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?
Tower of Glendalough
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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?
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.
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.
Tower of Kilmacduagh
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.
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.
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.
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.