Imagine trudging through the bleak Wicklow Mountains in the 6th century and coming across a hidden mystical valley of stunning natural beauty and utter serenity – you would surely find your God here. Welcome to the monastic city of Glendalough.
The steep sides of this U-shaped valley were carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age
Two lakes formed from the meltwater when the ice eventually thawed.
Glendalough – Gleann Dá Loch – Valley of the Two Lakes. Our ancestors might have been lacking in imagination when it came to place names but they could sure pick a site!
Have you spotted the Round Tower?
There it is – on the shores of Lower Lake (Alas -Yes – the lakes are named Upper and Lower…)
This fascinating early Christian settlement was founded by Saint Kevin in the 6th century.
So what do we know of St. Kevin?
Kevin (Kevin = Cóemgen/ Caoimhín, meaning ‘fair begotten’ or ‘fair birth’) wasn’t much of a man for Facebook profiles or Instagram so we are rather dependent upon ancient manuscripts and legend to punch out a biography! The oldest source for St Kevin is an 11th century text called Latin Lives, written long after his death. He’s mentioned in the Annuls of Ulster and various medieval documents.
His birth date is recorded as 498. However, the Annals of Ulster record his death as 618 – that gives him a life span of 120 years. Not impossible, but highly unlikely considering the times and his way of life. So we must assume he was born some time in the 6th century.
He was born into a noble family in what is now west County Wicklow.
This was an era when Ireland was converting from Paganism to Christianity. Kevin studied for the priesthood and decided to dedicate his life to celibacy and austerity.
He came to Glendalough to find solitude and prayer.
He settled on the shore of the upper lake – at first, according to legend, in the hollow of a tree but upsized to a cave which had been the site of a Bronze Age tomb.
He lived as a hermit for 7 years.
Life was very simple – he wore animal skins, slept on stones and ate sparingly from the trees and bushes around him.
It seems he had an extraordinary closeness to nature.
Kevin became known as a holy man and teacher thus attracting others to Glendalough seeking advice or healing or just coming to follow his way of life.
Gradually, a small monastic community was established around the lakes.
As founder of a monastery, Kevin could have been consecrated a bishop but chose to remain a priest. Unlike other saints of his time, he did not travel on missionary journeys but spent most of his life in Glendalough.
He divided his time between the monastic settlement and his hermitage until close to his death.
Before his death Kevin moved permanently at his hermitage, asking his monks not to visit, bring food or disturb him in any way.
His Feast Day is celebrated on 3rd June.
The Monastic City
From such very humble origins, Glendalough grew to become one of the great centres of Christianity in Ireland. The settlement had farms, churches, guesthouses, and an infirmary as well as several dwellings and buildings for storing food. By the end of the 8th century, up to 1,000 lay people were employed here, tending to crops and livestock. As a centre of learning, the monks would have written, copied and illuminated sacred manuscripts in Latin and Irish. It was an important site of pilgrimage and to be buried here was considered as significant as being buried in Rome.
Like other monasteries, Glendalough grew in wealth. Such settlements of this era would typically have stores of treasure and food. This made them an easy target for plunder, especially if located in a remote area. Glendalough was raided many times by locals, Vikings and Normans. Usually the houses and churches were burned but rebuilt each time.
In the end, Glendalough’s decline was not due to plunder, but rather to a shift in ecclesiastical political power. It was taken over by the diocese of Dublin in 1152 whereafter its importance waned.
The settlement was destroyed by English forces in 1398.
Restoration began in the 19th century.
Today, ruins are scattered throughout the valley. Most buildings that have survived date from the 10th through 12th centuries.
The Monastic City would have been enclosed within a circular wall, the main entrance being through the Gateway. This structure was originally two-storeyed, probably with a timber roof. The gatekeeper would have lived on the second floor.
Just inside the gateway is a cross-inscribed sanctuary stone. Anyone who arrived seeking sanctuary was given refuge once they passed this stone.
The Round Tower
The iconic Round Tower is the most noticeable structure on the site. Rising to about 30 metres, it is largely still in its original condition apart from the roof which was replaced in 1876 using the original stone. . The entrance is about 3.5 metres from the base and was accessed by a wooden ladder which could be removed. Originally there were six wooden floors inside connected by ladders. A round tower was multi-functional – this was the bell tower, the treasury, the store house and the refuge in times of attack (hence the door’s location high above the ground).
The Cathedral is the largest of Glendalough’s seven churches. The oldest part dates back to the 10th century, built with stone from an earlier church on the same site. This would have been the centre of the monastic city, where the monks would gather for long hours of prayer. Inside you will find a wall cupboard, a stone font, many grave slabs, and the remains of a decorated arch.
Next to the cathedral is the cemetery. This was the final resting place for many members of the monastic community. Family graves reflect the close links between the monastic settlement and the local community.
St Kevin’s Cross
There are still over 50 intact high crosses scattered throughout the country as well as hundreds of broken cross fragments. The most distinctive feature of Celtic high crosses is the circle around the actual cross. This may symbolise Christ’s victory over death (a circle having no beginning or end) but it may also be linked to paganism – pagans worshipped the sun and moon so a representation of such may have been used by early Christian disciples . There are three kinds of Celtic High Cross in Ireland: plain, ornamental (adorned with abstract decoration), and scriptural (whole stories carved into them). High crosses were not for graves but rather marked sacred boundaries usually associated with monasteries and churches.
St. Kevin’s Cross is an example of a plain cross . Standing about 2.5m tall, it was remarkably carved from a single granite stone and has arms over a metre in length. It probably marked the boundary of the cemetery.
Local legend holds that anyone who can wrap their arms around St Kevin’s Cross and touch their fingertips will have their wishes granted.
The Priest’s House
Close to St. Kevin’s cross is a small Romanesque building known as the Priest’s House. Its original purpose is unknown but it is believed to have housed the relics of St. Kevin. The name derives from the 18th century practice of bringing dead priests here to be prepared for burial.
Another local tradition – the clay from the floor of this building was rubbed on the jaw to cure toothache!
St. Kevin’s Kitchen
This beautiful little church has its own small round tower. This was often mistaken for a chimney, earning the church the name St. Kevin’s Kitchen!
St. Kieran’s Church
St Kieran was a contemporary and friend of St Kevin. This is the smallest of the surviving churches at Glendalough. It was discovered beneath a mound of earth and stones in 1875. Little more than the foundations remain.
St. Mary’s is located in a field close to the Monastic city and may have been part of a different enclosure for women. Women played a major (possibly equal) role in pre-Christian Ireland which continued into early Christianity – this equality was gradually reduced as the patriarchal society evolved.
This is a simple nave and chancel church. There was a belfry in the style of a round tower, but it collapsed in a storm in 1818.
The monastic site of Glendalough is located in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. It’s circa 50km – about an hour to 1h30 south of Dublin city.
There is a public bus service from the city centre but runs only a few times per day. Coach tours from Dublin include Glendalough in their itinerary. The easiest way to get to Glendalough however, is by car.
The monastic ruins are managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and are not under the auspices of the National Park.
Entrance to all the historic sites is free of charge. All sites are open at all times.
Due to the archaeological nature of the sites, they are not accessible to wheelchairs.
The Visitor Centre (admission €5) has a model of the monastic site, exhibitions, an audio-visual show, etc. and also provides guided tours.