Kilrush is situated on a small bay of the Shannon. In part of this bay are two little islands, in the middle of the river, which is here from four to five miles in breadth. One of these islands is the famed Scattery Island, on which are the ruins of The Seven Churches, and in the midst of them a round tower in good preservation. Having determined closely to inspect these monuments, I therefore intrusted myself and my portmanteau to a little row-boat, which was also to take me over to the county of Kerry. I seated myself at the helm, and a couple of able rowers, whom I had hired the evening before, undertook the propulsion of the little vessel. The morning was perfectly calm and warm, but the sun, as we pushed off from the shore, was obscured by a yellow fog, which concealed from my view the island towards which we steered, and even of the broad Shannon we saw little more than what danced and sparkled about our boat and our oars. The fog was of a dun yellow colour, and was spread along the water, which also seemed to be converted into vapour, as it reflected nothing but fog. Sometimes a tiny wave flashed in the distance, but as quickly disappeared, as if the eye of a Nereid had glanced out from beneath her veil as she swam past, and been hastily withdrawn. After rowing for some time, the fog cleared off, and the little green island lay before us with its ruined churches, amidst which the lofty column of the Round Tower first presented
p.114itself like a dark streak, and then gradually broke more distinctly and more defined through the murky atmosphere.
These Round Towers, as they are called, are the most interesting antiquities to be found in Ireland. Whenever I came into the neighbourhood of one, I lost no time in observing it closely. Like all travellers in this country, and all Irishmen themselves, I felt myself infected with a decided passion for round towers, and whenever I heard of one in the neighbourhood, I lost no time in carefully inspecting it. But as few of my own countrymen can have any idea of the nature of this passion, a short introductory notice of these ancient structures may not be deemed out of place.
These towers are round, and built of large stones; when seen from a distance, they look more like strong lofty columns than towers, being nearly of the same diameter from the base to the very summit. At present, indeed, their height varies, some of them being more or less in a state of ruin; but those that remain entire, (which is the case with the majority,) are all of nearly the same height, thickness, and structure, and as like each other as the obelisks of Egypt. They are generally from 100 to 120 feet high, and are from 40 to 50 feet in circumference, with a diameter of from twelve to sixteen, which is very small when compared with their great height. Their walls are strong and thick at the base, but gradually become thinner towards the top. They are hollow within, and have no exterior opening except a narrow door-way about eight or ten feet from the ground, and near the top some narrow little window-holes, usually four in number, and generally facing the four cardinal points, north, south, east, and west. These peculiar buildings are found scattered every where throughout Ireland. Sometimes they stand on lonely islands, or on the bank of a river; sometimes in the middle of a plain; and again in the retired nook of a remote valley. Their number is computed at 118;14 of which fifteen are wholly perfect and uninjured, whilst of thirty-six, little more than foundations now remain. Nothing could be less characteristic of these buildings than the name Round Towers, for all towers are more or less round. Some writers call them Pillar Temples, but the propriety of this name is disputed by others, who affirm that they never can have been destined for, or
p.115used as temples. The most striking characteristic of these towers being their resemblance to mighty columns, (and yet they are not columns, since they are hollow within, and are furnished with doors and windows,) perhaps the most appropriate and impartial name that could be given them would be that of Pillar-Towers.
These towers are almost exclusively peculiar to Ireland, no buildings of a similar character being found throughout the rest of Europe, except in Scotland, where there are said to be two or three of them, which were most probably built by Irish colonists. In the distant East, however, we find edifices of the same construction and of similar dimensions; and the first thing that strikes the traveller, on seeing an Irish pillar-tower, is its resemblance to the minaret of the Mohamedans. There being no authentic records which show the period at which these towers were erected, whilst every thing denotes that they must have been built in very remote antiquity, innumerable theories and hypotheses have been formed respecting them; and although the truth has not yet been elucidated, the falseness and absurdity of many of these theories is very apparent. For instance, those learned personages who assert that these towers were built by the Danes, seem to have forgotten that they are found in parts of Ireland where the Danes never had any possessions, as in Donegal, and the more remote counties of Connaught; and they must also have shut their eyes to the fact that the Danes never built such towers in England, nor even in their own country. That they were not built by the Anglo-Normans, who succeeded the Danes, is equally certain, because no record of the fact is to be found, nor any traces of similar structures in the native land of the Anglo-Normans. Since, therefore, it is evident that these towers were erected long before the English or the Danish period, it is extremely probable that they were built either by the natives of the country, or by colonists from the East, where similar buildings are alone to be found. Popular opinion in Ireland has decided in favour of the latter; and the general tradition, which has descended from the most ancient times to the present day, is that they were built by the Phoenicians. The learned, in propounding their theories, are accustomed to place too much reliance upon written records, which they deem alone authentic, and generally either allow little weight to tradition, or seem to forget that the memory of a people is for thousands of years often more correct than books, and that traditions thus transmitted are equally indestructible as monuments of stone or brans. Ireland, standing alone in the ocean, and at fifteen times a greater distance from most parts of continental Europe than England, had, at the time she was partially conquered
p.116by the Danes, and subsequently chained by the English to their destinies, her own separate history and social development, and even in the time of the Romans was never dragged into the vortex of European trade. The Phoenicians were the only people of antiquity who visited and ruled Ireland, and by their commerce may have brought this remote isle (a stranger even in Europe,) into connexion with the distant East. There is, therefore, nothing improbable in regarding them as the builders of the pillar-towers; more especially as we know that similar towers now actually exist throughout the entire Eastthat in the Persian province of Masanderan modern travellers, acquainted with Ireland, have seen towers exactly resembling those in the latter countrythat even in India there are similar buildings devoted to religious purposesand that the Turkish minarets, which stand near their mosques, are in all probability no mere modern Mohamedan invention, but a venerable oriental form of building;if, I say, we bear these facts in remembrance, we can scarcely avoid connecting these Irish towers with the East. Many are terrified by the antiquity which must thus be ascribed to them; but their extreme solidity renders it not improbable that they may yet endure for some thousands of years; and have we not Roman brick-buildings, which were erected before the birth of Christ?
Not less various are the opinions concerning their object, and some of them are equally absurd. On account of their great height, some have fancied that they were intended as watchtowers, and that a chain of telegraphs was thus formed throughout the whole island. Ridiculous as this opinion may appear, it is very general. Most of these towers, however, are on low ground, in valleys, or on lonely islands, from whence little of the surrounding country could be seen, and therefore little or nothing could be communicated. The slightest reflection would show the absurdity of such an idea. Others, again, contend that they are fortresses of the Christian era, to which the elders and priests withdrew with the treasure of their churches, when the country was threatened with hostilities. But I cannot believe that men could have been foolish enough to build hollow pillars for fortresses. Their great height would not only render their defence difficult, but afford facilities for attacking and destroying them. Those who crept into the narrow space must have been compelled to stand upon each other's heads, and their only means of defending themselves was through four small holes, 80 or 100 feet above the ground, at which they were to stand with their bows, till the enemy approached near enough to be attacked. I have been informed that a work is now in preparation to prove that these
p.117towers were fortresses; but I would recommend the learned author first to publish a treatise on the formation of the skulls of the ancient Irish, wherein he may show that they had a particular organ in their brains for the construction of crazed defences. Had they been built for this purpose, it is probable that not one of them would now be standing, as the storms of war which never ceased to rage in Ireland have razed all fortresses to the ground; whilst the Round Towers, on the contrary, seem as if they had been preserved with especial care and veneration. Another opinion is, that because they usually stand in the midst of the ruins of old churches, they were mere common-place Christian belfries. But irrespective of the fact, that Christianity as well as Mohamedanism has ever had its own particular architectural forms for its ecclesiastical buildings, to which from its very commencement it has strictly adhered, and that neither in oriental nor in occidental Christian countries have belfries ever been found constructed like the Irish round towers,irrespective of this, I say that belfries are usually built so that not only may a bell be rung in them, but that it may also be heard outside, and for this end they are always provided with side openings through which the sound issues. These pillar-towers, however, are formed like a telescope, and have only four holes in the upper part, so that the sound of bells rung within them, if not completely deadened, would at least be so greatly diminished, as almost entirely to destroy their utility.
There are many opinions of a similar nature, but none of them coincide with the popular tradition, which assigns these temples to the fire-worshippers who accompanied the Phoenicians to Erin. Every Irishman acquainted with the ancient legends of his fatherland, when speaking of these towers, talks of sun and fire-worshippers, and asserts that this belief has been handed down from generation to generation. Thomas Moore, and a few more of the learned, are inclined to rely upon this tradition, because the Pyreas15 of the Ghebirs are said exactly to resemble the Irish round towers, and also because it is proved that fire-worship was once the prevailing religion in Ireland. As the towers are almost devoid of light inside, we may readily believe that they served for the preservation of the sacred flame, which may have looked adorable enough in the darkness. The reason for placing the entrance so far from the ground is sufficiently obvious, when it is considered that the fire was holy, and therefore was not accessible to every one. It has been objected, that if the towers were erected for this purpose, there was no necessity for building them so high; but in reply to this it may be alleged that the fire was probably kept in the upper portion of the tower, near the four little windows, and that the priests brought it down from thence, symbolically
p.118as it were from the sun, the lofty heavenly God of Fire, and source of beams. If, on the other hand, the fire was placed at the bottom of the tower, it may have been built thus high in order at all times to obtain a continued current of air for the holy fire, and to avoid all danger of its being extinguished. It is also possible that these Pyreas may have served at once for various purposes: partly to preserve the fire; partly from their summits, as from a minaret, to summon believers to prayer; and partly to display, from the four loop-holes or windows, various fire-signals to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Astronomy having been intimately connected with the worship of the sun, the upper part may also have been used for making those celestial observations by which the periods of religious festivals were regulated.
Christian symbols have been found on some of these towers; for instance, on the summit of one at Swords, in the county of Dublin, is a small stone cross. Others bear the image of the Virgin: but these things are very rare, and have doubtless been added in modern times, as it is probable that many have been occasionally used for bell-towers, places of refuge, and various other purposes for which they were not originally designed. That ruined or even perfect churches and burial-places should be found adjoining these towers is not extraordinary; for it is an universal phenomenon that a place once held sacred by a people, remains so always, even though their religion may have been changed. The spots on which most of our old Christian churches now stand were previously occupied by heathen temples, and most of the old mosques in Turkey were once Christian churches.
Generally speaking, the churches found in the neighbourhood of a round tower are seven in number. This has been explained by the supposition that prior to the introduction of Roman Catholic Christianity from France into Ireland, by St. Patrick, an older Christianity had existed in the country. Some are of opinion that this ante-Patrician Christianity was likewise Roman Catholic; but others deny it, and suppose that it was introduced neither from Italy nor France, but direct from Greece. The tradition goes so far as to assert that the Apostle James himself was the first to preach the gospel in Ireland.16 This Christianity, it is said, had nothing to do with Rome, but was solely regulated according to the rites of the Eastern Oecumenic Synods; and on this supposition the numerous Seven Churches which stand together, are said to allude to the seven famous oecumenic churches of the East. The supporters of this opinion, it may be remarked, are chiefly Protestants; and, as the matter is somewhat probable, here is
p.119a second remarkable direct connexion of Ireland with the East. Is there one other Christian country in Europe, in which the ruins of old primaeval churches are always found together seven at a time? I do not know of any.
The Roman Catholics, on the other hand, maintain that Irish Christianity was Roman Catholic from the very first. Thus the differences in opinion of these two parties extend even to matters which lie deep-buried in the bosom of the past.
At length we landed from our little boat on Scattery Island, called, as I was told, Inniscattery. It is a very old ancient place, said one of the boatmen, as he carried me on his back through the water, for we had chosen as a landing-place a long piece of strand, upon which the retreating tide had left about one foot of water. This pleonasm of old ancient might be said of many places in Ireland, where old and oldest ruins lie side by side.
Some saint, or one of the first preachers or apostles of Irish Christianity, is generally said to have lived and died at each of the holy places in Ireland called Seven Churches. Here it is St. Senanus, whose grave is shown in one of the ruined churches. I have already mentioned, in speaking of the Shannon, the legend of a Princess Seinin, but others allege that it is from this St. Senanus that the river derives its name. Thomas Moore has written a poem on this Senanus, in which the saint refuses to permit a beautiful maiden to land on this island. One only of these ruined churches is still used as a burying-place, and I could not ascertain why the other six are not devoted to the same purpose. The body is conveyed from the mainland in one small boat, while the mourners follow in others, and compose the most interesting and peculiar funerals I ever heard of. I saw many very fresh tombstones, new and polished, with inscriptions in gold, and they looked peculiar and poetical enough on the lonely island. Among them were the graves of some captains of ships, who could scarcely have found a more appropriate resting-place than an island at the mouth of a river, from whence there is a view at the same time of the ocean and the land. On the gravestone of one of them were chiselled the emblems of the passiona sponge, a nail, a cross, a sword, a spear, &c. Will the time come when antiquaries will dispute about such stones, and the meaning of their hieroglyphics?
I am not aware of any other country in Europe which can boast of such interesting burial-grounds and such picturesque grave-monuments as those which are met with in Ireland. This arises partly from the abundance of ivy and other graceful evergreens with which they are generally fringed, and partly from the custom, which still prevails, of burying the dead amid ruins, which are
p.120even preferred for that purpose; and wherever there is a fragment of an old church remaining, there also abundance of graves are to be found, both old and new. In some parts of Scotland only have I seen any thing similar.
Some of the seven churches on Scattery Island have almost entirely disappeared; but three of the number yet remain in tolerable preservation, and are covered with ivy. Over the middle window of the one nearest to the round tower is to be seen a strange face, sculptured in stone. Strangely enough, it has the stiff, mask-like features of the Egyptian statues, even their projecting ears, and has evidently been broken away from some other building, and built into this. In the opposite wall of the same church is a stone on which traces of an old inscription are yet distinctly visible.
The pillar-tower stands a little to one side. Although no longer perfect, it is one of the most picturesque in Ireland; it has been struck by lightning, and split from top to bottom, so that a long and broad cleft runs down through the entire wall. On the south side it is covered with plants and mosses; on the northern and western sides, as my boatmen informed me, the growth of plants is prevented by the violent winds. Lightning and vegetation are the worst foes of the round towers; and when we consider how much lightning must have flashed around them during the space of 2000 years, it is astonishing that they have not all been long since overturned. I have already said that the round towers rise like columns, with an equal thickness from the base to the summit; but this must not be taken literally. Nearly all of them appear to diminish a very little as they ascend; and the walls, according to a very correct architectural principle, become somewhat thinner towards the top. This indicates any thing but a rude and inexperienced people.
All the island, except the burial-ground, is pasturage. On the highest part of it is a battery, which commands the mouth of the Shannon. There are no less than six similar batteries and forts on various points of the coast, about the entrance of this river, whilst at the mouth of the Thames there is not one. The English are compelled to erect strong defences on the Irish coasts, because they are England's weakest side.
On leaving Scattery Island, which afforded me so much antiquarian pleasure, the tide and the stream were both against us, so that we had enough to do to manage our boat. Steering is a lordly and kingly employment, even in so tiny a bark. Although, as in my case, you may have advisers whispering into your ear how you are to steer, it is still a noble business to hold the helm in your grasp, and to feel that you possess the power of directing the boat now
p.121this way and now that, as may best suit your purpose. In this way we proceeded along the northern shore of the Shannon till we arrived opposite Kilkerin battery, which stands on the steep and lofty edge of a little peninsula; here, where the river is narrowest, we crossed obliquely over, so that the current and the tide almost of themselves took us to Tarbert, a little haven of the county of Kerry.
The Shannon here presents a grand spectacle, its mouth being about forty miles long and varying from three to eight miles in breadth. As the ocean now contributes more to its waters than the river itself, it ought, properly speaking, to be called an arm of the sea; but this would be contrary to Irish geography, which assumes that the river still exists here. The fog had entirely cleared off, and the brightest sunshine illuminated the whole broad expanse of water. Except our little fragile bark, we saw nothing in motion. No ship passed in or out; and, without having received a good wish from any one on our voyage, we arrived towards mid-day at the opposite shore. As it was ebb tide, and there was not enough of water in the harbour, the men ran their boat on the mud, and we took our luggage on our shoulders. When it was too late, I discovered that, with as little trouble and time as it cost me to reach Tarbert, (which is only an insignificant seaport,) I might have visited one of the wonders of the world, the caverns of Ballybunion, which are situated on the southern shore of the mouth of the Shannon, and are said to extend from the surface of the sea, for more than a mile into the land. Ireland is rich in remarkable caverns, with the knowledge of which the scientific world is by no means surfeited.