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The ecclesiastical site located at Rattoo in north County Kerry is notable due to the presence of an exceptional example of a Round Tower.

      The Irish Round Towers were a local representation of the Medieval European fashion of building belfries in the immediate vicinity of earlier built churches. The stylistic innovations introduced by the Round Towers in Ireland subsequently spread into the overall architectural approach to church building in the Medieval period.

      Round Towers served as bell-towers. Their commanding heights would have carried the sound of the ringing bells for considerable distances. Unfortunately, they would also have caught the eye of marauding Viking raiding parties. Even in the event of an attack, however, when firmly locked from within, the towers would have served as relatively secure repositories for valuables. They were not impenetrable. Indeed, the very first reference to a Round Tower in the Annals of Ulster, under the year 950AD, recorded the burning of the ‘bell-house of Slane’ (‘Cloicthech Sláne do loscadh) by the Vikings of Dublin.   

      There are only a mere 66 standing examples of a Round Tower in Ireland (with documentary evidence suggesting the former existence of an additional circa three dozen towers). In County Kerry there were only 3 proven examples. One of these towers (at Aghadoe) has been reduced to a stump, the other (at Ardfert) collapsed about 1771. In contrast the sandstone-built tower at Rattoo is in exceptional condition.

      The vast majority of Round Towers taper evenly to a conical cap. The towers were constructed of bonded masonry.

      Rattoo Round Tower [KE009-056001] stands at 29.56m in height. It has a basal circumference of 15m. The internal diameter of the tower is 2.3m at elevated door level. It featured 5 stories above ‘basement’. The tower was located on an elevation of land surrounded by extensive bog/marshland.

      The doorway of the tower is of particular interest. It is positioned 2.83m above ground level. These elevated doorways were reached by wooden ladders. The doorway is 1.6m in height and is round headed. The semi-circular arch consists of 3 stones ornamented with a simple curvilinear motif in relief.

       The 12th century witnessed the introduction of round-arched doorways in Ireland. The inspiration coming from the Romanesque architectural tradition in England. The tower at Rattoo, has in fact, been dated by radiocarbon methods to the later 11th century. Small quantities of carbon retrieved from the mortar enabled the test. The carved motif over the doorway is not unlike the example discovered at Britway in County Cork.

      At the top left-hand corner of the interior frame of the north window there is a Sheela-na-gig [KE009-056002]. These mysterious carvings, have been described as fertility symbols or talismanic devices deployed to ward off evil spirits. The circa 80 known examples from Ireland, are to be found at Late-Medieval castle and church sites. The presence of a Sheela-na-gig in a Round Tower is unique to Rattoo.

      The Round Tower is part of a complex of monuments. The Ecclesiastic Enclosure [KE009-089] is now only discernible in crop marks. No surface remains are in evidence. To the southwest of the Tower stand the remains of a rectangular church [KE009-056003] located in a graveyard [KE009-056005]. The remains of the church are of composite date. A 17th century inscribed stone [KE009-056006] was used in a repair of the doorway in the western gable of the building.

       The saint associated with Rattoo was Lughach (son of Lughaidh). His pedigree attaches him to the Ciarraighe. By the 8th century the Ciarraighe Luachra were dominating the fertile farming lands of the North Kerry plain. From the early 9th century their growing power was diminishing that of the formerly dominant Eóganacht Locha Léín.

       To the east of Rattoo lies the Early Medieval site of Dysert [KE 010-062002]. There is a recorded Togher (Tóchar) or Roadway connecting the two ecclesiastical sites [KE009-088]. This routeway crossed the intervening marshlands that occupied the terrain between the rivers Feale and Brick. The routeway was illustrated on the 1st edition of the relevant 6” sheet Ordnance Survey map, denoted as ‘Bohergarraunbaun’. The Ordnance Survey Books recorded its name as ‘The White Horse Ridge’. Its trajectory is still discernible over a distance of 1,830m. The average width of the Tóchar was 2.75m.

       The Tóchar/Roadway, extending over the marshlands that occupied large proportions of the townlands of Dysert Marshes and Dysert, is the only finite proof of the contemporaneous interrelationship between the two ecclesiastical sites. The survival and integrity of this terrain must be protected. The Rattoo Round Tower is a magnificent example of the monument type. Whilst the tower itself is undoubtedly ‘safe’, its environs and host landscape are integral to a proper understanding of its very existence and presence at this precise location. Neither should the free-standing long-range visual impact of the monument be compromised or diminished.


Dr. Mark Clinton,

Monuments & Antiquities.