Glendalough, is a name to conjure with. Standing in County Wicklow, it is an amazingly intact example of a scholastic form of Christianity that grew in Ireland, centred around remote communities, where a simple life was lived and learning was at its core. It is by no means the only such site remaining. The bigger, showier Clonmacnoise sometimes gets more of the attention, but in its remote and quiet beauty, Glendalough has to be my favourite.
I have written about Glendalough before, as part of an advent calendar of medieval religious institutions in 2017, but this post will go into more detail about the history of the site itself and the buildings that can be found on it.
The first place to start with Glendalough is its name. It comes from the Irish; Gleann de Loch which translates as a valley of two lakes. The name really exemplifies the quiet, isolated beauty of the place.
St Kevin founded Glendalough in the second half of the 6th century CE, it wouldn’t have been on the site where the main monastic settlement now stands. When he originally came into the area it wasn’t to begin a monastic settlement, he wanted to live as a hermit. St Kevin was probably born in the first half of the 6th century CE and would have grown up with the development of Celtic christianity, which was rooted in holy men seeking isolated places to live an ascetic lifestyle and be closer to God. So this is probably what Kevin was intending when he first moved into the Glendalough region. It was said that he lived alone for seven years, possibly in the site now known as St Kevin’s cell.
You can see the remains of what would have probably been a beehive cell, like those you see on Skellig Michael- you can see them in the photo below. You can learn more about Skelling Michael here
The spot has a spectacular view over the nearby lough, which is one of the loughs of Glendalough’s name
When students began to arrive to learn from St Kevin, he moved the settlement possibly across the lake, but also possibly to the site it now stands on. Essentially, either way, he needed more space.
The site you see today is a combination of a number of eras and was occupied as a monastic settlement from roughly 600 CE to 1500 CE. Glendalough, might have begun with one man but it became a monastic school, a place of scholarly learning. Monastic schools, like Glendalough, trained young men as scholars, often fostering the children of the Irish kings. They also produced manuscripts, sometimes copying them, sometimes creating a completely new manuscripts and shared them with other scholastic institutions. In the case of Glendalough, there were close ties with Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, you can see it in the photos below.
Life at Glendalough was not always a peaceful one though. There were viking raids in 790 CE, 894 CE, 889 CE and 938 CE. These would have been swift raids and would have resulted in the theft of precious objects and possibly monks, as well as destruction of property, but they would not have stopped the overall growth of Glendalough itself. By the early 1100s the diocese of Glendalough covered over 50 000 acres. This was now far beyond what St Kevin began, and the community of monks and scholars would have been supported by a broader community of farmers, craftsmen, and labourers. It was effectively a town. Pilgrims would also have come to Glendalough, seeking absolution from a variety of sins, up to and including murder. This was a thriving self sufficient community. The future of Glendalough, indeed the future of Ireland, changed when the Anglo-Normans invaded in 1169 CE. I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail here regarding the Anglo-Norman invasion, but a basic run down is that King Dermot MacMurrough invited some of them to help him reclaim his Kingdom of Leinster. Essentially they never left. It allowed Henry II to establish an Anglo-Norman toe hold in Ireland that expanded as the years and centuries passed. This influence was seen in Glendalough in some of the later buildings, which reflect more Norman style architecture. It was also under Norman influence that Glendalough was incorporated into the Dublin diocese in 1214 CE. Glendalough survived through wars between the local Irish tribes and English forces from Dublin. It was actually ransacked by the English in 1398 and it was partly ruined. Over the succeeding centuries Glendalough slowly declined and gradually fell into disuse by the start of the 16th century. When the last of the Irish chieftains fled in 1601 CE- an event known as the Flight of the Earls- any hope of re-establishing the community (which had been a Gaelic symbol) vanished. The buildings were left to become ruins, you can see what it looked like in the late 18th century in the engraving below.
Glendalough remained unprotected until the 1870s CE when it was taken over by the Board of Works. Thankfully, quite a lot still survives and you can really immerse yourself in the world of Glendalough.
I’m now going to go through some of the buildings you can see in Glendalough, I’m not going to cover all of them, but hopefully I’ll give you a good overview. As I said earlier it is made up of a number of structures from different eras.
I wanted to begin with the gates.
Glendalough would have originally had a wall surrounding the main settlement, and a gated main entrance with a watchtower. The gates you see today would have originally had a second story, but nothing remains of it today, the stones you can see in the ground are actually part of the original road into the settlement. These gates are the last remaining gateway to a monastic site in Ireland.
There are a number of buildings surviving in the Glendalough settlement itself. The two that stand out the most are St Kevin’s Church and the round tower. I’m going to start with St Kevin’s Church. It is a truly remarkable building, and is both largely intact and original.
St. Kevin’s Church is dedicated to St Kevin and most likely replaced a wooden church that stood on the site. The belfry looks a bit like a chimney, so it is also known as Kevin’s Kitchen. The church most likely dates from the 1100s CE, though the tower was probably added later. There would have been a second story within the church, which would have acted as living quarters. You aren’t allowed into the church, but if you are wondering how I have included a photo of the interior, you can see my method in the image below.
The other building which features most in all depictions of Glendalough is the round tower.
The purpose of round towers is very much up for debate, and I’ve written about the round towers of Ireland before. So you can discover more about them here. This particular round tower dates most likely from the early 1100s CE. The round tower at Glendalough is just over 100ft tall (30.5m), the cone on the top is not original, as it collapsed in a storm and was replaced in 1876. The tower tapers as it climbs, at its base the diameter is 4.9 m and 4.2m by the time you reach the top. It also extends about .9 m below the surface to rest on a gravel subsoil. I love round towers, for their idiosyncrasies and the Glendalough Round Tower is one of the best examples I’ve seen.
The other key building in the settlement is the cathedral. The oldest parts of the cathedral date to 900-1000 CE, with some additions from 1100-1200 CE
It was only designated as a cathedral until 1214 CE when the Glendalough Diocese was combined into the Dublin Diocese. The exterior stonework is rough, but would most likely have been plastered originally. The building is a bit of an amalgam, with the chancel definitely being added later and being of rougher construction than the rest of the building. There is still some lovely carving that you can see in the images above. The other interesting feature of the cathedral is an embrasure in one wall. It would have had a door for storing precious objects and the small basin in it is the piscina, and would have been using for pouring away holy water so it couldn’t be used for unauthorised purposes.
The final building I’m going to discuss is actually a short walk from the main settlement of Glendalough. St Saviour’s Priory was probably the last of the major buildings at Glendalough. It stands alone in a landscape that can’t have changed much since it was built in the mid 12th century CE. It is also the most elaborate of the Glendalough buildings, with a clear Norman Romanesque construction. It was restored in 1875. It is an unusually wide building, but what is most memorable for me, and most interesting, is the amount of carvings that have survived. You can see them and the church itself in the photos below.
So that brings me to the end of my journey through Glendalough. I haven’t covered every building surviving in the settlement, but I hope I’ve given you a good idea of its history, importance and beauty. If you take nothing else from this post, I hope you’ve had the chance to appreciate how striking Glendalough truly is. I’ll leave you with one more picture of the round tower.
Site visit 2015
Glendalough: A guide ISBN: 9181905487462
The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume II Grosse
Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 Daibhi O Croinin
The Daily Telegraph: Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland
The photos are all mine, apart from the first photo of St Kevin’s, the photo of me leaning into St Kevin’s and the photo of the exterior of the Cathedral. These were taken by Penny Woodward.