Glendalough, in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, lies in a glaciated valley with two lakes and is the site of St Kevinís monastery founded in the 6th century.
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According to one account St Kevin, born in AD498 (death uncertain but thought to be early 600s), was descended from a Leinster noble family. He was educated by three churchmen, then became a hermit at Glendalough where he lived in a cave in the cliffside of the lake. He developed a reputation as a holy man and was made a bishop. He was then sent to form a church at Cluain Duach but returned to the upper lake at Glendalough to live as a hermit again.
Over time others joined him, and he moved to the lower lake in the valley to form an ecclesiastical community. Wooden buildings were replaced in stone as the community grew and thrived from the 9th through the 12th centuries. St Kevin stayed at Glendalough as the abbot until his death. His feast day is celebrated on June 3.
The grounds where the monastery ruins are located are entered through a former fortified gateway that was two stories high. They include the monastery cemetery overlooked by a 12 foot high Celtic stone cross with a circle at the top. It dates from the 7th century and is inscribed with both pagan and Christian symbols.
St Kevinís church (also called a kitchen) has a barrel vaulted oratory with a high pitched roof and a small round tower. Other ruins include the priestís house with an exterior Romanesque arch and a carved lintel, St Kiernanís church, Lady church, and late 11th century St Saviourís church (restored 1875) as well as the cathedral itself.
The cathedral was the largest church in Glendalough and one of the largest Christian churches in Ireland. It was first dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. By 1214 it was no longer a cathedral. The nave is the earliest part of the building with its projecting antae that support roof trusses and its flat headed west doorway with relieving arch. The stones of the bottom courses may date from the 10th century and the upper stones from the 11th century. In the 12th century the chancel and sacristy were added, and a new doorway was put in the north wall. There are medieval and early Christian gravestones in the chancel.
The most noticeable ruin is the 103 foot high round tower topped with a conical roof (recapped in 1876). It is one of Irelandís best preserved round towers. A monk would take the stairs to the top and ring a bell from the window to warn of danger or simply to keep the time. The monks took refuge in the tower if in danger. The main danger was from the Vikings who attacked Glendalough a number of times between AD775 and 1071. In the 12th century a flood played havoc with the site, and in the 13th the Normans came and took over. By 1398 the site was burned and abandoned, but continued to serve pilgrims until the 1800s.
An ancient pilgrimage known as St Kevinís Road leads over the gap in the Wicklow Mountains from West Wicklow to Glendalough. In 2001 a 29 km pilgrim route was re-established, following the original route where known. The Book of Glendalough, thought to have been written at St Kevinís monastery c1150 has been lost.
A visitor centre tells the story of the monastery and St Kevin. It has a display of ancient crosses and tombstones from the site. Between the upper and lower lakes are the remains of a stone fort.
St Kevinís Monastery
Glendalough Visitor Centre
On the R756, near Laragh, Glendalough Valley
County Wicklow, 25 miles south of Dublin
Tel. 0404 45325
Open: daily; in summer, 9.30am-6pm; in winter until 5pm
Photos and text © by Barbara Ballard