Smoked monks and suicidal witches

Antrim Round Tower

Antrim Round Tower

Well… it’s a tower, I said thoughtfully. And it’s… round. But what is it?

A Round Tower, replied Billy, helpfully. She set off in search of the entrance, walking all the way around the tower and returning to her original starting point approximately 8 seconds later.

It seems that Irish Round Towers are actual “Things”, if you know what I mean. As in, there’s a Wikipedia page about them, and everyone knows that having a Wikipedia page is the very proof of existence. I have a Wikipedia page, therefore I am. Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t help me to prove my own existence, nor that of most other people I know. It remains possible that we do not exist. This hasn’t caused me any significant difficulties so far, though, so I’m not particularly bothered about it.

Anyway, this disturbingly phallic piece of Irish history stands at an impressive 93 feet tall, and is probably about a thousand years old. In a wonderful example of the same Irish construction ability famous for building an unsinkable ship that sank, they decided to put the door to the tower about 7 or 8 feet up the wall.

Up here! Tower door.

Up here! Tower door.

The logic, perhaps, was that in case of an invasion of Vikings or whoever was causing trouble back then (I assume it wasn’t always the IRA and the UVF), the frightened monks of the surrounding monastic settlement could scurry up the ladder into the tower, and then withdraw the ladder so that their attackers couldn’t reach them. Yah! they’d shout, defiantly, as the Vikings scratched their helmets and wondered what to do. Oh, crap! they’d add soon afterwards, as the Vikings gave each other a leg-up and set fire to the door. For, indeed, when you’ve got a couple of dozen monks piled into a tall, narrow, and (let’s face it) chimney-shaped tower sealed with a lid, the solution practically leaps out and smacks you in the beard.

And so it is that Round Towers all through Ireland show evidence of fire damage around the door, and have records of people burning or suffocating to death inside them. Irish history: you couldn’t make it up.

The best part of Antrim’s tower, however, is actually the large boulder next to it, which is impressively entitled “The Legend of the Witches Stone”. The stone has two bullauns (depressions) which are said to always be full of water (and apparently a Subway napkin, which I had to remove before taking the picture… grrrr!).

Legend of the Witches Stone

Legend of the Witches Stone

This is interesting. It is like a mysterious holy miracle thing, and I am keen to return sometime when it hasn’t rained for weeks, to see if they are still water-filled. Of course, in typing that sentence, I see the problem with my plan, and very likely the real reason why the holes always have water in them…

The information sign suggests that the water in the bullauns was regarded as holy, and was therefore possibly used to “baptise converted pagans or cure warts”. I found this sentence very amusing. Religious rebirthing symbolism on the same level as curing warts. Gotta love it. However, the reason the stone got its name is that according to legend, a local Antrim witch who was unhappy about the construction of the monastery decided to show her disapproval and take a stand – or rather, a flying leap. Off the top of the tower. She landed on a large stone, so hard that when they scraped her off it, they found that she’d dented it. To this day, the impressions left by her knee and elbow remain in the boulder.

It’s a beautiful story, no?

Alas! It is probably not true – not least because the stone was originally located over a hundred yards away from the tower. Mind you, she probably had a broomstick. Although why a witch would jump off a tower in protest, fly a hundred yards on her broomstick, and then jump off that, too, is a bit beyond me. Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this…

[Apologies for the rubbishness of my photos – I don’t have a camera, and my phone isn’t much good at the best of times, never mind twilight. For better (i.e. “someone else’s”) pictures, click here.]

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3 thoughts on “Smoked monks and suicidal witches

  1. Interesting story. In your picture it looks like the stone has a face… I see a mouth and one eye, obviously it must be winking. Or I’m just strange.

  2. Well… if the witch’s name was Rapunzel, she might have tied her famously long hair to the window post and swung down and over to the rock and kicked a couple of holes in it, just to confuse future archaeologists and then swung back up inside the tower again….. (I’ll bet she’s still in there, cackling her hairy head off)!

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