The tower at the heart of Roscrea

Over much of the 19th Century a round tower, a ruined church, a recumbent wolf hound and a harpist were the instantly recognised symbols of both Ireland’s past and its rising hopes of recovering some of that faded ancient glory again in modern times. Those modern times have brought other symbols, but the round towers of Ireland remain of immense interest to those concerned with Ireland’s Christian past.

In this magnificent, large format book, George Cunningham deals not only with the still surviving tower of his native Roscrea, but covers also the other towers across Ireland, and their varied histories.

Before discussing the book though a word about George Cunningham would be in order. He is well known for all the work he has put in over the years to the restoration of the Castle at Roscrea and the Damer House. He founded the annual Roscrea People, and has been involved with nearly every cultural and historical activity in the town for the last half century.

He is a remarkable example of the local historian, as his list of publications demonstrates. He is the sort of man every district Ireland needs. Aside from that over the years he has given away to schools and college some 50,000 books, yet another example of his distinguished altruism.

This book is the product of a lifetime’s research and enquiry. In it George Cunningham deals not only with the origin and building and meaning of the towers, but as the title indicates with the district and region in which the one at Roscrea was put up.

This book is then a sort of history of Roscrea since early Christian times down to today, and  it makes very interesting reading, if at times George Cunningham deals with what might seem to a more austerely minded professional archaeologist to be at first sight to be extraneous matters. But this is not so for it is all part of the environment of the tower.

The tower at Roscrea has one special feature, which he discusses. In the little archway that gives entrance to the interior is cut an image of a ship. Back in 1945, Dubliner Dr George Little in his still influential though controversial book, Brendan the Navigator suggested that this ship, which was juxtaposed with a cross, was carved in early Christian times, and that it could be taken as representing a wooden ship of the kind which, we are explicitly told in the Irish version of the Brendan’s life, the saint made the voyage that carried him across the oceans to “the promised land of the saints” – which Dr Little thought was America.

George Cunningham quotes the authority of Peter Harbison to dispute this, suggesting a later date is more likely.

There is some weight in this argument; but Dr Little’s main point that we should realise that the ancient Irish had large wooden, ocean going ships – and not just the skin covered curraghs that everyone seems to image Brendan and Columba using. Whatever about the image on the tower at Roscrea, this crux is still an important issue in understanding the early maritime history of Ireland.

However, it is some indication of the nature and quality of the book that one wants to sit down and to discuss (and perhaps dispute) with the author. Indeed as George Cunningham points out round towers since the days of the 18th Century antiquarians have been a rich source of often very heated dispute.

But modern archaeologists have worked hard to put such fantasies behind us, and to provide a scientific basis for what we think we know about the past. The towers are not of pagan or Norse origin, they are not some kind of Buddhist shrine. They belong firmly, though uniquely, to early Christian times in Ireland. To try and understand them, is to understand a great deal about our own history.

This book deserves to have a place in many libraries, and it will doubtless lead many people to visit Roscrea and to explore, in the light of what George Cunningham has to say, its past and its present. And while in Roscrea a visit to the ruin monastery of Monaincha and to Mount St Joseph’s Abbey would also be in order. They are, so to speak, the alpha and omega, the ancient and the modern aspects of Christianity in the Roscrea region.