Discovery of tower at a Derry school 'rewrites history'

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The stump of the round towerImage source, Derry Tower Heritage Group
Image caption,
The stump of the round tower inside the grounds of Lumen Christi College in Derry.

In the grounds of a grammar school in Londonderry lies what locals have believed for years was the remains of a 17th Century windmill.

However, the curiosity of a local group of historians has led to a whole new line of thought about the ruin.

It's new thinking that could change the way people look at the history of the city.

Lumen Christi College contains the stump of what archaeologists from Queen's University Belfast have now revealed to be an early medieval monastic round tower.

It is highly probable it is part of the site of St Columba's monastery.

Stephen Doherty, who has been a staff member at the school for almost 20 years, came up with the theory that the windmill was in fact a round tower over a decade ago, and since then has been working towards proving it.

"I remember having a cup of tea with a colleague of mine, and I just happened to say that I was convinced that it was actually a monastic tower in our school grounds," he said.

"My colleague nearly choked on his tea and replied 'of course it's a round tower'. And from that moment on we began to take a very close look at maps and any kind of evidence that existed about it.

"We trawled and analysed everything we could and we took our exploration seriously," he told Your Place and Mine on BBC Radio Foyle.

Image source, Queen's University Belfast
Image caption,
A map from 1600 showing "The Island of Derry." A tower can be seen on right hand side.

Five years ago Mr Doherty and his colleague brought a group of historians together to form the Derry Tower Heritage Group (DTHG), which ultimately led to an archaeological excavation by Queen's Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork on the site in 2016.

It was then that Mr Doherty had a discussion with the director, Dr Colm Donnelly, that would really get the research off the ground.

"I mentioned to him, that in 2013 when the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency was doing a restoration and securing the tower to make it safe as a scheduled monument, I asked one of the stone masons to extract a mortar sample from the structure," Mr Doherty said.

"I still had that sample in my possession at the time, so I gave it to him to take back to the university."

Dr Donnelly took the sample to a colleague, Dr Gerard Barrett, who was trying to work on the radiocarbon dating of mortar using "cutting-edge" technology, and after running the necessary tests, he got back to the group with the news that the sample was in fact a medieval date.

What was the round tower?

Image source, Derry Tower Heritage Group
Image caption,
A computer-generated reimagining of the monastic round tower if it were still apart of the Derry skyline today.

The suggestion is that the tower could have been constructed as early as 1170 and the DTHG have said that the monument could have been anywhere between 80 and 150ft tall - making it one of the highest on record.

"The name of the towers in Gaelic is cloigtheach,which basically translates to bell tower - which was used to ring out the hours of the day for the monastic community," Dr Donnelly said.

"One of the monks would clamber up the ladder to the top, and the bells would be rung so people knew where they were meant to be, and what they were meant to be doing.

"But they were also a status symbol, because if you were a monastery that wanted to be top-notch, you would have to have your own round tower."

There are 15 known examples of round towers in Ulster, two of which are still standing - one on Devenish Island (County Fermanagh) and The Steeple in Antrim (County Antrim).

'This changes how we look at Derry'

Image source, Queen's University Belfast
Image caption,
The radiocarbon dating facility in the 14CHRONO laboratory at Queen's University Belfast.

Drawing from evidence of other monasteries that have survived, the round tower discovery indicates that it was the central point of St Columba's monastery, because the towers were always the main feature.

Dr Donnelly believes opportunities to excavate in and round the area should be taken.

"It brings the monastery into the landscape and kind of pinpoints it, because prior to this we were only able to use historical text and maps to make these claims, and there was no certainty because we weren't using the architecture and archaeology - so this changes how we look at Derry," he said.

"All trace of the medieval settlement in the city is gone, but it's actually there under the ground, around two metres down.

"And now you can actually go put your hand on something physically there and say, 'this belongs to the medieval fabric of this major monastic settlement'.

"It's the last vestige of the medieval period in Derry - so that's why it's significant."