Round Towers

The tallest monument on old Irish monastic sites was the Round Tower, which tapered gently inwards and upwards, reaching a height of just over 100 feet at Kilmacduagh in South Galway, where the tower leans two feet out of the perpendicular. Such towers were probably erected in Ireland before the first historical reference to their existence in 948, and they continued to be constructed for at least another two centuries. The initial idea probably originated in Italy, but Ireland has a virtual monopoly in north-western Europe, at least 65 being recorded in the country in various stages of completeness or dilapidation. Built of good masonry, they have about seven storeys, as indicated by ledges on the internal walls, each landing joined by a ladder of wood, now long gone, though reconstructed in modern times at places such as Kilkenny, Kildare and Devenish, Co. Fermanagh. Each storey has a window, except the top floor which has four.

The most curious aspect of these towers is that, with only two known exceptions, the doorways are usually ten or more feet above ground-level - a feature which has given rise to much speculation about the use of the towers. The old Irish name for them was cloig-thech or bell-tower, perhaps adapted from the Italian campanile. But the raised doorway suggested to some that the towers were fortifications in which the monks could barricade themselves safely against marauding Vikings (and Irish too!). However, we know that the towers also contained monastic treasures, so that the elevated entrance might have been designed to keep treasure- and relic-hunters at bay. The towers' height might also indicate their function as beacons visible above the level of the trees for pilgrims approaching from afar, to show them where the relics of the founding saint were preserved for veneration.

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