Round towers are clearly phallic symbols but besides that, did they serve much purpose? The popular story is that they were safe places to flee to when the Vikings came looting. The problem with that is that the Vikings weren’t exactly stupid and had mastered the basics of the wooden ladder centuries before they mastered the sea in their long boats. There is also the fact that they could simply light a fire at the base of the tower and smoke the lodgers out.
However, the Vikings generally hit and ran – carrying out their raids at speed to avoid having any confrontations with serious armed resistance. So there is the possibility that they wouldn’t always take the time to smoke the captives out or source/build a ladder to go in and fight them. There is evidence of them taking the time in some places such as the round towers of Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare and Aghagower, Co. Mayo, where evidence of burning is present.
So they might have been used for safety on occasion, but they almost certainly were never built for the purpose.
So what were they?
They were most likely… bell towers. Giant phallic symbols with bells to draw attention to them. I say “most likely” because, like so many things in our history, we’re just not totally sure, man. These towers used to be called “cloigtheach” which means bellhouse. Cloigtheach sounds very similar to “cloichtheach“, though, which means stonehouse. You see the problem? So where are the giant bells like we see in churches? Well, round towers actually held the bell of the leading missionary of the parish. A hand bell.
Okay, so they were kind of bell towers and may have been used for refuge. Seems kinda stupid for something that looks hard to build…
Yes, it kind of is. Like most impressive buildings to look at it, it’s function is usually built for that exact purpose. To be impressive. This is what we believe the main function of these towers was. They were tall, strong and impressive. Their round structure allowed the wind to whip around it without causing any stress to the walls. They were tall and built near the church so that people could see them from a distance away and navigate to the parish accordingly.
It’s also been found that the door to the round towers faces towards the door of the church they stand beside. So for any instances of round towers being found – but churches not being found, researches have been able to walk the line of the direction the door faces and find the location the church stood on.
Also, as a final note, what’s the story with the high doors?
As much as archaeologists hoped that it was because the monks of the middle ages conducted their sermons and day to day lives on stilts, it’s actually much more mundane and logical. If the door were to be at ground level, the foundation would be super compromised. So they would have had wooden stairs or ladders or some such other simple device to get up and down to the door.
Bell towers are uniquely Irish with approximately 80 still in some decent or semi-decent state. It’s thought that at one time there were 120. Outside of Ireland; 2 are found in Scotland and 1 on the Isle of Mann. Our tallest phallic is 40m tall.