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|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
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…”
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…”
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.