Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted and honoured, if daunted, at having been invited by George to launch his latest book The Round Tower at Roscrea and its environs.
We read on pages 13 & 14 of this magnum opus that towers had been built at Tuamgraney and Slane by the year 950 and that others such as Clonmacnois and Cashel were built during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. On the preceding pages there are theories and speculation as to the origin, purpose, function and use of these towers. But towers with a religious connection or use go back much further.
Dom Richard Purcell , George Cunningham
In chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis we find an account of the building of the so-called Tower of Babel or at least of the plans to build it:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”
Dom Richard Purcell, Carmel Cunningham, George Cunningham
The early books of the bible contain many other reference to towers, including this one in the Book of Judges which tells the story of sacking of the city of Thebez about 1,000BC by Abimelech and the Israelite army:
There was a strong tower within the city, and all the men and women and all the lords of the city fled to it and shut themselves in; and they went to the roof of the tower. Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech's head, and crushed his skull. Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armour and said to him, Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, 'A woman killed him.' So the young man thrust him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home.
L/R Paul, Carmel, Rachel, George, Abby, Brian
Finally, in the Second Book of Maccabees we read of another use of a tower, this time the 75ft high tower in the city of Beroea:
There is a tower there, fifty cubits high, full of ashes, and it has a rim running round it that on all sides inclines precipitously into the ashes. There they all push to destruction anyone guilty of sacrilege or notorious for other crimes.
George Cunningham, Fr James Dollard
Well, whether they were built for God, for prestige, for defence or execution, or indeed to house bells, as their Irish name, cloigtheach, tells us, there are or were round towers, about 90 in total, all over Ireland and we have one in Roscrea.
In Ireland we associate round towers with monasteries and in Roscrea we associate our tower with St Cronan’s monastery, though of course the tower that we know was built four or five hundred years after Cronan’s time. Nevertheless it is one the most powerful links that we have with the monastic history and origins of Roscrea town and indeed a signpost and reminder of the contemporary monastic establishment, albeit of a European rather than Celtic form, that exists at Mt St Joseph Abbey today.
The Round Tower at Roscrea and its environs is about so much more than just the tower. George takes us on an illustrated tour through the history of Roscrea, beginning with Cronan’s monastic or religious ‘city’, Sean Ross, Monahincha, the Battle of Roscrea, the Roscrea Broach and the Book of Dimma, to name just some of the pieces of the jigsaw that are assembled in the second chapter of the book.
The changes that were introduced into the Irish Church at the beginning of the twelfth century following the Synod of Rathbrasil saw the Roscrea monastery lose its status and independence and be subsumed into the diocese of Killaloe. Though it did manage to regain its independence briefly in the middle of the century, the Diocese of Roscrea was short lived and since that time we have been part of the Diocese of Killaloe – though the diocese of Roscrea has been resurrected as a titular see, one of the auxiliary bishops of Osnabruck in Germany, Bishop Johannes Wubbe, being the current Bishop of Roscrea.
But the tower that stands today, and indeed whatever tower or structure that was there before it, was perhaps built to house the bell (or bells), or as a house from which the bells could be rung. Monastic life in the seventh century, just as today, has at its core, the sanctification of time in the daily round of the offices or prayer services that the monks celebrate in the church or chapel. St Benedict, writing in sixth century Italy refers to the bell, or signal for offices, as the ‘voice of God’. When put into that context we see the real significance of the Round Tower of Roscrea and indeed of the towers throughout our country.
Before I leave the tower, I want to draw your attention the appendix to chapter 4 entitled the ‘Voyage of the Roscrea Ship’. At first sight we find it strange that there should be a boat carved on a stone in a tower situated far away from the sea or indeed a navigable river. In fact it is not so strange but I will leave it to you to read about it in Fr Laurence’s fascinating exposé – another monastic connection with Roscrea’s monastic tower.
I don’t think there is a person, stone, building, book or artefact with some connection to Roscrea and it’s tower that is not mentioned and explored in this volume. The second half of the book fills in much of the history and significant events of the second millennium right up the present day and the recent changes and developments in the hinterland of the tower and asks important questions about Roscrea today and tomorrow – might we even see the tower recapped?
The common denominator to every aspect of the book and the things that I have touched on here is George Cunningham and his tireless (should that be relentless?) work and study to help us understand our local history. Out at the monastery we often get groups of schools children visiting us as part of their Junior Cert religion project which they do on a particular community and the place that they live in. One of the questions that they ask us is “Are the buildings that you live in important for your way of life?” Well the buildings and the environment that we all live in are hugely important to all of us because they say a lot about us and also influence our thinking and way of life.
It is clear that buildings and their environs are important to George Cunningham. He has devoted his life to Roscrea and its study. In acknowledging his immense contribution to this we must include also Carmel and their family, for they have allowed him to do this and also contributed to his work.
In an email to be recently George wrote that he would like to be known as a teacher, scholar and community activist. Each of these comes through in this volume, but George, you are much more than that. It gives me great pleasure to launch this book on the Roscrea Tower because George to us you are that tower.
Richard Purcell ocso
9 March 2014