Clare County Library
Clare Archaeology
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | OS Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan

Part 1: Commentary: Castles and Tower Houses: Origin of tower houses

“It is agreed and asserted that every liege man of our Lord, the King of the said Counties (the Pale), who chooses to build a Castle or Tower House sufficiently embattled or fortified, wither the next ten years to wit 20 feet in length, 16 feet in width and 40 feet in height or more, that the commons of the said Counties shall pay to the said person, to build the said Castle or Tower ten pounds by way of subsidy”.
(Quoted by O’Brien, 1977, 19).

The above statute, issued by Henry 4th in 1429, is taken by many as being responsible for the large number of Tower Houses in Ireland. Their view is that the availability of a £10 subsidy encouraged people to build defensive sites in the Pale area. Irish chieftains, impressed by such sites, likewise had Tower Houses constructed with the result that: “…it almost came to the stage where – like a good Victorian – nobody wishing to be respected could afford to do without his Tower House Castle…”
Harbison, 1975, 28.

But can the availability of a £10 subsidy be responsible for the erection of so many sites? I think not. O’Danachair, in a recent article (1979, 159), feels that this subsidy was in reply to the spate of building already under way. Where, therefore, did the original idea of such sites come from? Presumably from the European continent where fortified dwellings of a vertical nature were already in existence, especially in northern Italy and Provence, by 1400 A.D. Ireland was in trading contact with such areas and this possibly accounts for their introduction into Ireland.

To what extent are these primarily or solely defensive sites? It could be argued that Tower Houses were minor Castles to keep an area subdued. But was this the case? It is very interesting to note that: “…The Irish Tower Houses are most numerous in the fertile heartlands of the great lordships, where settled conditions prevailed, rather than in wild, remote or border districts…”
O’Danachair, 1979, 159.

In fact an examination of the distribution map of Irish Tower Houses (1400 – 1650), prepared by the Commissioners of Public Works, supports this view. There is almost a complete absence of such sites from west Galway, west Mayo, north-west Donegal, with the largest concentration in the settled areas controlled by the Earls of Kildare and Ormond.

What, therefore, can be said of the Irish Tower Houses at this point? Their origin is in all probability on the European continent and their main function was as a residence and not a solely defensive site.