Glendalough, or ‘the valley of two lakes’ is a place with which almost everyone is vaguely familiar even before they visit, so famous and iconic are the images of its high round tour.
But being there, walking though the ancient monastery surrounded by the stillness and splendour of the Wicklow Mountains , is a special experience that even the inevitable tourist crowds cannot spoil.
It’s easy to see why St Kevin chose it first as a place to live the austere life of a hermit and later to found what would become one of the most important early Christian monasteries in Europe.
Glendalough is a glacial valley created about 20,000 years ago during the ice age. Melting ice created the two lakes, upper and lower, which are invariably still, dark and mirror clear.
Glendalough Lake at Sunset by Michael Foley Photography
History of Glendalough
Even before Kevin arrived this was a spiritual place and there is good evidence that it was important in pre-Christian Ireland. Near the eastern shore of the Upper Lake is a bronze age stone fort or caher. Close to the main monastery site on land recently bought by the Government is a series of seven bullaun stones, known as the ‘the seven fonts’, large stones in which cup shaped depressions have been carved. Their purpose is unknown but is thought to be ritualistic in some way and they date to the bronze age or even earlier.
Kevin is said to have first arrived as a hermit, living on the shores of the upper lake in a small cave like place, now known as Kevin’s Bed, which was probably a bronze age tomb, though he later built a circular stone hut of which only a few stones remain – St. Kevin’s Cell.
The Founding of the Monastery
In the mid-6th century the monastery was founded, by which time St Kevin was already revered and had a significant following. Little is known about the original monastery, which was probably in the area of the upper lake, but it quickly became a place of pilgrimage to which people flocked in numbers. This is probably why the settlement gradually moved to its current location at the lower lake, which is much more accessible.
By the end of the 8th century it was a large and thriving settlement, home to as many as 1000 people and famed as a centre of learning throughout Europe. The buildings which which survive today were all built between the 8th and 12th centuries.
The best known of these is the 110ft high round tower, which was built about 1000 years ago and used as a store and a refuge in times of danger.
In the 11th century the small oratory (left), known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen, though I don’t know why as it was never a kitchen, was built near the lake. The Priest’s house, one of the most complete of the other buildings, is in the middle of the oldest part of the graveyard and was the area where priests and monks were traditionally buried.
There would once have been many more buildings and there is a model in the visitor centre of what the settlement probably looked like at its zenith. It was known at one time as ‘the seven churches of Glendalough’, so was undoubtedly a very much larger place than it appears to-day.
An Enduring Place of Pilgrimage
From almost the beginning Glendalough’s powerful position in the Irish Christian world made it the target of attacks by those who feared its power, at first probably local chieftains, later the Norman English. It was attacked many times and its churches and houses were burned or broken, but each time it was rebuilt.
During the late 14th century Gaelic leaders in Wicklow had achieved considerable power and were perceived as a threat by the English ruler in Dublin. In 1398 the English attacked Glendalough and comprehensively destroyed it – bringing monastic life there to an end.
However its important place in the lives of the Irish was undiminished and it remained a place of pilgrimage, especially around the time of the feast of St Kevin on June 3rd. While most of the pilgrims were undoubtedly devout, this annual pilgimage evolved into something of a bacchanalian event and was for a time officially banned by the church.
To-day some pilgrims still walk St Kevin’s way, an 18 mile way-marked route starting in the village of Hollywood and crossing the beautiful Wicklow Way before dropping down into the valley of Glendalough. It’s a tough enough walk, but a very beautiful route and you are more likely to meet hikers than pilgrims on it nowadays.
This video montage really captures the beauty of the place and will, I hope, tempt you to explore beyond the monastic settlement itself.
The Graveyard at Glendalough
For anyone who likes graveyards, and many people do, this one is among the most fascinating anywhere.
Graves date back centuries, some with elaborate and ornately carved gravestones, others, especially the mass graves of those who died during the famine, simple and very sad.
Most date from the from the 19th century and have fairly clear and readable inscriptions.
Look out for the grave of Francis Kehoe who died at the age of 102 in 1768 – an extraordinary age in a time when the average life expectancy was about 35 years.
Some of the older and more elaborately decorated stones and crosses have been taken into the visitor centre to protect them from the elements (and in truth from over enthusiastic visitors).
There are also some quite recent burials, the graveyard is still used by some local families. Not a bad place to end up.
Myths Surrounding St Kevin of Glendalough
The earliest known account of St Kevin’s life was written in the 11th century, some 500 years after his death, in the Codex Kilkenniensis which is in Marsh’s Library in Dublin. By that time his legend had grown considerably and stories told about him embellished in the telling.
Many early Irish saints have stories associated with them that almost certainly pre-date their lifetimes, with old Celtic myths attributed to them as the people adopted Christianity in a way that accommodated rather than replaced their traditional beliefs.
It is said that his mother had no labour pains at his birth, that as a child he was visited daily by a white cow (a common and revered creature in Celtic myth) who provided milk for him, that he banished a great monster from the Lakes of Glendalough and could carry fire without it burning either his clothes or his flesh.
One of the best known of the the stories tells of how St Kevin was kneeling in prayer one day, his arms outstretched, when a blackbird landed on his hand and laid her eggs there. So as not to disturb the eggs, he is said to have remained in that position until the eggs hatched and the fledglings were reared.
Visiting Glendalough & Wicklow National Park
Glendalough is located about 32 miles from Dublin. Turn off the Dublin-Wexford N11 at Kilmacanogue and take the R755.
The settlement and all its surroundings are part of Wicklow National Park and can thus be visited free of charge by anyone at any time. The visitor centre is open year round, and there is a charge for access.
However access to the monastic settlement is free – you do not have to go into the visitor centre.
It is worth seeing the short audio-visual presentation there, which tells the story of Glendalough but also put the importance of the Irish monastic culture into historical context.
Glendalough and the Wicklow mountains generally is a walker’s paradise. The visitor centre has route maps for walks of varying duration and difficulty and will be happy to suggest a suitable route for you. If you can make time to linger here and explore you will not regret it.
This is a very popular tourist destination and can get extremely crowded, especially in high season and at weekends. If you cannot get there before 10am, wait and go after 4pm to avoid the worst of the crowds. In fact early evening is a great time to visit, especially for photographers as the light is much more interesting.