Aughagower Round Tower

Aughagower Round Tower

Aughagower Round Tower

Aughagower Round Tower.

The Round Tower in Aghagower

Suzette Hughes

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.

Background

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

(Louisburgh)”.

There are at least three theories as to why a Round Tower was built at

Aghagower.

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

chalices.

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

1013.

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

correct.

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

Tower.

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

does exist.

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.

Bibliography

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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