Henry O’Brien and The Round Towers Competition

The Round Tower Competition

Henry O’Brien was [amongst other things] another classicist who wasn’t destined to become an Authorised Academic Oracle.

Henry O’Brien (1808–1835) was an Irish classicist and author best known for his hypothesis concerning Irish round towers.

Henry O’Brien was the son of an aristocratic family from the west of Ireland.

At an early age he studied Latin and Greek and took an interest in ancient Greek literature.

Later he obtained a degree in classics at Dublin University.

O’Brien later translated Phœnician Ireland, by Joaquín Lorenzo Villanueva in English but soon after died, at only 27 years of age by “bad health, aggravated by his studious habits”, he was later buried in Hanwell, Oxfordshire.


Wikipedia implies Henry O’Brien was a very sore loser when he verbally “attacked” the winner of an essay competition because O’Brien thought “he should have won first place”.

In 1833 O’Brien published an essay in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy entitled “On the Origin and Use of the Round Towers of Ireland” which won a second place reward of £20.

Henry O’Brien thought however that he should have won first place and in a lengthy preface to his published essay in book form entitled The Round Towers of Ireland, or the Mysteries of Freemasonry, of Sabaism, and of Buddhism (1834) attacked archaeologist George Petrie who won the £50 first place reward.


1982 Announcement

The Round Towers of Ireland – Henry O’Brien – 1834

However, it appears that mainstream is being very economical with the truth.

Firstly, the “prize essay” written by Henry O’Brien was not published by the Society awarding the prize.

Here I would willingly close my introduction ; but as it may seem strange that a work, which bears upon its title-page the character of ” Prize Essay,” should not have been published by the Society that have awarded it the prize, I am obliged to open up a statement of facts which I had rather have concealed ; yet, in doing so, I shall take care, now that all vexation has passed over, that no symptoms of asperity shall escape my pen ; all the colouring of language I shall equally avoid; nay, even inferences, however obvious, I shall not press into observation, but confine myself strictly to a matter-of-fact detail as to the
conduct of the party in the case in question.

The Round Towers of Ireland – Henry O’Brien – 1834

Secondly, the rewards associated with the “prize essay” were higher than reported by Wikipedia.

Now, be it observed, that it was not only of the gold medal and fifty pounds that I was deprived by this manoeuvre, but of the one hundred additional pounds which Lord Cloncurry had offered upon the same subject.

Of this the Academy were also the dispensers, on the understanding, that whoever should
get their gold medal and fifty pounds – the only premium which they had offered – should also get his Lordship’s hundred ; so that by this stratagem, they assigned to their friend not only their own, but his Lordship’s, patronage !

The Round Towers of Ireland – Henry O’Brien – 1834

Thirdly, the gold medal [aka first place] was awarded “to a member of their own Council”.

But if one has to pronounce upon the way in which the competition was started, carried on, and finally decided, we are by no means sure that O’Brien had not some reason to complain.

First of all, with regard to his charge of the Academy having awarded the prize to a member of their own Council, the evidence to support it is prima facie strong.

Upon turning to vol. xvi. of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, we find the names of ” The Committee of Antiquities of the Council ” for the year 1830 (that in which the competition was first invited) given as follows : — ” Isaac D’Olier, LL.D. ; Thomas Herbert Orpen. M.D. ; Hugh Ferguson, M.D. ; Sir William Betham ; John D’ Alton, Esq. ; George Petrie, Esq. ; and the Rev. Caesar Otway.”

In the next volume of the Transactions, extending to 1837, the above list is given without any alteration, except that Mr. D’Alton’s name is omitted, that of the Dean of St. Patrick’s being substituted.

From this the inference seems only natural that ” George Petrie, Esq.,” was a member of the Council (being likewise, as we find, “antiquarian artist to the Academy”) at the time when the idea of offering a prize for an essay on the Round Towers was first started ; that he continued to be a member while the competition was in progress, and was actually one when the said prize was adjudicated.

Introduction by W. H. C. – London – 1897
The Round Towers of Ireland – Henry O’Brien – 1898

In 1828 Petrie joined the Royal Irish Academy and was elected to its council the following year.

In 1832 the council resolved, on his proposal, to hold an essay competition on the origin and uses of the round towers of Ireland.

The following year, 1833, a gold medal for the best essay was awarded to Petrie himself.

The only other entry came from Henry O’Brien, a twenty-five year old enthusiast for oriental learning, to whom the council awarded a consolatory bronze medal.

Reading his essay today, it is hard to understand how any responsible body that recognised the value of Petrie’s work could have awarded anything for this farrago of romantic and mystical nonsense.

Its sub-title, ‘the mysteries of freemasonary, of sabaism and of buddhism for the first time unveiled’, well conveys its content.

With scarcely a pretence at scholarly argument it repeats a large part of the errors that Petrie so ably refutes.

Round Towers of Ireland: Study and Gazetteer – George Lennox Barrow – 1979

Fourthly, there is “a rather ugly” suspicion that the Academy had “predetermined to award the prize to a member of its own Council”.

Next, as to the charge that the Academy had predetermined to award the prize to a member of its own Council, we have the very compromising letter of the Rev. Mr. Otway (himself a member of the Council) to the editor of the Dublin Penny Journal which is cited in the Preface to the first edition of this work, coupled with those repeated postponements of the date for sending in essays, which O’Brien assures us were inexplicable on any other ground than that of giving Mr. Petrie time to finish his essay.

We are far from contending that the reasons adduced in support of both these charges should weigh against the high repute which the Royal Irish Academy has always enjoyed from the time of its foundation ; still, it is impossible to deny that, in the absence of all satisfactory explanation, – at least so far as we have been able to discover any, – they wear a rather ugly look.

Introduction by W. H. C. – London – 1897
The Round Towers of Ireland – Henry O’Brien – 1898

Wikipedia then completes its character assassination by [very cleverly] consigning Henry O’Brien’s “prize essay” to the realms of the supernatural and mythology.

Henry O’Brien first proposed that the Irish round towers were created by a pre-Christian phallic cult among the Tuatha Dé Danann who he connected to the daughters of Danaus.

His theory when first published caused a lot of controversy at the time, as well as sparking criticism.

Today, the mainstream consensus among archaeologists and historians is that the Irish round towers were created during the early Medieval period, not pre-Christian period which O’Brien proposed.


The Tuatha Dé Danann (usually translated as “people(s)/tribe(s) of the goddess Danu”), also known by the earlier name Tuath Dé (“tribe of the gods”), are a supernatural race in Irish mythology.


In Greek mythology Danaus, was the twin brother of Aegyptus, a mythical king of Egypt.

The myth of Danaus is a foundation legend (or re-foundation legend) of Argos, one of the foremost Mycenaean cities of the Peloponnesus.


However, in truth, the story of The Round Towers of Ireland written by Henry O’Brien was far too convincing [and far too uncomfortable] for the Anaemic Academics to acknowledge.

To be continued…

Gallery | This entry was posted in Books, Catastrophism, Earth, History, Language, Round Towers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Henry O’Brien and The Round Towers Competition

  1. Pingback: George Lennox Barrow and The Round Towers | MalagaBay

  2. Pingback: William Betham – Round Towers Resolved: Purpose | MalagaBay

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