The Leaning Tower


Do not attempt to adjust your screens: the tilt is real. This is the 10th century round tower in Kilmacduagh, County Galway, at some 111 feet the tallest such structure in the world. The conical cap, which unusually overhangs the drum, collapsed in 1858 and was rebuilt almost twenty years later. The tower has a circumference of fifty-six feet and walls six and a half feet thick. In addition, Kilmacduagh’s round tower has the greatest number of windows – eleven, all angle-headed – and a doorway almost twenty-three feet above the ground, leading to questions about how anyone ever gained access: the height is too great for a solid ladder and the alternative would be a rope ladder of exceptional length. But most extraordinary of all, the tower leans over a foot and a half to the south-west.

At the start of the 7th century Colman MacDuagh who had hitherto been living as a hermit on the Burren, was persuaded by his cousin Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, King of Connacht to establish a monastery in this part of the country. Legend has it that while Colman was walking through woods in the area seeking a spot for the new foundation, his girdle fell to the ground. Taking this as a divine omen he chose the place for his monastery. The girdle is said to have been studded with gems and kept for centuries by the O’Shaughnessys, descendants of King Guaire, and then by another branch of the family the O’Heynes. It has long since disappeared but an additional item associated with Colman, his supposed crozier (although likely of later manufacture) which was credited with the power to make a thief restore stolen items, is now in the National Museum of Ireland.

The fame of Saint Colman (as he became after his death in 632) attracted many followers and the monastery at Kilmacduagh thrived for several centuries. Indeed such was its importance that in the 12th century Kilmacduagh became the centre of a new diocese (subsequently merged with Galway). However like so many such establishments in Ireland it was subject to frequent attacks. The buildings were plundered several times before finally being devastated at the start of the 13th century by the Norman knight William de Burgh during his conquest of Connacht. At some date before his death in 1253 Owen O’Heyne founded the nearby house of St Mary de Petra for Augustinian canons. They remained here until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century after which the lands of Kilmacduagh were granted to the Richard Burke, second Earl of Clanricarde, a descendant of William de Burgh. Today the remains of sundry buildings from different dates can be found on the site including the cathedral, the friary of St Mary de Petra, churches dedicated to John the Baptist and the Virgin and the former glebe house as well as the world’s tallest, and only leaning, round tower.


May These Characters Remain, When All is Ruin Once Again*

Thoor Ballylee, County Galway is a 15th/16th century tower house originally built by the de Burgo family but now best known as the former property of poet William Butler Yeats who acquired it a century ago and subsequently undertook a restoration of the old building. Opened to the public in 1965, the tower closed seven years ago after being flooded by adjacent Streamstown river. It might have remained shut thereafter but for the endeavours of a local group, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, which tirelessly worked for the building’s refurbishment in time for last year’s 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. These pictures were taken two months ago, since when the tower – like so much of the surrounding country – has once more been subjected to severe flooding. However, according to the society’s website ( determined efforts are being made to ensure it will reopen later in the spring: an example of local, private initiative that deserves to be applauded and emulated elsewhere.

*A plaque on the castle’s wall contains the following text: ‘I the poet William Yeats/With old millboards and sea-green slates/And smithy work from the Gort forge/Restored this tower for my wife George./And may these characters remain/When all is ruin once again.’


In New Hands

The 15th century de Burgo tower house which forms the core of Tulira Castle, County Galway. This was one of a number of country houses acquired by new owners during the course of 2015, significant others including Bellamont Forest, County Cavan and Capard, County Laois. But many others remain on the market, such as Milltown Park, County Offaly, Newhall, County Clare, Kilcooley, County Tipperary and Furness, County Kildare, all of which have been discussed here on earlier occasions. Let us hope the coming year is kind to them and all of Ireland’s architectural heritage.


The Traveller’s Rest

The Irish saint Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as Brendan the Voyager, is believed to have been born around 484 near what is now Tralee in County Kerry. Following his baptism, he spent five years studying under St Ita, ‘the St Brigid of Munster’ before being ordained a priest by St Erc in 512. Between that date and 530 he travelled around Ireland preaching, and established monastic foundations at Ardfert and in Shanakeel at the foot of Mount Brandon. He also began to undertake longer journeys, visiting the Arran Islands where he founded another monastery, Brittany and, it is related, Hinba an island of now unknown location off the Scottish mainland where he met St Columcille. His legendary longer boat journey is discussed below, but supposedly on returning from this Brendan was still restless and accordingly went to Wales, and thence to Iona and several other places. After three years’ missionary work in Britain he returned to Ireland, and spent time in the province of Leinster. Thence to Connaught where he founded yet another monastery in Annaghdown, as well as a convent for his sister Briga: here he died in 577. However, concerned lest followers would try to keep his remains, he arranged before death that his corpse be secretly carried away concealed in a luggage cart. He was subsequently buried at Clonfert, County Galway, another religious house he had founded.

St Brendan is known as ‘the Voyager’ owing to a journey he is said to have made with a number of companions, one that took seven years and brought them across the Atlantic to the shores of North America. References to an account of this voyage occur as early as the ninth century although extant texts of the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) are somewhat later. These describe the journey in considerable detail, outlining how the saint and his intrepid fellow passengers construct a vessel not unlike the Irish curragh (otherwise known as a coracle) and after forty days of prayer and fasting set off in search of a promised land. En route they experience a series of adventures: on one occasion the boat was ‘raised up on the back of sea monsters’, while the group are also recorded as passing by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’ and being ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route.’ Finally they reached a beautiful land they named the Promised Land of the Saints. After exploring this as far as a great river that divided the land they turned back and slowly returned to Ireland. The Navigatio was well-known in the Middle Ages and cartographers of the period in their attempts to map the world included a place called ‘St Brendan’s Island.’ Following the voyages of Columbus and other seafarers, the story of St Brendan lost veracity, but almost forty years ago in 1976 the explorer Tim Severin determined to see whether such a passage across the Atlantic was feasible. Having constructed a replica of the boat described in the Navigatio, he likewise set off and over the course of more than a year underwent not dissimilar trials before arriving at Newfoundland. Along the way, he and his crew saw icebergs (‘crystals that rose up in the sky’), the volcanoes of Iceland (‘flaming, fold smelling rocks’) and whales (‘sea monsters’), thereby demonstrating the story of St Brendan’s journey to North America was not so fanciful after all.

Such was the fame of St Brendan that the monastery he founded and where he was buried at Clonfert soon became a place of pilgrimage and a centre of study under the authority of an abbot-bishop: at one time, it is claimed, the resident population of monks numbered some three thousand. None of the buildings in which they would have worked and lived now survives. Like many other religious settlements, wealthy but vulnerable, Clonfert was subject to regular attack first by the Vikings and then by Irish chiefs. Nevertheless it continued to thrive: in 1392 the Bishop of Clonfert paid three hundred florins to the Papal Treasury on his appointment, compared to the two hundred florins expected of the Archbishop of Tuam. Following the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th centuries, the cathedral church was retained for worship by the Anglican community (as is still the case) but it has since much shrunk in size and now measures just fifty-four by twenty-seven feet; the Romanesque north transept is in ruins and a Gothic south transept entirely gone. What remains is an enchantment. Inside the building, the most notable feature are the early 13th century east windows and the limestone chancel arch inserted in the 15th century, the latter decorated with various figures including angels and a mermaid holding a mirror. The glory of Clonfert Cathedral is its late 12th century west door, often considered the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque workmanship extant. Of sandstone, it is in six orders and is densely carved with an extraordinary selection of motifs including foliage, and animal and human heads: the innermost order was added in similar style in the 15th century. Above the doorway, a triangular hood has ten human masks enclosed within small triangles which alternate with other small triangles. Below is a blind arcade of five arches each of which has a human head within it. A wonderful survivor in a part of the midlands of Ireland now little visited, the doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, like the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, serves as testimony to the imagination of the Irish people more than a millennium ago.


A Memorial to Lost Love

Details of the sedilia at the west end of Kylemore church, County Galway. Designed by James Franklin Fuller, the building was intended as a memorial to Margaret, wife of industrialist and financier Mitchell Henry, who had died in 1875. During the previous decade Henry had already built the nearby Kylemore Castle,  likewise to a design by Fuller. The church’s interior was seemingly inspired by that of Bristol Cathedral, which is in the 14th century English Decorated Gothic style. Pale sandstone from Caen was used for much of the work, hence the elaborate carving of the sedilia which is located beneath the west window.


A Pair of Literary Giants


One of the stained glass windows in the 16th century tower house at Tulira Castle, County Galway. This is in Edward Martyn’s former private library, redecorated by George Ashlin when he made over the whole property in the 1880s. The windows, featuring luminaries such as Chaucer and Shakespeare shown here, were designed by English artist Edward Frampton in 1882. The irony, of course, is that within decades of the windows’ installation many key figures in Ireland’s literary revival – not least another pair of giants, Martyn’s neighbour Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – would gather at Tulira. Their presence there went unrecorded, at least in glass.
For more on Tulira Castle, see The Ascetic Aesthete, October 13th 2014.

Pinnacled Protection


The Gothic Revival mausoleum of the St George family at Drumacoo, County Galway. Dating from 1830, it was incorporated into the remains of a thirteenth century church on the site in order to receive the body of Lady Harriet St George, daughter of the second Earl of Howth.
In Ireland with Emily, first published in his 1945 collection New Bats in Old Belfries, John Betjeman wrote of the building,
‘There in pinnacled protection
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover
Graves of spinster, rake and lover
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates’