One of only two round towers that can still be climbed in Ireland today, the ladders date from 1874, affording a tricky climb to the top, with a stunning reward of sweeping views over Kildare.
Iconic to the landscape of Ireland, there are hundreds of Monastic round towers that are dotted about the fields. With their squinting tiny windows and large stone slabs, often in granite, these slim majestic towers taper towards the top, usually encapsulated by a parapet and round roof at the top.
St Brigid’s round tower in Kildare is not only climbable, but it is also the second tallest one ever built, measuring 33 metres (108 feet) tall. It was originally constructed in the 6th century, with a renovation occurring in the 12th century, it is made out of Wicklow granite.
The doorway is constructed in red sandstone in the Romanesque style, this addition is very ornate, it is carved with chevrons, lozenges and stylised marigolds. Set into the stonework above the doorway is a very weathered stone hood moulding composed of the same red sandstone.
The stone was replaced halfway up the tower in the 12th century, making it two toned, which is very interesting to look down on once you have climbed the tower. The size of the outside windows actually differ on the inside, which is whimsical to the eye to say the least. Things are off-kilter in these round towers!
Historically its thought that round towers were called ‘cloig-theach’ (belfry or bell house) and were used for time keeping, in the centuries that followed they were then used as temporary refuge from Viking attacks.
They were symbols of prestige, power and wealth, some were said to act as “treasure houses” and display fine pieces in their far reaching windows. As they are so incredibly old, Irish round towers still remain shrouded in history.
Climbing this structure is no mean feat, especially since there are no steps inside the tower at all. Instead, there are a series of ladders that were installed in 1874, still present to this day. They are quite sturdy and are preserved in excellent condition, sitting between the thick stone walls, separated only by a handful of wooden platforms.
Thirty three metres hardly seems daunting at all when the tower is viewed from below and at a distance. But once you get up close, the magnitude of height begins to hit. Most days over the summer months, when there is a guide present, you can climb the tower for a small fee. The notice says children must be over 10 years of age, but it is up to the discretion of parents.
When we arrived on quite the rainy summers day, I was surprised to find that the tower, with its small windows and door, was quite water tight and dry inside. Its walls are over 2 feet thick, muting the sounds coming from outside, it’s an eerie disposition to find yourself in. We went up the ladders single file onto each platform. As we climbed, the walls also tapered in, which could be a bit unnerving for the claustrophobic.
As the tower is so high, it's a steady climb that takes patience. Peering out the tiny windows momentarily on the way up, you can gauge how high you are climbing and try to calculate the distance to the top. Stopping on the platforms for a breather, especially as the walls get narrower is also a blessing for those who are nervous!
The stab of fresh air that hits and the view is a welcome sight at the top. The top of the parapet is caged in and there is Perspex on one side, perhaps to protect from the blustery winds. The conical cap of the roof was replaced in the 17th century with castellations. The brilliant view overlooks Kildare’s famous Curragh Racecourse, across the uber-green rural countryside and gazes out over to the Wicklow Mountains in the distance. A view of the Irish midlands is surely worth the 33 metres climb to the summit.
Looking down the other side provides an excellent view of the township of Kildare, children’s park and adjoining historic monastic church with its gables and graveyard site is reminiscent of looking down on a map.
Forgetting ourselves a little, it’s then time to think about how to go about getting back down the ladders. The long climb down backwards is a challenge, kids or no kids! Hitting your foot down on the final platform there is certainly done with an exultant sigh of relief, and a dash of firm satisfaction.