Aughagower Round Tower
Aughagower Round Tower
Aughagower Round Tower.
The Round Tower in Aghagower
Irish Round Towers are a very distinctive feature of our historical built
environment and the only places outside of Ireland where they are to be seen
are one in the Isle of Man and two in Scotland. These were undoubtedly built
under Irish influence. There are sixty-five Round Towers in Ireland and only
thirteen still remain complete.
It is believed St. Patrick spent some time in Aghagower between 440 and
442 AD. Aghagower was a place of Ecclesiastical importance one thousand
years before the foundations of a town settlement at Westport.
Aghagower was the capital of the Kingdom of Umhall, stretching from
Achill to Louisburgh and as far inland as Castlebar. During the first half of the
fifth Century the Chieftain of Umhall was Sinach and he resided in Aghagower.
When St Patrick came to Aghagower he converted Sinach, baptised him,
ordained him a priest and then consecrated him a Bishop.
Sinach asked three requests of St Patrick, all of which were granted. He
asked that he might not fall into sin; that the place where he ministered might
not take his name and that his son Oengus might get a long life.
Oengus later became a priest and his sister Mathona became a nun and
founded a convent near the site of St Patrick’s original church. St Patrick wrote
a catechism for Oengus.
St Patrick predicted many blessings for Aghagower saying “There will be
good bishops here, and from their seed blessed people will come forth for ever
in this See.”
Aghagower was not only a Patrician foundation but also an Episcopal
Church and as such exercised pre-eminence and jurisdiction over all the
churches in Umhall. The Aghagower church was of such importance as to be
fought over by the Archbishops of Armagh and Tuam. The Archbishop of
Armagh claimed the church lands as belonging to a Patrician foundation and
the Archbishop of Tuam as being within the territory assigned at the Synod of
Kells to that Archdiocese.
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In 1216 Rome decided in favour of Tuam and from then on the church
lands at Aghagower were one of the Episcopal Manors of the Archbishop of
Tuam. It is believed that the Archbishop of Tuam would have taken up
residence in Aghagower from time to time.
Aghagower Round Tower and Medieval Church.
Why was the Round Tower built?
There is not much information available on Aghagower for the period
between St Patrick’s coming and the Norman invasion. The late Jarlath Duffy
R.I.P. wrote the following “After St Patrick, we can assume a fully fledged
monastic settlement in Aghagower for nearly another 1000 years.
Here was the head church of the Kingdom of Umhall – the territory
controlled by the O’Malleys. The church there presided over the 5A’s:
Aghagower, Aughaval, Achill, Aglish (Castlebar) and Aughenish
There are at least three theories as to why a Round Tower was built at
Firstly it seems there was news of a new foundation being built at
Oughaval (Nua Chongbhal) – a branch house of Aghagower. Battles were
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fought with natives and invaders. The downgrading of Aghagower as a
Bishopric was proposed. The natives decided they would not allow this to
happen so to show their supremacy and importance they would build a Round
Tower as had already been done in Mayo Abbey, Cong, Turlough and Balla.
The tower would be a testimony to one of the great centres of Christian learning
and would be seen from afar by travellers and pilgrims alike.
The second theory: The Irish word for Round Tower is “Cloigtheach,”
meaning House of the Bell, but they were not originally belfries in the modern
sense. Hanging bells did not come until the 12th century. However it is believed
the Monks climbed the various floors or landings, to the top windows and hand
bells would have been rung to call the monks in from the fields to prayer or to
warn of approaching danger.
Some say the main purpose of the tower was to house the monastery’s
most valued treasures; the bell, the manuscripts, precious ornaments and the
The third theory pertains to Round Towers being built around the time of
the first Viking raids in 795 AD.
They may have served as watchtowers and a place of refuge for the monks
and local people in time of danger. It is known that the Norsemen killed the
King of Umhall in 812AD. And I quote from John Keville in his writings on
the history of Aghagower as follows “It was chiefly the wealth of the
monasteries of Aghagower, which induced the Northmen to land on this
Western strip of coast and it may be inferred that these churches and
monasteries suffered heavily after the crushing defeat of the men of Umhall and
the death of their king in 812AD.There is indeed nothing else to connect
Aghagower with the Viking Period except the Round Tower.
When was the Round Tower built?
It is believed the Round Tower in Aghagower was built between 973 and
Archaeologists date Round Towers according to their architectural features
and styles of masonry. The earliest towers are of rubble and filled in with small
stones called “spawls.” They had square headed and heavily-lintelled doorways. Those of the Middle and late period are of squared and hammer-dressed
blocks set in courses and the doorways have semi-circular heads as is featured
in Aghagower. Those of the late period were more ornamental around the doors
and windows as at Ardmore Co. Waterford and Devenish in Co. Fermanagh.
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When Brian Boru became High King of Ireland he is reputed to have built
thirty two Round Towers at the beginning of the 11th Century. It is believed
Aughagower and Meelick were built around this same time.
Many more were built in the time of Donagh O Carroll circa 1170.
The Round Tower of Aghagower stands at 16m approx at present. The
average height would have been somewhere between 25-34m. Kilmacduagh in
Galway stands at 34 metres high while Turlough stands at 23m. Nearly every
site is that of a known monastery of the early Celtic Church dating from the 5th
to the 12th Century. Round Towers were usually built close to a graveyard or
beside a river.
A Genuine Round Tower
We know that the Round
Tower in Aghagower is a genuine
round tower because it stands
apart from other buildings, being
close to the medieval church. All
round towers have a standard
design and have similar
dimensions. The foundations
were usually shallow and this
later caused slight leanings. Most
towers stood 6-7 floors high with
offsets in the walls to take the
different floors. Each floor was
reached by a wooden staircase
placed against the wall. Each
floor had a small narrow window.
The top storey had 4 to 6
windows giving a full view over
the landscape. The tower would
be topped with a conical
capstone… The door would
always be facing the monastery or Abbey as is evident in Aghagower and
would be raised 1.5m- 4.5m from the ground. This door would be reached by a
rope ladder that could be drawn up. Some Round Towers had an underground
passageway leading to the nearby monastery as in Killala, North Mayo.
It is also said that the higher the base was built without an opening the
stronger the tower would be. The base as high as the doorway was often filled
Complete Round Tower, Killala.
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with clay and human bones from
the surrounding graveyard giving
it further strength. From the
bones found there, it was
presumed that people were buried
in Round Towers but this is not
Traditional Round Buildings
It was traditional in Ireland
to build round stone buildings.
The most impressive examples
being the great stone forts like
“The Staigue” in Kerry and the
“Grianán an Aileach” in Donegal,
which was recently restored.
Essentially a Round Tower is
an elongated clochán (a beehive
hut, stone structure).
But the secret of elongating a
clochán was the use of lime mortar and this method of building was not known
of in pre- Christian Ireland.
There is little doubt that knowledge of this method came to Ireland with the
Christian Missionaries in the latter part of the 5th century. This Roman
technique greatly helped the wave of monastic building that took place after the
coming of Saint Patrick from the 5th to the 7th century.
The internal and external walls of the tower facing each other were made
of local stone and were bound into a core of rubble and mortar concrete.
Internally each storey narrows as it rises with offsets at each floor level. The
whole circle of the wall thus leans in on itself and this is what makes Round
Towers so durable, standing the test of time.
It is believed that most of the towers were the work of teams of builders
who moved from one monastery to another using standard designs. The main
dimensions stay the same. The circumference at the base measures between
14m and 17m and the thickness of the wall at the lowest point varies between
0.9m and 1.4m. Most doorways were raised 1.5m to 4.5m from the ground.
Aghagower’s door is approx 2m from the ground. The doorway at ground level
Tower Door – Aghagower.
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would have been added later during peaceful times There is a townland in the
Mountbrown area known as “Creggannaseer” translated as “the hillock of the
craftsmen” and to quote from Brian Mannion’s article Aughagower and it’s
Patrician sites and Connections, “This most certainly refers to the tradesmen
who erected the Abbey and Round Tower. These men would have been
journeymen and would have set up huts or some kind of living quarters while
the Abbey and Round Tower were being constructed”. (Cathair na Mart, Vol.
8, No.1, 1988).
The Legends of the Capstone
John Keville again in his History of Aghagower tells a very interesting
story and I quote, “A very interesting stone which is thought to have been the
top-most stone of the cap of the Tower is preserved. It is a well-cut stone about
2ft high and 1ft in diameter at the base. It weighs 6 or 7 stone. At the top of the
cone is a hole about 3 inches deep and one inch across. This hole is considered
to have held the base of a cross when the stone was in position at the top of the
The time the cap of the tower fell is unknown but there are stories
connected with the fall. The story goes that lightning hit the tower with such
force that the roof was carried away for the distance of a mile and deposited in
a field in the townland of Teevinish, where an unexplained heap of stones really
Another version of the story says that the disaster happened on the night of
The Big Wind. The conical stone already described was carried off with the rest
of the roof. Next morning a woman from Teevinish found it and brought it
down to Aghagower in her apron”. From Cathair na Mart, Vol. 2, No. 1.
People now say the water in the hole has a cure for warts.
Barrow, Lennox: The Round Towers of Ireland, The Irish Heritage Series.
Notes from Cathair Na Mart, Journal of Westport Historical Society: Vol. 2, No. 1, Vol.
7, No. 1, Vol. 8, No. 1.
Hughes, Harry: An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage.
Mannion, Brian: Aughagower and its Patrician Sites and Connections.
Harbison, Peter: Guide to the National and Historical Monuments of Ireland.
Duffy, Jarlath R.I.P. Notes on the History of Aghagower.
Suzette Hughes taught in Lankill National School in the parish of Aghagower as
Assistant and Principal for 29 years. Married to Owen she lives on the family farm and
is now a Clinical Hypnotherapist.
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