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Round Towers and the Birth of Irish Archaeology – C.Salter-Townshend (2013)

Round Towers and the Birth of Irish Archaeology:

George Petrie and Changing Perceptions of Irish Archaeology in the 19th Century 

Charlotte Salter-Townshend

BA University of Dublin, MPhil student University of Dublin

Introduction: Petrie the Polymath

The Irish polymath George Petrie is regarded by some as ‘the father of the modern school of Irish archaeology’.[1]He was influential as a “painter, antiquary, ethnographer, scholar, academician, archaeologist [and] musician.”[2] In terms of his work on round towers, Petrie described himself as an ‘antiquarian investigator’ or ‘antiquary’.[3] Gentlemen academics of the nineteenth century such as Petrie tended to dabble in more than one area of study as defined today. The field of antiquarianism encompassed everything to do with the collection and study of antiquities. The processes described here took place in a “…cultural environment whose participants (the reading public and those who addressed them) did not restrict themselves to narrowly defined discursive genres.”[4]

Arguably, Petrie’s greatest contribution was redefining the study of the material remains of the past, with controversies surrounding his papers, particularly ‘An Essay on the Origins and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland’:

“The early nineteenth century witnessed the crisis of antiquarianism in a process which recalls Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions. The biblical/classical frame of reference collapsed under the weight of ethnographical and philological information which reached European scholars, and antiquarianism underwent a paradigm shift.”[5]

Petrie’s enduring influence on public perceptions of archaeology can be seen in pictorial and written representations of Ireland, as a land of ancient monuments with lingering memories of a golden age of saints and scholars and of Gaelic heroes. The case-study of this essay is his thesis on the round towers of Ireland, a work which helped establish the round tower firmly in the ‘imagined community’[6] of nationalist Ireland. Petrie extended his influence to the public sphere via his co-editorship of the Dublin Penny Journal (1832-6) with Caesar Otway, and the short-lived Irish Penny Journal (1840) in which he “disseminated and inventoried among a large urban readership” romantic images of round towers, high crosses, abbey ruins and ancient seats of power.[7] This imagery was also perpetuated via illustrations for books and pamphlets such as Cromwell’s Excursions through Ireland (1820)Wright’s Historical Guide to Dublin (1821), Brewer’s Beauties of Ireland (1825-26) and Wright’s Ireland Illustrated (1831).

Following the 1798 rebellion, Petrie saw the beginning of politically tumultuous times. The emancipation of Catholics (1829) led to the redefinition of political debate. Petrie was the architect of the tomb of Daniel O’Connell, the champion of Catholic emancipation and an inspiration for the nationalist movement. His designs for a round tower, abbey and high cross were not completed as envisioned and may be seen as a symbol of the partial translation of his ideology to the highly charged political atmosphere of Ireland in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. The school of philanthropic patriotic sentiment had been dismantled and divisions formed along sectarian lines, leading to a “polarity of Ireland versus England, nationalist versus unionist.”[8]  Petrie had hoped to ally nationalist and unionist by making “the age and historical interest of these memorials of our early Christianity more generally known to, and appreciated by [his] countrymen”[9] and instilling a sense of patriotic pride in Ireland’s past. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a hope for “the unification of native and settler into a common Irish national awareness.”[10]

This was Petrie’s intention in his representation of Irish antiquities. His friend, Samuel Ferguson, however resented the rising trend where Catholics have “the monopoly on Irish nationalism”, leaving protestant unionists on the margins.[11] Ferguson had stronger unionist tendencies and had held dear a vision of the study of the heritage of Ireland allowing for “an intellectual elite to retain their cultural pre-eminence.”[12] While Petrie had been a symbol of non-partisan and non-contentious scholarly interest in Irish culture and antiquities, in the more politicised and urgent environment from the 1860s on, his dissemination of images of romantic Ireland and his salvaging of a ‘golden age’ in Irish pre-history were redeployed as evidence of Ireland’s distinctness in the struggle for independence.

Academic Context: The Royal Irish Academy

The Royal Irish Academy was founded in 1785 as Ireland’s academy for the sciences, humanities and social sciences. Election to membership of the Academy may be deemed “the highest academic honour in Ireland.”[13] Petrie was elected a member in 1829. This ‘ivory tower’ was the setting of the initial academic discourse concerning round towers. Prior to the advent of methodological archaeology, the antiquary, as of Sir Walter Scott’s eponymous novel, was out of touch with empirical reality, ensconced in his own world of fantastic theories. Until Petrie’s articles on archaeology appeared in The Dublin Penny Journal, the discourse lacked vigour and hence was the dusty domain of the establishment of the Academy.

One of the founding members of the Academy, Charles Vallancey was such a personality, an energetic and influential member of the RIA who possessed a keen interest in antiquities. Unfortunately however, Vallancey had a tendency to

“…read dictionaries as modern critics would read Finnegan’s Wake, [basing] elaborate theories on comparisons between languages of which he was utterly ignorant – Gaelic and Algonquin, or Gaelic and Chinese.”[14]

His research relied upon unsupported conjecture drawn from an etymological fog and vague reference to Irish history without traceable reference or source.[15] The same criticisms may be applied to the work of Louisa Beaufort, who like Vallancey attested to the evidence of the psalters of Cashel and Tara, supposedly kept in the British Museum but unknown to others.[16] Her 1828 essay would have warmed the heart of the late General Vallancey as she believed that round towers were pre-Christian fire-temples and possibly giant gnomons as well.

Despite the inaccuracies of his work, Vallancey influenced Petrie through his collaboration with Charles O’Conor, which had heralded the beginning of the use of native sources.[17] Petrie later employed O’Donovan to translate what Vallancey had misquoted from early Irish texts such as Cormac’s Glossary[18]. Petrie appears to have viewed Vallancey as somewhat of a well-meaning bumbler. In his preface to The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, Petrie describes his “generous but mistaken zeal” which has only served to bring his theories of glorious ancient Irish civilization “into contempt with the learned.”[19]

Edward Ledwich had used quite sensible means to debunk Vallancey’s far-fetched Phoenician fancies but had weaknesses in his own Viking-orientated theories which, borne of political motives, sought to undermine the native Irish by denying them ancient civilisation. In the Scytho-Celtic model native Irish barbarism prior to the arrival of the Vikings was assumed; tellingly this was a much more popular model of Irish prehistory in England. In contrast, the Phoenician model favoured by Vallancey fitted into the patriotic mould of the eighteenth-century as it referred high civility to ancient Ireland. Here public archaeology was used to further political viewpoints. The Phoenician model was to decline in popularity after the 1798 rebellion as antiquarians of this school felt betrayed or embarrassed by the modern Irish acts of barbarity. The theme of politics informing archaeological discourse has not disappeared.[20] From the advent of the Celtic Revival to the Wood Quay debacle, archaeology is not free from politics.

With Petrie’s advancements in method, a new debate was to take place, on scientific grounds as opposed to obviously political ones. As they become ever-more inter-disciplinary, modern history informs modern archaeology. Joep Leerssen draws on a distinction made by Francis Bacon, between history and antiquarianism. He describes the difference as “the past as a succession of events and developments, or the past as a storehouse of facts and curiosities.”[21] The antecedent of the archaeological discipline, antiquarianism, was more concerned with heirlooms of the past than with shifts or developments.

“As a result, the antiquarian analysis of the ancient past turned around in speculative circles trying to explain national origins in terms of the migrations of the tribes descending from the sons of Noah or the nations vaguely described as Celtae, Scythae or Hyperboreans by Roman or Greek sources.”[22]

With modern technological advances this pursuit is clearly amateur and not based on any scientific methodology. But even before considering the twentieth and twenty-first century, there is “… a distinctive difference between nineteenth-century developments and their eighteenth century antecedents.”[23]

Petrie instructed thus: “Theories…should be adopted very slowly and not until every difficulty was disposed of.”[24] This approach ushered in a new era where antiquarianism’s

“…penchant for etymological explanations was taken over, on a more scientific footing, by the new science of comparative linguistics; its collection and study of artefacts and non-discursive remains of ancient civilisation was conducted in the form of archaeology.”[25]

Petrie played a central role in the revival of antiquarian interest in the Irish past and landscape within the Royal Irish Academy following a minor decline during the earlier part of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1815, the RIA had little or nothing of Irish interest in the antiquities sections.[26]

From his first visits to Clonmacnoise in 1818-20, Petrie had become dedicated to the study of Irish antiquities.[27] His appointment to the Council of the RIA in 1829 was to usher in a new era where the earlier antiquarian pursuit of fantastical theories via dubious philological conjecture were finally laid to rest and a new paradigm of scientific archaeology supplemented by the evidence of historical texts began. Petrie’s The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland: An Essay on the Origins of Round Towers in Ireland, 1845, is noted as the first extended publication on Irish archaeology.[28] The volume pays comprehensive attention to detail, including records of sites that have fallen into further ruin in the last 160 odd years. The descriptions of the towers are still useful today, although the persistent and seemingly irreversible myth of the use of round towers as fortifications where monks could barricade themselves safely[29] originated in Petrie’s essay.

There was no straightforward shift to a new paradigm of scientific archaeology; rather aspects of the old way of thinking endured well into the twentieth century. It ought to be noted that although Petrie was quite right to dismiss much of Vallancey’s talk about obscure characters, who were often amalgamations of more than one mythological character, Petrie, taking the Annals of the Four Masters to heart wrote confidently of a Tuatha de Danann prince who fought against the Fir-Bolgs and of a Milesian king who died in the year 192 AD in his rebuttal of Vallancey.[30] Petrie was inevitably an individual of his time, as all of us are bound to be.

Source of Evidence: The Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1824-1842

In 1824, a committee of the House of Commons decided to do a town-land survey of Ireland, on a scale of 6inches to the mile. The store and equipment section of the army were deployed to undertake this task.[31] Colonel Thomas Colby, seconded from the British Survey, was in charge of the Ordnance Survey.[32] The teams began work in the north and as they moved south their work became more detailed and accurate. The RIA played a key role in the coming about of the memoir aspect of the Survey. Colonel Colby had been an honorary member since 1825. In 1832 he asked for permission to hire a member of the RIA “to examine the books and manuscripts of the Academy for the purpose of tracing back the orthography of the names for the present survey of Ireland.”[33] Petrie was selected. His career with the government’s Ordnance Survey was to provide the basis for professional archaeology in Ireland. It appears that Petrie began working for the Survey in an advisory capacity prior to his official appointment as head of the topographical and historical department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in 1835, under the direction of Captain Thomas Larcom. He was promoted to this position after an initially private circulation of the first memoir, of the Templemore townland, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin.

“Larcom, or perhaps Colby, was clearly testing the waters before launching it on the general public and sought the imprimatur of this august body.”[34]

The Association was impressed and Petrie was officially hired, highlighting the importance of the research. Until the demise of the Survey in 1842, the department worked from Petrie’s private residence at 21 Great Charles’ Street, instead of at the main office at Phoenix Park. This was an advantageous location as the department had proximity to the libraries at Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy and Marsh’s Library. They also benefited by having greater autonomy.

Petrie’s original role in the Topographical Department was to standardize the spelling of names. He worked under Captain Larcom, whose official policy was to retain the name as close as possible to the original Irish. Thus there was the need for linguists such as O’Donovan and O’Curry.  Under Petrie’s direction, John O’Donovan undertook a major part of the fieldwork while Eugene O’Curry studied ancient Irish manuscripts preserved in libraries in Ireland and in England.[35]

“The duty of the office was to collect every possible information, antiquarian or topographical, about that particular portion of the country”.[36]

The information gathered would be of immense interest to the public, as a mapping of the countryside and the establishment of place-names consolidated local identity. The Ordnance Survey effectively made Ireland one vast ‘lieu-de-memoire’.[37] Petrie’s records were a fundamental resource for those who established the sense of Ireland and its memories of the distant past in the public consciousness.

Petrie’s ambitious undertakings in the Ordnance Survey and his commitment to detail are based on his ideals of introducing the literate classes to the beauties of Ireland in order that “the root cause of the social unrest that was plaguing Ireland at that time – which he identified as ignorance – would be swept away and replaced by a new age of civilisation.”[38]

This naïve idealism was swept away with the untimely demise of the memoir scheme, which to the alarm of its financiers in government had become grandiosely ambitious and even politically dangerous. Larcom was certainly aware of these questions of politics besetting the scheme as he had “O’Donovan going through the census returns putting I, E or S before each name to denote their racial origin (Irish, English or Scottish).”[39] The blame for the Survey’s demise is perhaps both Larcom’s for his failure to adequately contain the scheme and Petrie’s for his unwavering attention to detail as the cost of time and money. As Larcom wrote to Petrie expressing his concerns:

“I confess I grow very uneasy, for everything seems asleep. Each sheet is slower than the one before it – as if the work was coming to a natural death.”[40]

Petrie’s biographer Stokes was convinced that “some strong, though concealed influence had been brought to bear on the government in reference to the danger of re-opening questions of Irish local history.”[41]  The government no doubt felt concerned about the historical and social sections of the memoirs, which would inevitably bring up contentious questions and possibly stir up tensions latent in a divided society.[42]

There are some deeply unfavourable post-colonial takes on the Ordnance Survey, deeming it “a prolonged act of cultural displacement and textual processing.”[43] This view is widely perpetuated in the public sphere by the Survey’s representation in Brian Friel’s popular play Translations. The play presents the Survey as an oppressive Anglicisation of rural Ireland but in reality the Survey of Ireland contributed greatly to Irish studies. Although the architects of the Survey have been alienated in Translations, the sense of Ireland that the play is built upon owes much to the Survey. The Irish past had not been properly documented by generations prior to the Survey and Petrie’s retrieval of important manuscripts such as The Annals of the Four Masters. There is a general consensus that the work of Petrie, O’Donovan and O’Curry on the Ordnance Survey marked the beginnings of Irish archaeology[44] and certainly brought the sense of it into a wider public realm.

The painstaking efforts of Irish scholars such as O’Donovan and O’Curry actually served to establish the Irish place-names that we see on road-signs and maps today. O’Donovan and O’Curry were “…Irish scholars who were to lay the foundations of our understanding of the Gaelic past.”[45] In the eighteenth century many of the native Irish speakers were illiterate. In the early nineteenth century, “the older native annals and chronicles were by and large in native hands, and by the standards of knowledge of the day, almost indecipherable and unused as materials of Irish history.”[46] Following the adoption of Irish scholars into the investigation of the past there was a revivalist cultivation of the Irish language.[47]

Petrie, as head of the topographical department from 1835 to the year of its demise in 1842, held a key position in the pioneering memoir producing function of the Ordnance Survey.  The innovative research that went into the documentation of Irish antiquities and monuments gave Petrie volumes of evidence for his paper on round towers. The Survey’s contribution to archaeology in Ireland is on-going as the letters of John O’Donovan to George Petrie and others from the field “have been mined by archaeologists for generations”.[48] Petrie’s own use of the Survey resources led to some controversies within the RIA and to an early debate in public archaeology as we shall see below.

Case Study: The Round Towers of Ireland

Charles Vallancey had asserted in the late eighteenth-century that the round towers were built by the Phoenicians. [49] At this time, Bishop Ussher’s thesis that the world dated to 4004BC held sway and The Origin of Species (1859) had yet to be published. The pursuits of the modern sciences originated from this context. Petrie’s essay, which finally appeared as The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland anterior to the Anglo-Norman Invasion, comprising an Essay on the Origin and Uses of the Round Towers of Ireland in 1845, was slow burning in that its influence has endured but it failed to immediately replace the wilder and unfounded claims surrounding the origins of the round towers. As Petrie declares in the opening to the Round Towers of Ireland:

“I have not, however, any very sanguine expectations that either the evidence or arguments which I have adduced… will have any very immediate effect on the great majority of the middle classes of Irish people (for the lower of agricultural classes have no ideas upon the subject but the true one) in changing their opinions as to their indefinite antiquity and pagan uses…”[50]

One influential character whose mind was impossible to alter upon the subject was Sir William Betham. He was elected to the RIA Council in 1827, two years before Petrie, his long-term adversary. He was a keen member of the Academy – “were there a chairman required for any religious, charitable or scientific purpose, Sir William was always ready.”[51] Betham was one of the last proponents of the Phoenician Scytho-Celtic school of romantic speculative antiquarianism. In 1834 he published The Gael and the Cymbri where he argues that Ireland was colonized by the Phoenicians.[52] As Joep Leerssen has put it,

“Betham may be considered Vallancey’s successor to the laurels of Phoenician theory – but, he was to find out, painfully, that those laurels had wilted.”[53]

His rivalry with Petrie and with the new school of thought was to culminate in a protracted controversy.  This debate went on to expand outside the ivory tower of the Academy via the publication of pamphlets and Petrie’s Dublin Penny Journal.

The controversy began on the 15th of November 1830, when Petrie proposed the subject for the annual RIA essay competition. The topic proposed by Petrie was – “On the round towers of Ireland, in which it is expected that the characteristic architectural peculiarities belonging to all those ancient buildings now existing shall be noticed and the uncertainty in which their origin and uses are involved to be satisfactorily removed.”[54]

Petrie’s opponent for the RIA prize was Henry O’Brien, a Trinity student. O’Brien concluded that the towers were fertility “temples constructed by the early Indian colonists of the country, in honour of that fructifying principle of nature.”[55] Although Petrie won the gold medal and £50 for his essay, O’Brien was awarded a consolation prize of £25. The Academy also agreed to publish his essay. A drawn-out correspondence between O’Brien and the Academy ensued concerning the extent to which O’Brien would be permitted to supplement the essay. Eventually, the RIA terminated this correspondence and washed its hands of the essay as “the language appeared to them not sufficiently delicate.”[56] O’Brien decided to publish The Round Towers of Ireland, or the Mysteries of Freemasonry, of Sabaism, and of Buddhism, now for the first time unveiled himself in 1834 as a 524 page tome. Petrie’s essay was similarly extended to comprise a key component of The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, 1845. The original essay was 50 pages long. By 1839 the publication ran at 500 pages, including 200 engravings. Like O’Brien, Petrie ended up having to publish it himself. The Academy also decided it could not support Petrie’s proposed second volume.[57]

Betham remained adversarial and was outspoken in his criticism of the RIA for initially tolerating the twelve year delay in Petrie’s publication. He put forward to the Council that it had been a much more costly enterprise than anticipated. The Council defended Petrie in turn, saying that Petrie was a busy man with a family to support. The contention that Petrie was the subject of blatant favouritism on the part of the Academy is not ill-founded.[58] Betham, unfazed, attempted to involve the government in the controversy but they were rather preoccupied with other questions, such as that of education in Ireland especially following the Education Act of 1831.[59] For his part, Petrie wrote in his preface that the antiquary who is more conscientious in his pursuit is in fact “more deserving of praise than censure, and will be judged by posterity.”[60] Petrie wishes to right the errors of his predecessors and contemporaries alike. This is born of an

“ardent desire to rescue the antiquities of my native country from unmerited oblivion, and give them their just place… [with] the hope that by making the age and the historical interest of these memorials of our early Christianity more generally known to, and appreciated by my countrymen, some stop might be put to the wanton destruction of these remains.”[61]

Dig in: the rise of archaeology 

Indeed this hope was ironically thwarted by Petrie’s own publication as it inspired antiquarians such as Edmund Getty to excavate round towers at Armoy, Drumbo, Drumlane and Clones, looking for human remains. He and John Grattan had discovered human remains at the Clone tower in 1842 and this merely served to stimulate further zealous digs. [62]

Following the discovery of a human skeleton at the Ardmore round tower, the Cork Southern Reporter deemed it necessary to explore the tower at Cloyne.[63] Thomas Davis, who wrote for nationalist paper The Nation was influenced by the Dublin Penny Journal.  In a review of Petrie’s essay on the round towers Davis wrote of Getty and other’s “vandalism” of the Devenish round tower. His warning is stark:

“Unless taste and patriotism interfere, our soil will, in half a century, be swept of its monuments… heaped up remnants of the past will perish, and this antique country will be left without shrine, castle or tomb to declare that it is not a foundling of yesterday.”[64]

However, although they caused harm, this “was the first sustained campaign of antiquarian excavation in Irish archaeology of which we have any published information”[65] and so the documentation retains its relevance today.

A notable weakness of these antiquarians’ approach was that they started their investigation with their conclusion, e.g. that the round towers were all used as burial sites. Petrie’s innovation was to gain greater objectivity and ended up doing this much less, though of course it took time to refine the methods and the development of technology greatly advanced investigation. In his introduction to his paper On the History and Antiquities of Tara Hill, Petrie describes his methods to the Academy – he went to find the monuments and then consulted written documents, “lest we might be led into false or unwarranted conclusions from imperfect data.”[66]

Public Outreach: The Dublin Penny Journal 

The influence of The Dublin Penny Journal, as noted by Stokes, brought the whole round tower debate into the wider public realm and a heated to-and-fro between the editors of the Dublin Penny Journal and Henry O’Brien ensued. An article on the round tower and church of Donaghmore appeared in The Dublin Penny Journal in 1834 that opines the view that the publication of O’Brien’s volume proves that “mind, like a crab, can march backward as well as forward; and… it proves that some of the London publishers are rather greater fools than the publishers of Dublin.”[67] The Council of the RIA was taken to task for their part in the publication. The piece judiciously refrains from comment on Petrie’s paper as this was still being prepared for publication. Just over a year later, The Dublin Penny Journal was coerced to provide a public apology to O’Brien for a reputedly slanderous review of his book or to face legal prosecution. The journal sets its position with the opening line – “To apologize – or not to apologize – that is the question!”[68] The criticisms of O’Brien’s piece as “indecent” and “blasphemous” are openly admitted but not apologized for.

Having provided this concession, the piece takes further digs at O’Brien, asserting that the extracts they had marked for insertion contained allusions “too gross and indecent for the subscribers to the Penny Journal.”[69]The conclusion remarks on the loss of “the liberty heretofore enjoyed of fairly discussing new-fangled theories.”[70]For his part, O’Brien dedicated 73 pages of his volume’s preface to how he should have won the gold medal from the Academy. This open-debate from which Petrie came up trumps (despite its occasional descent into personal gripes) was a key indication of the paradigm shift in professional archaeology and public archaeology in Ireland.

Conclusion: Petrie’s Legacy 

Petrie’s essay on the round towers of Ireland “opened a wide-ranging debate on the question as to how Irish people should see their past.”[71] Petrie showed that the round towers are a significant form of architecture unique to Ireland, which made them a suitable symbol of the nation. It is significant that O’Brien’s theory failed to stick in the public consciousness as a stone phallus would most likely never have been adopted as a symbol of Ireland.

Although the public adopted Petrie’s thesis on the round towers, much of the architecture of the replica towers was modified to suit the style and aesthetic of the day. The original design of the memorial to Daniel O’Connell at Glasnevin cemetery[72] was by Petrie. However, his archaeology-based design was radically altered. The height of the tower was almost doubled from 31metres to 52metres and the plan for an adjacent abbey and high cross which put the round tower in the usual context was scrapped. Round towers became a popular feature throughout Ireland with the increased building rate of Catholic churches. Timothy Hevey, a Catholic architect built two churches with round towers in Donegal. St. Eunan’s Raphoes (1874) and Sacred Heart Dunlewey (1878) combined the archaeological design of the round tower with modern arrangement and function.

Archaeology has always had a public function especially in Ireland where the land and cultural legacy has been so contentious. As someone who placed inherent trust in the public, Petrie is a good example of someone who skirted through many spheres as a member of the RIA academia and as a periodical newspaper editor.  Although the RIA was perhaps well-advised in not publishing O’Brien’s tome, it is apparent from its refusal to publish Petrie’s work that the RIA was not fully engaged with the fledgling topic. The endeavour of the DPJ meanwhile was to “bring before the public some accurate understanding of the country’s ancient culture and traditions.”[73]

Petrie’s approach to his archaeological work may be summed up thus:

“If a judicious selection of the antique monuments and other remains found in Ireland, were carefully drawn by some competent artist, and published, our claims to an early civilisation would be instantly conceded by the unprejudiced and learned.”[74]

Although Petrie was of course less cautious than present-day archaeologists, (he attributed dates earlier than the eighth-century to mortared stone Irish churches, and earlier than the twelfth-century to structures with Romanesque ornament) de Paor, in his 1970 introduction to Petrie’s Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, explains the all-important context of his work:

“The defects of the work arise not so much from Petrie’s method, which is on the whole sound, but rather from its very quality as a pioneering undertaking.”[75]

The struggle to correct popular theories that have subsequently been proven to be incorrect is an enduring theme in public archaeology. As Ferguson has said,

“But follies are like fashions, which, having once prevailed in the metropolis, usually run the round of the provinces.”[76]

In regard to the idea that the round towers were pagan monuments of indefinite antiquity, Petrie ascertains that these opinions “have assumed the form of a sentiment almost religious, and my dry facts have too little poetry in them to reach the judgement through the medium of imagination.”[77]

This attitude may be wryly taken up by present day archaeologists whose struggle to quash the myth of the round towers as hide-outs for monks during Viking raids. In school text-books and in the display of heritage centres, accuracy loses out to narrative appeal.[78] In the face of this, the question as to the relationship between archaeology and heritage is one that has elicited some extreme response, such as the view that:

“There is an absolute distinction between authentic history (continuing and therefore dangerous) and heritage (past, dead and safe)… Heritage is bogus history.”[79]

Antiquarianism’s demise may have led to the birth of archaeology in Ireland but its spirit of the subjective and the unscientific is still evoked by historical novels and heritage centres today.[80] The influence of Petrie has therefore been two-fold, as the first methodological archaeologist in Ireland and also as the leading patron of one of the most enduring myths concerning the Irish landscape.

Fig. 1. George Petrie. The Last Circuit of the Pilgrims as Clonmacnoise. C.1830. NGI.

Fig. 1. George Petrie. The Last Circuit of the Pilgrims as Clonmacnoise. C.1830. NGI.

Fig. 2. Daniel O’Connell’s round tower memorial at Glasnevin

Fig. 2. Daniel O’Connell’s round tower memorial at Glasnevin


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Royal Irish Academy. (last accessed 06/04/2013)

‘The Life of St. Colman Mac Duagh’ at (last accessed 18/09/2013)

[1] Quoted online for the exhibition ‘George Petrie: Artist and Antiquarian’, 13 March–17 April, 2004, at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. See (last accessed 18/09/2013). Also quoted for ‘George Petrie: Artist and Antiquarian’ lecture by Peter Murray at the National Library of Ireland. See (last accessed 18/09/2013). Original quote from Wakeman 1866, 58. As quoted in Walsh 2012, 46.

[2] Leerssen 2004, 7

[3] Stokes 1868, 82-83

[4] Leerssen 1996, 3.

[5] Leerssen 1996, 69

[6] Anderson 2006

[7] Leerssen 2004, 8

[8]  Leerssen 1996, 101

[9] Petrie 1970, vi.

[10] Leerssen 1996, 101

[11] Leerssen 1996, 101

[12] Waddell 2005, 125

[13] The Independent. (last accessed 06/04/2013). Royal Irish Academy. (last accessed 06/04/2013)

[14] Leerssen 1996, 71

[15] Petrie 1970, 25

[16] Petrie 1970, 37

[17] Leerssen 1996, 70

[18] Cormac (King of Cashel) 1868, see (last accessed 31/05/2013)

[19] Petrie 1970, 11

[20] For example see McAtackney 2007

[21] Leerssen 1996, 68

[22] Leerssen 1996, 68-69

[23] Leerssen 1996, 1

[24] McDowell 1985, 28

[25]  Leerssen 1996, 69

[26] Leerssen 1996, 75

[27] Royal Irish Academy. ‘Petrie centenary exhibition – George Petrie, 1790-1866.’ Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. Monday, September 26th to Saturday October 8th, 1966. Print.

[28] de Paor 1970, 3

[29] Ask About Ireland. “AskAboutIreland and the Cultural Heritage Project is an initiative of public libraries together with local museums and archives in the digitisation and online publication of the original, the unusual and the unique material from their local studies’ collections to create a national Internet resource for culture.” See ‘Round Towers’ at (last accessed 18/09/2013). See also ‘The Life of St. Colman Mac Duagh’ at (last accessed 18/09/2013)

[30] Petrie 1970, 25

[31] Murray 2004, 90

[32] Mitchell 1985, 101

[33] Mitchell 1985, 102

[34] Walsh 2012, 52

[35] Waddell 2005, 99

[36] Stokes 1868, 96-97

[37] Pierre Nora’s term, from his Rethinking France: Les Lieux des Mémoires series.

[38] Murray 2004, 40

[39] Murray 2004, 93

[40] Murray 2004, 93

[41] Stokes 1868, 108

[42] Waddell 2005, 103

[43] Hammer 1989, 184

[44] Waddell 2005, 1

[45] de Paor 1970, 2

[46] Leerssen 1996, 83

[47] Leerssen 1996, 1-2

[48] Waddell 2005, 114

[49] Murray 2004, 43.

[50]  Petrie 1970, ix

[51] McDowell 1985, 27

[52] McDowell 1985, 27-28

[53] Leerssen 1996, 92

[54]  Mitchell 1985, 96

[55] 2nd ed of O’Brien, as quoted in Ó Reilly 1999, 29

[56] Mitchell 1985, 98

[57] Petrie 1970, vi

[58] McDowell 1985, 28

[59] McDowell 1985, 30.

[60] Petrie 1970, vii

[61] Petrie 1970, v-vi

[62] Waddell 2005, 119

[63] Waddell 2005, 79-80

[64] Thomas Davis, 28th October 1843, as quoted in Waddell 2005, 126

[65] Waddell 2005, 112

[66] Petrie 1839, 25

[67] ‘Round Tower and Church of Donaghmore’. The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol.2, No.98. May 17 1834. pp361-364. p.362. This was not signed but was possibly written by George Petrie.

[68] ‘Mr O’Brien’s Round Towers’. Dublin Penny JournalVol.3, no.156. June 27 1835. pp.410-411. p.410.

[69] ‘Mr O’Brien’s Round Towers’. Dublin Penny JournalVol.3, no.156. June 27 1835. pp.410-411. p.410.

[70] ‘Mr O’Brien’s Round Towers’. Dublin Penny JournalVol.3, no.156. June 27 1835. pp.410-411. p.411.

[71] Leerssen 1996, 2

[72] This was monument was completed in 1869, three years after Petrie’s death.

[73] de Paor 1970, 2

[74] Petrie 1832, 84

[75] de Paor 1970, 3

[76] Samuel Ferguson, ‘Review – William Betham’, as quoted in Leerssen 1996, 84

[77] Petrie 1970, ix

[78] See footnote 27.

[79] Urry 1990, 99

[80]  Leerssen 1996, 69


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