Childhood dreams are funny aren’t they? They range from things that are ludicrously impossible, like becoming a Princess, to veritably simple, like having a certain toy. For me, my childhood dream was simple, yet equally unattainable. Ironically, it all started very close to home.
I have lived in the village of Clondalkin in South County Dublin my whole life. I was raised here, I went to school here, I played for the local football team and my first job was in a local café. So I guess you could say that I am Clondalkin through and through.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is not that I have never left the village. In fact I have travelled almost 10,000 kilometres east to Hong Kong, 8,000 kilometres west to the state of Nevada, USA, 7,000 kilometres South to the town of Butare, Rwanda and 1500 kilometres North to Iceland. I have had any number of adventures in between, but I always find my way back home to Clondalkin.
As a child, I distinctly remember walking through Clondalkin village and every time, being enthralled by the Giant Round Tower standing proud on Tower Road. On every occasion my head was filled with questions. Who lives there? Who owns it? What is it for? And of course, what is it like inside? All I wanted to do was get a look inside, but I was always told that it was closed and that we couldn’t go inside because it wasn’t safe. The more I was told no, the more I wanted to find out what was inside.
Most of the answers I could learn from books. As I got older, I read that the tower dates back to the 7th century and it was built on the site of a monastery founded by St Crónán Mochua. Round Towers are uniquely Irish and although there are many throughout the country, only 13 remain completely intact. Dating somewhere between 1000 and 1200 years old, the Clondalkin Round Tower is likely to be one of the oldest and best preserved in Ireland.
Of course, nobody lived there as such, but a monk would climb up and down the tower every day, with a large copper bell and would ring the bell at the top. This it would seem was one of the primary purposes, as the Irish for round tower is “Cloigtheach”, which translates directly as “Bell house”. The tower’s other primary uses were for protection, to hold treasures and even the relics of a monastery’s founder. Other purposes included a ceremonial one and to house a scriptorium. Many people say that round towers played a large role in protection against invasion from the Vikings.
Even though I could read and read about the history of the Tower, I could never answer that final question, What is it like inside? The only way I could do this was with my imagination and of course as I child I thought up elaborate plots of how I was going to gain access to this illusive tower and what it would be like.
Fast forward twenty years. I had explored the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza, I had walked the Great Wall of China and I had experienced the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, but I had still not gotten to peep inside the Tower, 5 minutes from my home.
But then it happened. This July the fruit of 13 years labour, and campaigning by the rally Round the Tower Group and South Dublin County Council was realised. The Clondalkin Round Tower Resource Centre was opened, complete with an engaging heritage centre, beautiful gardens and a new café and restaurant run by the Happy Pear. Finally, the Round Tower and the history of Clondalkin were getting the respect they deserved.
I found out that the tower would be opened to a limited amount of people as part of the Clondalkin Festival this July and at the grand age of 30, there was a chance to realise my childhood dream.
The tower today is as majestic as I remember. It is one of only four round towers remaining in Dublin, but it is the oldest, the tallest and the most slender. In fact, standing at 27.5 metres, it is remarkable that the round tower is still standing at all. Its foundations are very shallow for its size and the fact that it is almost perpendicular. Some sources say that it is the only round tower in Ireland which still has its original cap. It appears that the buttress at the bottom was “retro fit” to maintain the tower’s stability. We know this, because the stone at the buttress is different to the stone in the main body of the tower. We also know that it has survived adversity in the plundering of the monastery in the 832AD, the explosion in a nearby gun power factory in 1787, and in recent times, the passing traffic on Tower Road!
Inside the Clondalkin Round Tower is much as I would imagine as an adult. Its interior resembles the same stone patterns as its exterior. Interestingly, the stones remain roughly the same size throughout the full height of the tower. A large wooden ladder, dating from the 1830’s almost dissects the base and leads upwards to the next floor; another unknown space. Large rusted nails protrude from the walls, where sacks of valuables once hung, for protection from rats.
We learned how the tower was owned by the Caldbeck family living in Moyle Park in the 1800s and how the owner changed the layout of the floors, reducing them from 6 floors to 4. Our tour guide also told us, that Caldbeck created a hole in the top to place a Union Jack in the hope of impressing King Willian IV on his visit to Ireland.
It was a rare sunny day, but the tower remained dark inside. The long, but thin windows allowed just a sliver of light through, due to the thickness of the tower walls. At our feet, a trap door leads to underground tunnels, stretching as far as Corkagh Park and who knows where else.
When the tour ended we stepped back outside to the light and to modern day Clondalkin. The visitors centre was bustling with people, learning what I once wished I had the chance to learn. A traditional band played in the newly refurbished garden and excitement was building as Steve and Dave from the Happy Pear had begun doing handstands with children in the grass. Clondalkin’s first Vegetarian restaurant was heaving with customers and children behind me were queuing with the same look of amazement as I had once had.
It was an absolute privilege to be one of the few people who managed to set foot inside the tower. I couldn’t be prouder of the work that has been done by the people of Clondalkin in creating this new resource and celebrating the history of our village. It is a testament to the people that all 40 of the centre’s tour guides are volunteers, who have a genuine love and interest for Clondalkin and our heritage. I am hoping for many long afternoons of admiring the new gardens while sipping coffee and eating healthy and hearty food. Giving the Round Tower a new primary purpose; To be appreciated.