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Medieval round tower discovered in Northern Ireland

Researchers have discovered that a major medieval monument has been hidden in plain-sight for centuries in the heart of a major city in Northern Ireland.

The team from Queen’s University Belfast researchers and local historians from the Derry Tower Heritage Group believe that a medieval monastic round tower in Derry~Londonderry dates back to the 13th or 14th century, making it the only medieval structure still standing in the city.

The monument, which stands in the grounds of Lumen Christi College, was previously thought to be the remains of a 17th century windmill tower. However, researchers from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s have discovered that the monument is actually over 300 years older, and is most likely the remains of a “lost” monastic round tower.

The re-discovered monastic round tower of Derry – photo courtesy Queen’s University Belfast

Speaking about the significance of this find, Dr Colm Donnelly, Director of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s commented: “This monument is the only medieval structure still standing in Derry. All other medieval buildings that were once here are now gone, buried under the centuries of building activity that have happened in the city over the past 400 years.”

Dr Gerard Barrett, Research Fellow from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s, made the discovery through radiocarbon dating of mortar retrieved from the building, as part of innovative research underway at the 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, The Environment and Chronology at Queen’s. Radiocarbon dating of mortar is a new method for determining the age of a building. It works by measuring how much of the radiocarbon (an isotope of carbon) that was trapped when the lime mortar originally set still remains, centuries, or even millennia later.

Radiocarbon dating facility at 14CHRONO – photo courtesy Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Barrett explains how he discovered that the monument was actually a medieval building: “The radiocarbon dates we obtained suggested that the fabric of the tower was from the medieval period. The work that local historians in the Derry Tower Heritage Group had previously carried out suggests that a medieval round tower once existed in this general location in 1600.

“By 1685, however, the round tower is no longer shown on any historic maps, but a windmill is shown on the outskirts of the city. The radiocarbon dates are not saying that the tower wasn’t reused as a windmill in the 17th century, but it would seem that the 17th century builders were making-do and mending, using the stump of the old round tower for a new purpose.”

Early 19th century of the tower house. Image courtesy Queen’s University Belfast

Some 90 round towers are known across Ireland, with 15 examples in Ulster, of which nine survive as stumps, but the examples at Devenish Island (County Fermanagh) and the Steeple in Antrim (County Antrim) remain in pristine condition.

In Irish, a round tower is called a cloigtheach, which translates as “bell house”, and it is thought that hand bells would have been rung from their top windows to mark the times of religious services each day in a medieval monastery. The height of these tall taping towers – up to 35 metres in some cases – would also have meant that they could act as markers on the landscape that would be visible to travellers. In addition, they were symbols of a monastic community’s power and affluence. As such, it is not to be unexpected that the monastic community in Derry~Londonderry would have had a round tower, given the importance of their monastery in the north-west of Ireland.

The new scientific dates have been welcomed by the Derry Tower Heritage Group, whose members have been studying the history of the tower for the last five years and who had the foresight to have the mortar sample collected from the building during conservation work in 2013.

Stephen Doherty, member of The Derry Tower Heritage Group and teacher at Lumen Christi College said: “The new discovery is set to change our understanding of the early history of Derry. The textbooks will certainly need to be revised. Up to now we had no upstanding medieval fabric surviving in our city – now we have a round tower.”

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