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THE IMPERIAL MAGAZINE.
THE ROUND TOWER, BELFRY, AND CHURCH OF SWORDS, IN THE COUNTY
OF DUBLIN, IRELAND.
(With an Engraving.)
SWORDS is a long irregularly built post town in the county of Dublin, at no great distance from the sea, and about seven miles north of the Irish capital. Some singular ruins of great antiquity render it an object of interest to the curious traveller, but that which excites the greatest notice is, the ancient Round Tower, which, at about sixty feet distance from the church, is exhibited in the engraving. This venerable building, still in a high state of preservation, has suffered less from the corrosions of time than, perhaps, any other erection of a similar description throughout this large section of the United Kingdom.
These Round Towers are almost exclusively peculiar to Ireland. Some few have indeed been found in Scotland, but they never appear to have been numerous, and the greater part have fallen into decay. In their general character, the architecture appears to be much the same, but their origin, history, and use are involved in much obscurity. In height they vary from fifty to one hundred feet, and few among them are more than twenty feet in diameter at the base. They have a single entrance-door, of from five to fifteen feet from the ground, and a loop-hole to give light to the stories, of which each tower contains six or seven. These gradually contract in dimensions, as they ascend, so that, the uppermost chamber is not more than five or six feet in diameter. It is somewhat remarkable, that the upper story is furnished with four loop-holes, which, while admitting light and air, uniformly correspond with the four cardinal points of the compass.
From the nature and situation of these singular structures, they being always near to the site of some ancient church, it would appear that each was built for the accommodation of some recluse or hermit, who inhabited the upper chamber, and thus indulged in that seclusion and solitude, which constituted his chief evidence of devotion.
According to Giraldus Cambrensis, Ireland abounded with these towers in the twelfth century, and there is reason to ascribe the erection of them to the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries; namely, before the Danish invasions, and during the period when many enthusiasts of Ireland wandered into foreign countries, in quest of solitudes which they could not find at home. It has been conjectured by some, that the idea of the building and its use was primarily suggested by the columns and stylites of the anchorets and faquirs in the East. 2D, SERIES, NO. 21.-VOL. II.
165,- VOL. XIT.
Of these very singular structures, which are the principal architectural ornaments of ancient Ireland, there are at present probably about one hundred, that have not bowed their venerable pinnacles to the earth, although many centuries have passed over them; and no doubt can be entertained, that a rigorous scrutiny would lead to the discovery of fragments belonging to several others that have hitherto remained unnoticed. Ledwich has with much industry collected the names of sixty-two, but many are omitted by him, that are well known to others. Aghavilles, in the county of Kilkenny, Drumkleeve, in the county of Clare, others in Sligo and elsewhere, have not yet been inserted in the published catalogues of any learned antiquaries.
In an agreeable modern tract, and one which displays much antiquarian research and general information, entitled “An historical and critical inquiry into the origin and use of the Irish pillar tower, by Colonel De Montmorency Morres, K. St. L.” these questions are fully and fairly examined; but, after all the learning and ability which the author has evinced, we are compelled to conclude, that conjecture is nearly the only foundation on which his hypothetical fabric stands.
The prudent and cautious Mr. Harris asserts, that their origin is Christian, and, that in use they correspond with the pillar on which Simon Stylites stood for forty years. Dr. Ledwich, however, seems decidedly of opinion, that they are of Danish origin, and that they were intended as belfries by these barbarian invaders. The late General Vallency attributes their origin to our heathen ancestors, and asserts positively, that they were the receptacles of the sacred fire of Baal, or the sun. A fourth opinion is, that they were intended to serve as land-marks by day, and beacons by night, and that the stories, lofts, and loop-holes, may be easily conceived as accommodated to this use. A fifth conjecture makes them sepulchral columns, bearing a miniature resemblance to such as are found in Syria, and more conspicuously in the pyramids of Egypt. Another conjecture is, that the pillar tower owes its origin to the first Christian fathers who visited Ireland, and who, in this pious work, were assisted by the newlyconverted kings, and wealthy subjects, the monks and pilgrims from Greece and Rome, acting as architects; and, that the probable period of their erection was in the fifth and sixth centuries. Admitting this hypothesis to be correct, it is presumed that they served as the keep or citadel of the adjoining abbey or church, in which the monks deposited their books and relics, with all the other precious wealth belonging to the order, and whither they retired and immured themselves in (seasons of danger, particularly on the approach of an enemy.
Dissatisfied with all the preceding conjectures, another agreeable writer and acute critic has the following observations respecting these antiquated, and very singular buildings. “I cannot help inclining to the opinion, that they are belfries, as their very name in Irish, cloghad, imports a steeple with a bell; and also from the following considerations. Over a great part of the Eastern world, they have tall round steeples called minarets, with balconies at the top, from whence a person summonses the people at stated hours. As the Irish derived their arts from Phenicia, we may suppose from thence also came the model of these towers, which served as the minarets of the East do at present, till bells came into use : for narrow as they are, about ten feet in the clear at the base, they might hold a bell large enough to summon the congregation as effectually as the voice of a man. .” From such diversified opinions, as to the origin and use of these towers, the silence of history mo- he easily inferred. In the records of
tradition, conjecture takes a still wider range; and, among travellers and tourists, almost every one has something to add to the general stock of probable or improbable supposition.
That all the preceding conjectures are liable to formidable objections, it would be useless to state, and in vain to deny. Some plausible adaptations may, perhaps, be found in favour of each hypothesis, but even the most imposing is very doubtful, and with little trouble may be swept away. On points involved in so much uncertainty, it would be indiscreet even to risk an opinion. It is not improbable that all may be erroneous, and that both their use, and the time when they were erected, are alike unknown. In the mean while, time, which sometimes withdraws its veil from objects that have been concealed for ages, and brings hidden things to light, may cover these round towers of Ireland with a darker mantle, too heavy for any human energy to remove, too dense for any human researches to penetrate.
But what theories soever may be formed of their origin and use, it is obvious that these venerable remains of decaying grandeur speak to the imagination in a strain of eloquence which no modern work of any magnitude can reach. They transfer their grand and solemn visages to the landscape ; and, in the representation of elevated subjects, present, in a happy combination, their hoary aspects, the obscurity of their birth, and the altitude of their summits, to assist in the formation of sublime ideas, which are consummated by an assurance of the fact, that
“No record lives to tell what they have been.” It is worthy of remark, that, in their relative positions, these towers are nearly all alike. They stand on the north-west side of the churches, with which they appear to have been morally connected, are about sixty feet distant, and generally occupy either a rising ground, or a conspicuous situation.
The Tower of Swords, represented in the engraving, is furnished with stairs on the inside, reaching from the bottom to the top, but these are evidently of modern construction. It is also finished with a cross, which surmounts the conical masonry with which it is covered. It stands in the church-yard, at a short distance from the steeple and church, the latter of which is rebuilt in a very elegant gothic style, with buttresses and finials, and on rather an extended scale. The tower measures seventy-three feet in height, by fifty-two in circumference, at an elevation of ten feet from the ground. It is a plain and simple structure, on which the lapse of many centuries, and the violence of elementary commotion, seem to have had but little influence. Mr. O'Halloran says, that “these ancient monuments, from their solidity at this day, appear to have been built with such firmness, as almost to defy the ravages of time.” The walls are about five feet in thickness, and the doors of these towers face the east.
There are no particular circumstances connected with the Round Tower of Swords, through which it has obtained a preference to our notice; and if another had been selected, similar remarks would be equally applicable. Where all are destitute of history, and of distinguishing characteristics, choice can be under no obligations to ingenuity or taste.
The description given, and the conjectures now placed before the reader, may, with trifling variation, be applied to the whole of these singular edifices. They stand foremost among the venerable artificial monuments of Ireland ; but their real origin, age, and purpose have hitherto eluded all antiquarian scrutiny, and all historical research.