The defensibility of Irish Tower Houses
By Duncan Berryman
The Castle Studies Group Journal, Number 24, 2011
Introduction: Tower-houses are often considered to be small castles, with similar defensive features and functions. They are small, single towers, often four or five storeys high and have a simple plan. They were most likely to have been accommodation for the smaller land-owning lordship, both Gaelic and Anglo-Norman.
Tower-houses became more numerous from the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century; they mainly fell out of use after a few hundred years, but some remain occupied today. Tower-houses are found across Ireland, with concentrations in the southern Counties, the Pale the area around Dublin – and southern County Down. Similar buildings can be found in Scotland, mainly around the Borders, where they are called Peel Towers. The tower-houses of Scotland are similar in appearance, but differ in design.
Many scholars, such as Leask, Sweetman, Thomson and McNeill, have placed tower-houses alongside other castles in their respective studies. This exemplifies the position that tower-houses hold in the field of castle studies, being seen as a relatively minor area of study. It is true that they share many features with their larger counterparts, but they have a very dissimilar position in the social scale and must serve slightly different functions.
The earliest work on tower-houses was carried out by Leask, this formed two chapters in his book of Irish castles. Similar work was carried out by Sweetman in his book on Irish medieval castles. However, neither of these evaluated the effectiveness of the defence or living facilities. Terry Barry, of Trinity College, Dublin, considers tower-houses to be primarily defensive and has based his studies on an attempt to date them and to search for their origins. Tom McNeill, of Queen’s University Belfast, rejects the idea that tower-houses were primarily for defence, instead his studies have stressed the social factors and the architectural design of the towers. Research by Rory Sherlock and Gillian Eadie has attempted to investigate how the domestic functions of a tower-house would have operated.
Recent research carried out at Queen’s University, Belfast has taken a slightly different approach to the study of tower-houses. This research has taken a sample of tower-houses from across three counties of Ireland, Co. Down, Louth and Meath, rather than study every tower-house in one County. Instead of looking at the tower as a whole, this study focused on one important feature of the tower-house – the door – crucial to the defence of the tower. Being the only entry, it was central to the tower’s social function and its every day life.