Glendalough (Gleann Dá Loch, “Valley of the Two Lakes”) is a fascinating monastic settlement in a spectacular natural setting roughly an hour south of Dublin. It’s known as a ‘sacred’ place and even in the drizzly cold rain and dark November skies, it was incredibly breathtaking. The monastery was founded by St. Kevin, a hermit monk who died about 618 AD. The extensive ruins of Glendalough include several early churches, a graceful round tower, and various sites associated with the life of St. Kevin.
The story of Glendalough begins with St. Kevin (Irish: Coemhghein), a descendent of one of the ruling families of Leinster. As a boy he studied under three holy men (Eoghan, Lochan and Eanna) and as a young man he went to live at Glendalough “in the hollow of a tree.” He returned later with a small group of followers. After a life of sleeping on stones, wearing animal skins, barely eating and (according to legend) making friends with birds and animals, Kevin died in about 618.
Glendalough flourished for the next 600 years, with the deaths of abbots and various raids featuring heavily in the Irish Annals. By the 9th century, it rivaled Clonmacnoise as the leading monastic city of Ireland. In its heyday, the settlement included not only churches and monastic cells but also workshops, guesthouses, an infirmary, farm buildings and houses. Most of the buildings that survive today date from the 10th through 12th centuries.
At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Glendalough was designated one of two dioceses of the province of North Leinster. An especially notable figure around this period was St. Laurence O’Toole (1128-80), an abbot of Glendalough known for his holiness and hospitality. He was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, but still returned occasionally to the solitude of St. Kevin’s Bed at Glendalough.
In 1214, the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united, and soon after the cultural and religious status of Glendalough began to decline. The settlement was destroyed by English forces in 1398, but even as a ruin it continued to be a local place of worship and a pilgrimage destination.
Only when you walk through the wet grass, ruins and gravestones do you feel its sacred presence. It may have something to do with the fact that some of the gravestones are thousand years old.
The largest building at Glendalough is the cathedral, which was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century. The earliest part is the nave with antae for supporting the wooden roof. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
The chancel arch and east window were once finely decorated, but many of the stones are now missing. Under the south window of the chancel is a wall cupboard and a piscine (basin used for washing sacred vessels). A few meters south of the cathedral is an ancient cross of local granite with an unpierced ring, which is commonly known as St. Kevin’s Cross.
St. Kevin’s Church is a stone roofed building with a distinctive round belfry with conical cap at the west end. The church originally consisted of a simple nave with an entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. A chancel (now missing) and sacristy were added later.
The steep roof, formed of overlapping stones, is supported by a semi-circular vault. The church had a wooden upper floor and there was access to the roof chamber through a rectangular opening towards the western end of the vault.Across the path are the foundations of St. Kieran’s Church, excavated in 1875. The church has a nave and chancel and probably commemorates St. Kieran, the founder of Clonmacnoise – a monastic settlement to the northwest that had associations with Glendalough in the 10th century.
A positive thing about going in the dreary rain late in the day is that NO ONE was there and apparently in the summer, the place can be packed. There’s somehing magical about being among such history and beauty on your own, without the crowds and even without the sun.