, the giant raised the tower as a means of support. The challenger finally came to the site and the story says that the tower-building giant “didn’t leave a whole bone in the blackguard’s ugly body.” When the battle was over, the winner began to dismantle the tower, but stopped and decided that he would put a roof on it and “leave it as a memorial to himself that those mortals who followed him would wonder at.
The Tower of Ardpatrick was, according to tradition, built under the auspices of Ireland’s great saint, while the high tower on the Rock of Cashel is attributed, by the same authority to Cormac Macarthy. He was the king and archbishop of Cashel, who, being at war with a neighbouring potentate, needed a watchtower. The entire tribe was summoned and, working together, they managed to build the tower in a single, and, at sunrise, Cormac was able by its help to ascertain the whereabouts of the opposing army, allowing him to inflict an overwhelming defeat of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Glendalough Tower is reputed to have been built by a demon, at the command of Saint Kevin. In a previous encounter with the saint, Satan had been soundly defeated and from that moment he and all his well-informed subjects kept at a safe distance from Glendalough. Although all of Satan’s regular followers did not want to risk another encounter with Kevin, there was one cunning snake of a devil, who had come from foreign parts and had not heard anything about the saint. One evening he was caught by the blessed saint, who immediately set him to work in building that tower. So, under the watchful gaze of the saint, the rogue went to work as hard as he knew how and was as busy as an ant. He was certain that before sunrise he would have the tower built so high that it would collapse by itself. But Kevin had beaten Satan himself, and was not about to be fooled by one of his underlings. He kept his two eyes on the devil every minute of the day, so when he felt that the devil had the tower built high enough, he threw his bishop’s cap at it, and it became stone to make a roof, so making a fool of the devil.
The round tower, however, is not without a touch of romance. One of the most notable of these structures, Monasterboice, is said to have been built by a woman under peculiar circumstances. According to the legend, this woman was young, beautiful, and good of heart. Although she should have been happy also, she was not, because she was persecuted by the attentions of a suitor chieftain. This suitor’s reputation must have been far from irreproachable, since he was said by the storytellers to be an outrageously disgraceful villain, or a smooth-talking deceiving, murdering villain. The young woman loved another chieftain who was of good character, and she was determined to escape from the attentions of the villainous one, having learned that he was determined to carry her off. She employed two men to help her escape, the night before the proposed abduction, and, before morning they had built the tower allowing her to take refuge in the uppermost chamber. As expected, the villainous chieftain came with his gang of thieves, but was disappointed in his efforts to seize the woman and steal away her virtue, and he was left to besiege the tower. But, having taken the precaution to provide herself with a good supply of heavy stones, the lady pelted her besiegers vigorously, cracking their thick skulls as if they were just eggshells. Her bravery was quickly rewarded by her lover who, when he heard of her desperate situation, came to her relief and attacked the besiegers of the tower. With the lady throwing stones at the front of them, and her lover’s group attacking them from behind, the wicked chieftain became scared that they would be trapped, and so they scattered so quickly that you would have thought there was a thousand devils after them. So, the lady was saved and was able to descend the tower into the arms of her lover, and the young couple were married the next Sunday. This is the way that the tower came to be built and demonstrates that those who try to win a lady against her will always come off worse. For you can be sure if she cannot beat such people with her tongue, she will always find some other way to beat them. Be sure of one thing, a woman can always get what she’s after, and there’s many a man who has discovered the truth of that.