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Churches with Round Towers in Northern Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp

Dysert O’Dea Church and Round Tower

So many archæologists have described St. Tola’s Church and sketched its fine door that, had they not omitted or stated incorrectly many facts, I should have no excuse for going over the ground again.

The ruins stand among pleasant woods and pastures, between low hills and the long reedy lake of Ballycullinan, and form a scene of great interest, though all distant view of them will soon be obscured by the trees, which have out-topped all except the round tower and the ivied castle with its lofty chimney.[22] About a mile to the north-east is the now shrunken stream among the crags and marshes where the fierce battle of Dysert crushed the power and race of De Clare out of Irish history, while from Scool hill overhanging the ruins is that extensive panorama extending into county Galway, over fifteen lakes, wooded hills, and barren crags, crowned in many places with lofty turrets.

Church Plan

Dysert Church is a heavy-looking building, 106 feet long. The south walls of the nave and chancel are not bounded, but run in one line to about 22 feet from the west end, where a projection juts out 2 feet. The chancel is 25 feet 4 inches long, and 21 feet wide; it has a round-headed window slit to the south, 4 feet 4 inches wide in the splay, 5 inches light, and 2 feet 8 inches from the internal east corner. The east window consists of three Gothic lancets, the lights 12 inches wide, the splays 3 feet 8 inches, 3 feet 5 inches, and 3 feet 8 inches wide; two rough ambreys occur to the south. The north wall [23] has a tablet of grey limestone with these lines in raised capitals:—


The chancel opens into the nave by a plain, well-built, round-headed [24] gritstone arch (with slight fillets for capitals, and a second and lower fillet on the north side);[25] it is 14 feet 6 inches wide, central to the chancel but not to the nave. The upper part of its gable had been rebuilt into a shapeless belfry, with two Gothic opes. Some rough tombstones, tapering to the east, lie just within the arch.

Window in West Gable
Window in West Gable

The nave is 71 feet long,[26] 23 feet 9 inches wide at the east, and 2 feet 5 inches more at the west, because of a projection which is 15 feet long at the south, opposite which is a blocked-up doorway high in the north wall and facing the round tower. Perhaps this end (as at Toomullin, &c.) formed the priest’s residence. A small late cinque-foil-headed north window near the chancel arch, 8 inch light and 5 feet 1 inch splay, forms the only side light of the nave. Two windows remain in the west gable. They are now covered with ivy, except the head of the central one, which I fortunately sketched in 1885, as well as its height and the overhanging trees allowed me. As will be seen, the outer face consists of the remains of several older windows. The five lower coigns to the south have serpents holding roll mouldings in their mouths,[27] their tails richly inter laced. No two of the remaining south coigns match; one was the voussoir of an arch; another voussoir with two chevrons is in the north jamb; below it are four blocks of interlacing matching by twos; the other pieces are nondescript, and the head belongs to some other window. The inner face has a spiral and fluting on the lower north jamb. Another moulded fragment is in the outer face of the west gable, near the south corner.

South Door, Dysert O’Dea
South Door, Dysert O’Dea

The well-known south door is 39 feet from the west end. Its ope is 3 feet 2 inches wide and 6 feet 8 inches high, the pillars being 5 feet 2 inches high. It consists of four orders: the inner has a large band, straight along the top, but making chevrons at the sides, ending in human heads upside down, with five lozenges on the soffit filled with leaves (p. 154). It rests upon square piers, their filleted heads carved with chevrons; the outer faces are covered with interlacings, and their sides with chevrons between dragon’s heads.[28]

The second order has indentations with trefoil-headed bars between them; it rests on piers, before which are detached shafts, the left octagonal, the upper block covered with foliage on two sides and interlaced knots on the other; the lower has late-looking roses instead of knots (p. 154, 10, 11); its capital has a human head gnawed by a shapeless animal. The right pier (of which the upper blocks are missing in Lord Dunraven’s photograph) has been re-set; it is round, with spiral bands of beading; its capital has a dragon’s head nearly defaced.

Details from the south door of Dysert O’Dea Church 1893
Details from the south door of Dysert O’Dea Church 1893

The third order has its arch cut into those deep chevrons so common in Irish churches of about 1150; the piers are square without capitals, and covered with interlacing. One side of the right pier had a semi-floral pattern; two of its blocks were misplaced in the mediæval re-setting. The outer order has for its arch that remarkable row of heads,[29] twelve human (one with a long moustache) [30] and seven nondescript ‘creatures of an elder world,’ four holding rolls in their mouths (as at Kilmacreehy), a rough slab having been inserted to fill out the ring of the arch. This rests on shafts, the left round, the right octagonal with zigzags (as at Aghadoe). The capital to the left has a head with interlaced hair; the right capital is defaced. The bases of piers Nos. 1, 3, 6, and 8 have cushions with leaves at the corners. A somewhat clumsy reconstruction must have been effected perhaps when the round tower was remodeled, and the design, when not viewed directly in front, is rather uneven. However, some of the blame of this is attributable to the re-builders.

In the graveyard, south of the church, is a small rude cross with a circular head, 14 inches across, 5 inches thick, and standing about 2 feet high. I could not find the late square font described in Ordnance Survey Letters.

The Round Tower is built like Ardmore in receding stories, the lower about 38 feet high to the offset; the upper about 22 feet. The circumference is unusually large, being 60 feet 9 inches [31] (61 feet in Brash). Above the usual slight plinth the wall is 4 feet 6 inches thick; the door faces east, and has a semicircular arch and inclined jambs. The masonry is of large hammer-dressed blocks, many 6 feet 6 inches by 2 feet 6 inches, laid in irregular courses, spawls freely used. Brash gives the dimensions of the door (which I had no ladder to verify) as 3 feet, tapering to 2 feet 10 inches at spring of arch; height from latter to sill, 4 feet 6 inches; thickness of wall at door, 4 feet ½ inch; from sill to ground, 13 feet 3 inches. Lewis’s ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ states that about 10 feet higher up a second ope remains, but this must have disappeared at the time of Mr. Wakeman’s sketch (1839) and Lord Dunraven’s photograph. The tower stands 7 feet 5 inches north of the church. It has traces of a late battlement and a chamfered Gothic window to the west and near the top. A breach, partly closed by a central pier, opens to the north on the ground level. A cracked brass bell was dug up in the tower about 1838, and after being kept for some time in Corofin was sent to Limerick and exchanged for a new one in a manner worthy of the Arabian nights.

Round Tower, Dysert O’Dea
Round Tower, Dysert O’Dea


Rath Church and Round Tower


St Tola’s Cross, Dysert O’Dea