Antrim Round Tower and the Witch
Round Towers in Ireland
Round towers are early mediaeval stone towers predominantly found in Ireland. Mainly built between the 9th and 12th centuries, it is estimated that around 120 were built in Ireland of which 18-20 remain intact as important reminders of our past. In addition, two towers were built in Scotland and one on the Isle of Man.
The stone towers vary in height from around 20 ft to 130 ft. Construction represented quite a feat of engineering using external scaffolding, pulleys and hoists to move the heavy stone rocks into place. Typically each would have several storeys with wooden floors reached by wooden steps/ ladders.
It’s believed that early roofs would have been constructed of wood but that these would’ve been replaced by stone due to their susceptibility to fires and lightening strikes. Surprisingly, given the height of the towers, foundations were often not substantial with a depth of 20 to 40 inches not untypical. The fact that 20 towers remain in sound condition after a thousand years is a testament to the skills of the builders.
The Irish term for the round towers (Cloigtheach singular or Cloigthithe plural) translates as ‘bell house’ explaining their positioning near churches and monasteries.
“A tower of this kind is generally found in the vicinity of a church or monastery, with the door of the tower facing the west doorway of the church. Knowledge of this fact has made it possible, where towers still exist, to determine without excavation the approximate sites of lost churches that once stood nearby”.Wikipedia, 2023
Antrim Round Tower
This round tower, less than a mile to the north-east of the little town of Antrim, is one of the most impressive and well-preserved of the remaining round towers in Ireland.
Round towers were an important feature of religious settlements during medieval times in calling the monks to prayer. In addition to their role as belfries, the tolling bell was an early warning system to alert locals of an impending attack. The towers acted as look-out posts with high windows that faced the four cardinal points. When an abbey was under attack the monks, with any precious books and artefacts would seek shelter in these strongholds.
The curved stone walls, built to withstand extreme weathers, prevented the invaders ladders getting secure purchase and the solid stone offered good protection from arrows and pick-axes. The raised entrance (typically over 8ft above ground level) would be reached by a rope ladder which was pulled up after the last person had entered the building. (Architecturally, the raised doorway served to preserve the structural integrity of the tower as a ground level doorway would offer less support on the shallow foundations).
The Early Monastery & Tower
The round tower at Antrim was once part of a thriving monastic community. The monastery itself is said to have been founded in 495 by St Aedh, though others assert it was established by St Durtract, a disciple of St Patrick.
It had strong connections with the monastery in Bangor, County Down. The round tower (known locally as the Steeple) was erected to the west of the church building. Historians differ as to the date of its construction. Some believe it was built in the 10th or early 11th century. However, the antiquarian, Dr George Petrie suggested that the tower was completed in the 7th century and was the work of the prestigious Irish architect Goban Saer.
Goban Saer, meaning ‘Goban the Artificer’ or ‘Goban the Builder’ was born in north County Dublin around 560. He was reputed to be the son of Tuirbe Tragmar, ‘the thrower of axes’. This gentleman is renowned for possessing a magical axe, which when thrown on a shore would hold back the approaching tide. Goban is credited with the construction of many ecclesiastical buildings including the towers at Kilmacduagh and Kilbannon.
“Goban the Artificier, the title of the celebrated architect to whose skill the traditions of the country ascribe the erection of so many churches and round towers”Rev William Reeves Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore 1847
One interesting rumour that we came across by chance, is noted in the Irish Miscellany of 29th May 1858
“Tradition ascribes the erection of this tower (Antrim), as well as to others in the north of Ireland, to the celebrated architect Goban Saer, who is believed, in this part of the country, to have been a woman”Irish Miscellany of 29th May 1858
Description of Antrim Round Tower
Antrim round tower reaches a height of 93ft topped with a conical roof. The original roof was destroyed by a lightning strike in 1819 and replaced in 1822 with a freestone replica. According to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs the apex of the cone was once decorated with a “handsome stone spear, octagonal, and of a description of stone very rare in this neighbourhood”
The tower measures 50ft in circumference at ground level, tapering to 36ft at the top. It is constructed with large blocks of local coarse-grained basalt, thought to come from the townland of Lady Hill, 3 miles north of the tower. The walls themselves are over 3ft thick. On top of the north-facing door and around the 8 windows are granite lintels. The entrance is 12ft above ground level. Above the doorway lintel is a rounded stone with the bas-relief carving of a Celtic Cross with a short shaft.
On the interior of the walls are holes which held the joists for the wooden floors. There were four different levels each lit and ventilated by a narrow window. Usually, the floors were reached by wooden ladders but Lewis (Topographical Dictionary of Ireland) asserts that there was a spiral staircase in the Antrim round tower .
The religious settlement at Antrim was subject to a number of attacks. The Gaelic name Aontreibh or Oentreb means ‘one tribe’ or ‘one ridge’. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, the monastery was plundered by a Viking raid in the 9th century, badly damaged in 1018 and finally burnt down in 1147. In 1819 the ruins of the monastic buildings were cleared away and the area incorporated into a private estate, leaving the round tower standing alone.
“This monument of antiquity, to a stranger, would appear, from the smoothness of the sward which surrounds it, and the total absence of any kindred building, to have been a solitary erection: but the testimony of those who removed the foundation adjacent walls, and who wholesale cleared away vast quantities of human remains from the surrounding space….goes to prove that this Tower, like all its fellows, has had, in its day, a church beside it”Rev William Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Connor, Down and Dromore 1847
The large number of bones uncovered suggest there was once an ancient graveyard attached to the original monastery.
“The quantity of human bones which have been dug up about the round tower are almost incredible and scarce a spadeful of earth can now be turned up that does not contain some fragments of them. The extreme richness of the mould would infer that it had been long used as a burial ground, and these facts tends to confirm the truth of the tradition concerning the church”James Boyle Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1838
The Residence of George Clarke
In 1827 George Clarke, a local magistrate and landowner built himself a residence here. It was described as a two-storey dwelling “…spacious and modern, (it) presents rather a handsome appearance”. Situated on a slight elevation it had lovely views over the surrounding countryside and was surrounded by impressive gardens.
“The lawn with the flower gardens contains 45 acres and is ornamented with some thriving young timber. There are also some pretty shrubberies of evergreens and 2 very neat and well laid out flower gardens”John Boyle, Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1838
In Griffiths Valuation it is listed as a house with offices, gate-lodges and land. Tenants living on the estate included – John Walsh, Samuel Kearns, Alexander McConnell and Francis Knox.
In 1901 the house is in the hands of another George Clarke and his sister Grace. Both are in their 60’s and unmarried. Also in the residence are William Woods the butler, Mary Jane Adams the cook, plus two maids and a pantry boy.
The home is described as having brick walls, a slate roof, 11 windows to the front of the property and containing 26 rooms. It also had a number of outbuildings – 2 stables, 3 coach houses, a harness room, 3 cow houses, 1 calf house, 1 dairy, 1 piggery, 2 fowl houses, a boiling house (for boiling potatoes to make animal feed), 1 barn, 1 turf house, 1 potato house, 1 workshop, 1 shed, 1 store and a laundry.
George Clarke died at The Steeple on 29th April 1908 aged 73. While Grace Helen Clarke (77) a ‘gentlewoman’ passed away from influenza on 29th June 1916.
When we visited, we saw an old house now falling into disrepair, not far from the round tower. Could this be the original Clarke house? We were told that in more recent times it was the headquarters of the Antrim Borough Council. Its location & appearance suggest that it could indeed have once belonged to George J Clarke. Thankfully there are plans to renovate the grand old house.
The Bullaun Stone
Close to the tower is a large bullaun stone measuring 6ft in length and 4.5ft across. This boulder has two distinct hollows. The common belief is that the depressions were used by the monks to grind grain for bread or used to hold holy water to baptise infants. However, at Antrim there is a different theory.
It is said that the construction of the round tower caused a local witch to fall into a terrible rage. In order to destroy this symbol of Christianity, she flew to the top of the tower to disrupt the builders. Once there however, her temper got the better of her, and she fell from the great height to her death (her flying skills must have deserted her in her panic). She landed on the boulder and the impact of her knee and elbow caused the two hollows we still see today.
The cup-like depressions measure 15’’long, 12’’ wide and 9’’ deep, the smaller cavity is 6’’ wide and 3’’ deep. These hollows are said always to be filled with water, even in times of extreme drought.
“…. during the driest seasons (the bullaun stone) is constantly filled with fine clear water”Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
George Henry Bassett in his Book of Antrim published in 1888 claims to have met a gardener on the property who told him that incredibly even during the drought of 1887 he was able to get fresh water from the stone every day.
“Mr Clarke’s gardener has repeatedly drained out the water, but while failing to discover the source of the supply, has always found the basin full the next day”George Henry Bassett in his Book of Antrim published in 1888
The Antrim Round Tower Today
It is difficult now, in this peaceful location surrounded by mature trees, to imagine this site as a busy monastery with a church, monks’ cells, a bakery, workshop, kitchen garden and possibly even a scriptorium. Even harder, as the setting for marauding invaders, fires and bloodshed. The round tower has been known for centuries as ‘The Steeple’ and this is reflected in the name of the townland and the nearby road.
“The Steeple, the residence of George Jackson Clark Esquire, JP is cheerfully situated on a gentle swell three quarters of a mile north of the town of Antrim. It, as well as the townland in which it is situated, takes its name from the ancient round tower which stands in the lawn and within 125 yards of the house”James Boyle, Ordnance Survey Memoirs, 1838
Today this notable monument is set in parkland under the care of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
“…the antiquity called ‘The Steeple’ is one of the most perfect round towers in Ireland”William McComb Guide to Belfast 1861
Antrim Round Tower, 14 Steeple Road, County Antrim BT41 1BL
Locate it on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/j13AD7fEhYvpFRJu8
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