Picture Perfect Panic Places

Glendalough Monastery - Wicklow Mountains National Park

Quick. Sixty howling mad men are waving swords and axes and running at you.

What to do? What to do?

Hmmm, let’s see. You have a wee knife for cutting cheese and bread. You’re well trained in the art of illuminating manuscripts and singing prayers, but your self-defense skills are a mite weak.


When the Vikings stormed Irish shores during the eighth and ninth centuries, their primary targets were the dozens of monastic settlements where the wealth of Ireland was concentrated. For generations, donors had filled these churches with gold and silver crosses, chalices, patens, saints’ reliquaries and goblets. Also food, iron and captives who could be sold into slavery.

The great monastery at Clonmacnoise was raided and sacked six times.

A prayer: "From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord."

A monk’s poem:

Since tonight the wind is high,
The sea’s white mane a fury,
I need not fear the hordes of Hell
Coursing the Irish Channel.

The problem, if you were a monk, was where to run. You needed some place close and impregnable.

The ingenious solution was to build round towers which served as bell towers between attacks. Very, very tall towers. The single door was usually a dozen feet off the ground. You got inside by climbing a rope ladder. And then pulled the rope up when the marauding horde got too close.

The bursars were happy because the money was spent on churchly adornment. The monks were happy – at least the agile ones – because they knew that the Vikings wouldn’t dare stick around for a siege. Within a few hours, the madly ringing bell would alert the local king and a vengeful army of locals.

Eventually, the Vikings settled in Ireland, lording it over large segments of the countryside. The round towers remained, used now only for storage and bell ringing.

You can visit the scenic monastic community of Glendalough in the Wicklow National Park near Dublin. Walk the quiet glade. Tilt your head skyward and admire the picturesque spire. Lovely.

But, remember, you’re looking at an ancient response to terrorists.

... by Scott Simons

Number 31 is happy to arrange sightseeing tours of Glendalough and the National Park.