Feature Articles – Round towers: lanterns of the dead
The Irish round towers are enigmatic constructions: refuges, belfries or “needles” in the system of leylines have all been proposed as their true purpose. Could it be, however, that they were beacons for the souls of the dead?
by Philip Coppens
Round Tower of Glendalough One of the lesser known, though widely referenced “mysteries” of Ireland are the so-called “Irish round towers”. Indeed, they are known as “Irish”, for they are believed to be an almost exclusively Irish phenomenon: there are ca. seventy still standing in Ireland.
As their label “Irish round towers” might suggest, there is no clear consensus on their purpose. Soaring as high as 34 meters above the ground (the round tower of Kilmacduagh), sometimes with a doorway four metres from the ground, or more than the height of two average men, traditionalists have seen in them refuges – a conclusion which for many practical minds, is simply untenable. The round tower of Cashel is one of the more impressive features of the plain of Tipperary. The tower dates from the 11th century and sits on a rock outcrop that has fortifications from the early 4th century, when it was the stronghold and ceremonial centre of a powerful clan. This brings us to problem number one: the towers are often labelled “medieval”, but it is also known that several of them were often continuously restored. So even though the tower is 11th century, it is possible that from the 4th century onwards – if not earlier – a tower existed on this site.
The round tower of Glendalough is considered to be the most finely constructed and beautiful tower in all Ireland. Situated in the cleft of a steep and thickly forested valley, the 30 meter tall tower is not only one of the tallest, it is also built of mica schist with a granite doorway. Like Cashel, Glendalough was a sacred site: the ancient gathering place of pre-Christian hermits. The first Christian monastery was established by St. Kevin. Noting that St Patrick himself allegedly came to Cashel, the sites where the round towers were constructed, seem to be connected with early Christianity. Though this provides some context, what was their purpose? Theories range from fire towers, belfries, watch towers, granaries, sepulchres, forts, hermit dwellings, purgatorial pillars, phallic symbols, astronomical marks, depositories of Buddhist relics, Freemason lodges, etc. As mentioned, traditionalists argue that they were used as bell towers or places of refuge, but no-one is sure.
What is known, is that structurally, they conform to a specific design. The entrance was above ground level, and was by means of a freestanding wooden ladder. As this seemed to have defensive qualities, the theory goes that these towers were used as a refuge. But it should be noted that few if any of these ladders could be pulled up, as the inside of the room did not have sufficient space for its storage. This means that the ladder would remain readily available for the assailants, and the people inside the tower without doubt facing a lethal challenge. Rather than hide in the tower, they might just as well commit suicide. And though on a small number of towers battlements have been built on to the top, it is known that these battlements were added at a later date in the Middle Ages and had nothing to do with the original purpose – whatever it was – of the towers. Hence, the cherished theory that these were place of refuge seems most unlikely.
With practical considerations less likely, religious use must be a firm favourite as to their true purpose, seeing they were often found to be next to churches and/or monasteries. Initially each of the towers was a freestanding structure, but in later times other buildings, primarily churches, were constructed around some of the towers.
Another feature is that if the tower had any upper windows, they were aligned to the four cardinal positions, an indication that there was a religious component. Thirteen towers retain a conical cap and it is assumed that all the other towers once had similar caps that have fallen over the centuries. Cashel The principles used in the construction of the towers are always the same: two walls of block and mortar construction are built a few feet from one another and the space between is filled in with a core of rock rubble. They were cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar. Interestingly, this was a standard method of wall construction utilized by the Romans, who however never conquered Ireland. It thus provides for a strange contradiction that the only region of Europe never conquered by the Romans had nevertheless a unique type of construction – the round tower – that seems to be of specifically Roman design. Scholars thus believe that Christian missionaries learned the technique in England or continental Europe and then brought it to Ireland, incorporating it in the building of the towers. Some even believe that it was a group of travelling masons that have been responsible for the construction of all round towers, suggesting an underlining plan to the design.
Lennox Barrow observed that “it is remarkable how little the main dimensions vary. In the great majority of towers the circumference at the base lies between 14 meters and 17 meters and the thickness of the wall at the lowest point at which it can be measured varies from 0.9 meters to 1.4 meters. Doorways, windows, storey heights and diameters also follow clearly defined patterns.” He too believed that “we may well conclude that most of the towers were the work of teams of builders who moved from one monastery to another using standard designs.” But its standard design also might suggest that adherence to a specific architectural plan was important. If religious, what specific purpose did the tower serve? For one, it seems clear that the tower was part of the early form of Christianity that was practiced in Ireland. But, interestingly, whereas the early churches were normally made from wood, the round towers were made from stone, suggesting the tower was more important than the church itself. Scholars have suggested that the most probable construction period was between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, and this hypothesis is based on the fact, as already mentioned, that nearly every tower is at the site of a known Celtic church dating from the 5th to 12th centuries. However, what is accepted, is that the great earthquake of 448 AD made fall down 75 of them, which shows that a large amount of towers were already in existence in the early 5th century – if not the 4th century.
Though their obvious presence near religious buildings is clearly in evidence, some argue the case is not that simple. For example: there is general silence about the towers in Irish hagiography, suggesting they are not Christian in origin. Furthermore, apart from two round towers near the Scottish city of Perth, their design was not exported to those places where Irish missionaries went to preach Christianity, e.g. the west coast of Scotland. Why?
Finally, whereas the towers often still stand, the churches that were once nearby have often been reduced to rubble. Noting that towers are more likely to collapse then a church, it is clear that far greater care went into the construction and maintenance of the tower than the church. So what was it that made this tower apparently more important than the neighbouring church – only for the tower to be left unmentioned by the early Christians? No surprise therefore that there has been widespread speculation about the round towers, with several writers pushing their date back to pre-Christian times. For historian H. O’Brien, they were even built by the Tuatha de Danann, the People of the goddess Danu, an Irish race of gods, who originally lived on “the islands in the west”, from where they invaded and conquered Ireland. O’Brien argues that the towers were constructed for “the twofold purpose of worshipping the Sun and Moon, as the authors of generation and vegetable heat.” He continues that the legendary battle between the Tuatha de Danann and the Firbolgs occurred on a battlefield that became known as the “field of the towers”. Though of interest, no-one knows for sure what the round towers were. But when we reduce them to a round tower, constructed out of two walls, then we should note that similar constructions – around the Irish Sea, going north along the coast of Western Scotland – existed: here, these freestanding towers, dating from prehistoric times, are now known as brochs.
Furthermore, we should note that in construction, the so-called “Tower of the Eight Beauties” of the French medieval castle of Arginy might at first not appear to be a round tower, but nevertheless shares many characteristics both with round towers and brochs. Perhaps unsurprising is therefore to note that its lord Guillaume de Beaujeu is known to have travelled to Scotland and Ireland. In the 1950s, it was specifically this tower that would become the “seat” of one of the 20th century most notorious esotericists: Jacques Breyer. Using infrared photography, it has been noted that though there is clearly a roof on this tower, on infrared photographs, this does not show up – hinting at the possibility that certain considerations in its construction were in place to create this effect.
But back to the Iron Age brochs, which are only found in Scotland – in fact, in those parts of Scotland where one would expect round towers to be too. Experts argue that brochs include some of the most sophisticated examples of drystone architecture ever created, which is in itself interesting. Carbondating revealed that most of the towers were constructed in the first centuries BC and AD. The brochs are therefore, time-wise, the immediate predecessors to the round towers. And when taken together (even though perhaps one shouldn’t), we have an area of Ireland and Scotland in which brochs/round towers were constructed. Perhaps only some of the brochs were later reworked into round towers? It will perhaps not come as a surprise to learn that the original interpretation of brochs was that they were defensive structures, places of refuge for the community and their livestock – like the round towers are claimed to have been. This 19th century view was “confirmed” in the middle of the 20th century by the likes of archaeologists like V. Gordon Childe and Sir Lindsay Scott. However, despite being repeated by some archaeologists, this opinion has now fallen from favour from the 1980s onwards, due to a lack of supporting archaeological evidence. As with the round towers, it was pointed out that the brochs’ defensibility could not possibly be a component in their siting.
Instead, the likes of Ian Armit have argued that they were “stately homes”, objects of prestige and demonstrations of superiority of the “noble families” – a theory for which there is, however, no archaeological proof either. Mousa Broch So, whether broch or round tower, we know very little. Some have pointed out that Italian churches sometimes have their tower separate from the church, to which we could add that some Pyrenean churches had a separate conjurador – a place where evil spirits could be chased out of “the possessed”. It merely demonstrates that church construction was not uniform across Europe, but helps little to explain the round tower as an architectural enigma.
Hence, Professor Philip Callahan – who was stationed in Ireland during World War II – suggests that the Irish round towers (and similarly shaped religious structures throughout the ancient world) were human-made antennas which collected subtle magnetic radiation from the sun and passed it on to monks meditating in the towers, as well as plants growing around the towers’ base. Of interest to note therefore is that for Ralph Ellis, the towers were linked with a sacred tree cult, whereby, he argues, the tower was a required addition because certain types of trees had difficulty surviving in the rather harsh Irish and Scottish conditions. It may explain why some brochs are known to have been constructed on top of wells. But it does not explain why the specific shape of the round tower would be chosen as an arboretum – noting it is not exactly the most ideal of shapes for such a purpose.
Equally intriguing is that Callahan suggests that the seemingly random geographical arrangement of the round towers throughout the Irish countryside actually mirrors the positions of the stars in the northern sky during the time of winter solstice. Could they therefore indeed be remnants of a pre-Christian pagan cult? Could early Christianity have tried to preserve this pagan doctrine, taking greater care in the construction of the tower than the church? And it might also explain why Christian records are void of references to them. Round Tower of Kilmacduagh But if indeed part of a forgotten tradition, or a lost knowledge, nothing beats practical experimentation. Farmer John Quackenboss of Virginia decided to construct a round tower; in 1986, he erected five 6′ high terracotta pipes of 12” diameter filled with basalt gravel, covering an area of 1000 acres. He capped the pipes with a cone of concrete, made with basalt gravel and coated in crushed basalt, bringing the total height to two metres – nowhere near the height of the average round tower. After six weeks, his farm enjoyed increased crop yields, despite drought conditions. He reported that the area covered by the towers had higher rainfall, but less moisture evaporation.
One of the most frequently posed questions is why there are no round towers outside of Ireland and parts of Scotland. The answer is: there are. Evidence of round towers in several English towns and villages are known. The main difference with the “traditional round towers” as seen in Ireland is that the diameter of the English round towers is much wider and that they are “just” round in shape, though otherwise not truly enigmatic. In Norfolk alone, more than one hundred such churches/towers exist, underlining that these round towers are quite normal for this area.
One article on the subject, written in 1872, argued that these English round towers were somehow connected with the Viking invasions. In fact, it argued that the common denominator of countries known to have had a Viking presence was “the use of the round tower in church buildings” – rather than the more traditional square design, which is the general rule in England. So, from an academic point of view, we have Irish and English round towers – only to then be confronted with other round towers… in France. Interestingly, some of the French towers adhere more closely to the Irish format, and their name is also more explanatory than their Irish counterpart: they are known as “Lanterne des Morts”, lanterns of the dead. They too date from the 11th and 12th century and often have above ground-level doors. In France, their presence is mainly in central south-west France, in what in the region which in the 10th century was known as Aquitaine.
However, their size varies greatly: from the “traditional” Irish round tower, the “lanterne des morts” can also be much smaller – and sometimes not even resemble the traditional “needle in the landscape”. But there are definitely traditional round towers, such as that at Saint-Pierre-d’Oleron, on the place Camille-Memain. With a height of more than 20 metres, the tower of Saint-Pierre-d’Oleron is the highest funerary lamp known to exist in France. Interestingly, a subterranean passageway connects the lantern to the church and the lantern was built on the site of the old cemetery hinting that there was a connection between the tower and cemetery – an association apparently confirmed by the name for these round towers. Interestingly, in France, after World War I, a number of modern such lanterns were erected, often on military cemeteries. St Pierre d’Oleron Most importantly, the round towers achieved the name of “lanterns of the dead” as high in the tower, a light burnt, which was said to guide the souls of the deceased. Though we cannot be sure about whether or not Irish round towers originally had windows, if they had, they were – based on those towers which today do have windows – orientated towards the cardinal points – like the conjuradors.
In France, it is assumed that the origin of these lanterns of the dead is Celtic – which would explain why they are also in Ireland and Scotland – nations that were far more Celtic than that they were ever Viking-controlled. In fact, the remarkable aspect of the Irish round towers seems to be that many were able to survive the Viking invasions. Whether they were there to act as a beacon for the dead or whether instead they were meant to make sure that the dead did not wander from the cemetery remains unclear, but an association with the dead is now clear. In the final analysis, it is remarkable that in the 21st century, a series of round towers can continue to baffle everyone. Most remarkably, even though they are seen as Irish, in fact, more than one hundred such lanterns exist in France – thus outnumbering Ireland. And it is known that many of them did not survive the French Revolution. Though they seem linked with the dead, it is clear that these structures that look like stone exclamation marks stuck into the ground, in truth, are giant question marks, underlining that we have definitely not yet uncovered everything about our – relatively recent – ancestors. But it might seem that their construction had specifically something to do with the ancestors – the dead. They shone a light to them, but so far have escaped illumination themselves.