Round towers are an -almost- uniquely Irish structure. (Only 3 ancient round towers exist outside of Ireland.)
In Irish they are called cloitheach (cloy- cach), meaning bell house, and were probably built between the 9th and 12th centuries.
podcast episode 193
Round Towers in Ireland
At least 120 round towers are thought to have existed in Ireland. Today about 20 towers survive in complete condition.
Popular Irish Round Towers to Visit
The monastic settlement of Glendalough, located in the Wicklow Mountains, is a popular day trip from Dublin. The round tower stands tall in the ‘valley of the two lakes', almost presiding over the cemetery, churches, and cathedral. There is quite a lot to see and do here, including some wonderful walks around the lake and along mountain paths.
Clonmacnoise was a major centre of learning and trade from the 8th to 12th centuries, located at one of the most important crossroads of ancient Ireland. You'll find two round towers here, though one is missing a top. Clonmacnoise also has 3 high crosses; the Cross of Scriptures is 13 feet tall and absolutely magnificent.
The Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary was the traditional seat of the kings of Munster until 1101 when it was donated to the church by the reigning king. The round tower is the oldest structure on the site. The sight of the magnificent castle structure atop the stony outcropping and reigning over the surrounding farmland is one that will leave you in awe.
Many visitors make the pilgrimage to Kells in County Meath as that is where the Book of Kells was held until 1654, before it was presented to Trinity College in 1661 (where you can see it today). The round tower, though still standing, has lost its cap. Five high crosses, in various states, are also here.
Terrific Round Towers to Add to Your Itinerary
If your itinerary doesn't take you near any of those popular spots there are plenty more round towers to visit. These are some of my favorites.
Rattoo round tower in County Kerry was the first round tower I saw in Ireland. In 2002 I was following the route that would become the Wild Atlantic Way when I saw the cone in the distance. As I drove the road became more narrow, finally becoming a path. And there it stood. I had it all to myself… It was magical. The Rattoo round tower is the only complete round tower in Kerry and also has a sheela na gig.
Ardmore, County Waterford, is believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland, founded by St. Declan in the 5th century. Rising from a hill overlooking the town below, the round tower dates to the 12th century. The round tower marks the end of the cliff walk, which begins at the beach, following the coast past St. Declan's Stone, up the (steep) hill past the Cliff House Hotel (amazing spot to stay), and then to the holy well and the ruined church, before continuing along the cliffs to the cathedral and church yard.
You're likely to pass near Kilmacdough Monestery in County Galway if you are driving between Galway city and the Cliffs of Moher. The round tower is noted as the tallest standing round tower in Ireland.
Scattery Island, in the Shannon Estuary , is owned by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and is (obviously) only reachable by boat. Scattery Island Tours offers daily sailings during the season. The round tower on Scattery is unique as the door is at ground level. The island also has seven small churches, a holy well, a lighthouse, and an artillery battery.
The round tower at Turlough Abbey in County Mayo appears rather short and squat when compared to other towers. This abbey is one of few that survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and, later, Oliver Cromwell. If you visit the National Museum of Ireland Country Life in Castlebar the round tower can be seen from there and makes a nice addition to your visit.
A round tower, locally known as The Steeple, still remains from an ancient monastic settlement in the town of Antrim, Northern Ireland. Nearby is a ‘witches stone', the story being that a witch, upset by the construction of the tower, climbed to the top and jumped off, landing on the stone and leaving the impression of her knee and elbow. Legend says that one hollow never runs dry.
Round Towers You Can Climb
The round tower at Glasnevin Cemetery, built in 1855 to commemorate Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell can be climbed, but it is not quite as impressive as scaling an ancient round tower.
Just west of Dublin Kildare Cathedral, also known as St. Brigid's Cathedral, was built on the site of an important Celtic Christian abbey said to have been founded by Saint Brigid. The round tower can be climbed – be sure to note the Romanesque decoration around the doorway -and do visit the cathedral which also has a sheela-na-gig.
St. Canice's Cathedral, at the opposite end of Kilkenny's Medieval Mile from Kilkenny Castle, has a climbable tower which was built in the 9th century. The Cathedral is Early Gothic in design and is the second longest cathedral in Ireland, St. Patrick's in Dublin is longer. Purchase your tickets to climb the 100 foot tower inside the cathedral.
Devenish Island in County Fermanagh had two round towers, though one remains intact and can be scaled. This is the only high tower you can climb that still retains a conical cap. The base of the cap has a decorative cornice with a carved head above each of the 4 rectangular windows, Commercial boat tours of Lower Lough Erne can take you to the island, which also has multiple church ruins and an intricate high cross.