When is a Round Tower Not a Round Tower?

I’ve been intermittently pursuing a minor historical mystery since visiting the Narrow Water Castle in Warrenpoint, Co. Down last summer. Across the river (as you can see from the photo at the top) a rather cool-looking round tower was peeking out of the woods, shadowed by a mini-tower on the muddy river bank (far left of the photo). The Narrow Water Castle is a pretty awesome place: they have a murder hole, a garderobe (medieval toilet — guaranteed to fascinate the elementary school set), and a gorgeous setting where the Newry river enters Carlingford Lough and then forms the Irish Sea, so I didn’t really think about much the round tower except as backdrop. Later I thought I should find out some more about that tower.

There’s a good website for tower spotters, roundtowers.org, that lists all the round towers in Ireland — at least the surviving ones — but I couldn’t find a tower listed in that part of Co. Louth. No problem, there are other resources, but again nothing listed this tower. I checked Google Earth, just to make sure I wasn’t mis-remembering the location. I Googled “round tower” with the name of every townland in the area, but found nothing except a couple of photos of “a round tower near Omeath” (the nearest village) on Flickr. So I appeared to have a round tower that nobody, except a few photographers, seemed to care about.

Finally, the “mini round tower” down by the river gave me a clue. Who builds a miniature round tower at the edge of a river in the shadow of a real one? Why build such a thing? Well, presumably as a marker for shipping, right? Then I found a different view of the mini tower and saw a solar panel hanging off the front. Then it clicked into place: this is a pair of lighthouses built to look like ancient round towers — one 16 feet tall and one 49 feet.

As we’re living in the internet age, there’s a lighthouse spotters database (actually a couple of them) where I learned these are the two “Newry River Range” Lighthouses, solar-powered channel markers built in the shape of round towers. It turns out there was a trend for building lighthouses to look like round towers in the late 19th century. Who knew? So there you have it: When is a round tower not a round tower? When it’s a lighthouse.

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  1. karenzach’s avatar

    Since I hope to take Karly’s story to Ireland, I love, love these stories. And thanks for the round towers link. My husband longs for a house with a turret.

    1. Rich’s avatar

      So does my wife. There’s something very romantic about a tower.

      Which reminds me: several years ago the old church by my parents house came up for sale. One old gentleman wanted to buy the bell tower, with the intention of converting it to a very odd house. Why anyone would want to live in a graveyard (before their time) is beyond me. Maybe the tower fixation can be taken too far;-)

    2. sshaver’s avatar

      For some reason, I immediately assumed that this post was going to be about Yeats.

      1. Rich’s avatar

        But, of course! Tower + Ireland = Thoor Ballylee. Everyone should make the connection immediately — at least, the world might be a better place for poetry if everyone did;-) But, Thoor Ballylee is a Norman tower house, not a round tower. Yeats liked his comfort, and there literally isn’t enough room to swing a cat inside a round tower, and only a very short person could lie down.

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