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County Wicklow, Ireland

[Sunday - 11/17/02] The name of this magnificent monastic site originates from the Irish “Gleann da locha,” meaning “the valley of the two lakes.” Indeed, this rings true as Glendalough is found 46 km south of Dublin in County Wicklow, where the River Glenealo feeds into the River Glendasan, just downstream from what are know as the Upper and Lower lakes. Just before this junction is the main group of ruins referred to as the Monastic City. Glendalough was founded as a hermitage by St. Kevin in the latter part of the 6th century A.D. While his royal lineage is generally accepted, most tales of Kevin’s life are confused by myth and embellishment. But by the time of Kevin’s death in 618, a monastery was firmly established that would function through the 15th century and serve as a place of pilgrimage up through present day.

Glendalough has been historically plagued by recurring misfortune. The ruins that stand today have withstood multiple fires, plunders, and destruction by foreigners and local Irish alike over the centuries of occupation, and exist as perhaps the best preserved of all monastic sites in Ireland. Little is known of Glendalough during the 16th and 17th centuries, but growing interest in Ireland’s national monuments led to the 1779 journey of the Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger and Italian painter-architect Angelo Maria Bigari, which yielded great sketches of this monastic site.

A mandate by the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland calling for reports on all monuments brought about the next phase in Glendalough’s rediscovery and subsequent stages of reconstruction in the 1870's. Work at Glendalough began in 1875 and continued to the beginnings of the 20th century. However, inadequate records severely hinder description of the analytical research and reconstruction techniques undertaken at Glendalough.

The remaining ruins are mostly those of stone churches, yet these are what hold much of Glendalough’s story. The few remains of Temple na Skellig (Church of the Rock) sit on a steep ledge 6m above the south shore of the Upper Lake, which is the probable location of Kevin’s original church. However, it was probably rebuilt in the 11th century. This decaying church was reconstructed in the 1870's, as the eastern gable was rebuilt with a double, round-headed window, while the doorway still exists in a fallen form. Its present foundations measure 7.6m by 4.2m, with walls nearly a meter thick. West of this building is a walled enclosure with a paved path along which wattle-and-daub huts for Glendalough’s first monks probably once stood.

Still along the south shore of the Upper Lake, but further east, lies St. Kevin’s Bed. This small, man-made cave of little more than 2 square meters, which Kevin probably used as a place of personal refuge, is more easily approached by boat than by foot. However, it may have originally been structured as a rock tomb during the Bronze Age.

St. Kevin’s Cell, the supposed living quarters of Glendalough’s founder, stands overlooking the Upper Lake from the southeast. This is a roughly circular stone hut, with a maximum width of 3.4m. Just east of Kevin’s abode, stand the remains of Rhefeart Church, which was built of granite around 1100. Surrounding it is a unique graveyard which is home to many Early Christian gravestones. While the doorway is of the old flat-headed style, the windows are round-headed, reflecting the transition to Romanesque styles during this time period. The nave and chancel are connected by a simple rounded archway. The projecting corbels would have held wooden rafters for the roof.

Off the eastern shore of the Upper Lake is what remains of an old circular stone fort known as the Caher. The walls are built 3m thick in dry masonry, while the outer diameter passes 20m. It is similar to stone forts in the west such as Staigue Fort, County Kerry, indicating that it may have origins as far back as the Bronze Age. Not far from the Caher are a number of crosses, which make up the area between the Upper and Lower Lakes that have the highest concentration of the many upright inscribed stone slabs and crosses at Glendalough.

St. Saviour’s Priory is a 12th century church found east of the Monastic City, along the Glendasan River. This structure includes an ornate Romanesque archway from the nave to the chancel. The original roof may well have been stone due to the extremely thick walls (1.2m). The priory is surrounded by a dry-stone and earth wall, adding to its already secluded atmosphere.

One of the most significant structures at Glendalough is the Gateway, which served as the original entrance to Glendalough along the Glendassan River and now stands as the only example of an entrance to an early Irish monastery. It would then have been double arched, with the second storey for its keeper, and have had a rising tower.

The Round Tower stands just within the Gateway and is perhaps the most impressive structure at Glendalough. It reaches over 30m high, has its doorway 3m off the ground, consists of five storeys, and is topped with a conical cap (which was replaced in 1876). The top level has four windows, each facing one of the cardinal directions, and served as the bell tower for the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is the largest church in the Monastic City, dating back to the 10th century, and served as the center of the Monastic City. Its nave is the widest among all early Irish churches at 9 meters. Its lintelled doorway has a semi-circular arch to divert most of the above weight. One of the most interesting aspects of the Cathedral is that the lower portion of each wall appears to be thick, solid blocks of mica-schist. Instead, they are simply great upright slabs on either side with rubble filling the space between.

The Priest’s House is a small, rectangular building that may well have been used for something other than a monastic residence during the 12th century. Other than the lower walls, it is mostly a reconstruction of the 1870s, based on a sketch from when it was yet intact in 1779.

Near the Priest’s House and Cathedral stands St. Kevin’s Church. It consists of a two-storey building with a barrel-vaulted lower chamber, and has a chimney-like round turret exiting the roof. A similar structure is found at St. Columba’s Oratory in Kells, County Meath. The chancel of St. Kevin’s has collapsed since the 18th century, but leaves distinct evidence of its presence in the form of its foundations.

In 1111, clergy and laity met at Rathbraesail, County Tipperary, and divided Ireland into 22 districts. Glendalough became one of the five bishoprics of Leinster and held Dublin within its boundaries. However, in 1213, roles reversed and Glendalough became annexed to Dublin, which had come under Anglo-Norman control. Thus, there were subsequent difficulties between these religious centers. English forces of Richard II came in 1398, and nearly ended the monastery at Glendalough. But inhabitants remained until 1497 when it was finally taken over by the Dublin diocese. While many have followed Kevin by visiting this valley near two lakes, it still remains a place of mystery and reflection.

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