While Ireland has a wealth of round towers surviving in various states of disrepair, only two can be climbed, and Kildare is the best of these.
The second tallest tower in the country (108 feet/33 meters), it is thought that the original round tower was constructed on the site in the 6th century. At some point, the upper two thirds of this tower seems to have collapsed — either as a consequence of assault or the forces of nature. The tower was rebuilt on the original base in the 12th century. You can see where the size and type of stones used changes as you examine the exterior of the tower. The elaborate doorway and windows are all from the 12th century. The doorway is constructed of red sandstone in the romanesque style, and is ornately carved (as always, some of the carvings are a bit weathered after 800 plus years) in four receding “steps.”
The tower can be climbed for a small fee when a guide is present — opening hours are posted at the entrance to the cathedral grounds. Inside there are a series of long ladders between wooden platforms. The ladders and platforms were replaced in 1874, but are still very sturdy and in good repair. As you progress up the tower the walls taper slightly, which might give anyone with a touch of claustrophobia the willies.
Inside, you can feel a real sense of the security these towers were built to provide. Safe behind walls over two feet thick, with only a few tiny windows to catch glimpses of your Viking attackers, the monks must have breathed a sigh of relief after they drew the ladder up and barred the stout wooden door behind them. However, the narrow space can make visitors feel a little confined and even one family climbing the tower on their own have to make space and maneuver carefully past each other on the tiny platforms. The monks must quickly have found their sense of safety evaporating and started viewing their sanctuary as a claustrophobic prison. Their survival hung on the speed with which the local chieftain could marshall his own warriors to drive the Vikings off. Would the Vikings have time to build a platform or ladders up to the door before the warriors got there? Would the Norsemen simply turn murderous and shoot flaming arrows through the windows if they were not quick enough to prevent their quarry escaping into their “panic room” before relieving them of their illuminated books and jeweled chalices?
After driving past so many of these towers around the country, it is a privilege and a joy to be able to climb one and appreciate the mixed blessing they provided. For a church that preached the gospel of love thy neighbor, they represented the best solution to a pressing problem.
Just below the top of the tower are five windows. This is unusual, as round towers normally have four windows at the top looking out in the four cardinal directions. It’s thought that the Kildare tower was built like this to keep watch over the five roads into the town. A small opening in a corbelled roof affords access to the crenellated battlement, which has a cage around and overhead to prevent excessively exuberant visitors leaning too far out or attempting foolish stunts to impress their friends (so families with impish little ones or teenagers can breath easier).
Originally, the tower would have had a peaked stone roof, but very few of these survive around the country, so it is assumed that it was replaced by the “battlement” structure at some point. The views afforded by this open top are stunning; on a clear day you can see across the curragh to the racecourse, with the Wicklow mountains outlined in the distance and the midlands stretching away in the other direction. The height also allows you to see the impressive stepped gables of the cathedral next door — a perspective on church architecture not often seen.
The caged top is a boon for parents, as you don’t have to worry overmuch about your tweens zooming up the ladders ahead of you while you shepherd the five-year-old determined to climb them “by myself!” Caution them not to hit their heads on the edges of the often narrow openings between floors and they should be fine. The tower climb is a highlight for most kids on their trip to Ireland, and Kildare is certainly the best one to visit.
I feel the best way to understand history is to visit the sites, to touch and see the relics, and talk to people who were there (if possible). Ireland’s recorded history is one of the oldest in the world, and many of our incredibly ancient historical sites are under constant attack: from the elements, from vandalism, from development, or simply from apathy and ignorance. When I was a child, several round towers could be climbed, but now, a mere 30 years later, only two are accessible to the public. Wooden ladders rot, the rain is constantly trying to find a way through old mortar, and frost chips away relentlessly at old stone; stabilizing and preserving them is expensive, and these round towers will not be here forever. A climb up Kildare’s round tower should be high on everyone’s trip to Ireland bucket list (natives as well as visitors)!
Learn about St. Bridget, Kildare’s famous founding saint…
While you’re in Kildare town, be sure to search out St. Bridget’s holy wells…
Have you ever seen a phantom round tower?
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