Glendalough, from the Irish “Gleann da locha", meaning the Glen of two Lakes, is one of my favorite places. It combines extensive monastic ruins with a stunning natural setting in the Wicklow Mountains. The beauty and tranquility of the lakes and glacial-carved valley no doubt appealed to St Kevin, a hermit monk, who founded the monastic site near the Lower Lake in the 6th Century.
Most of the buildings that survive today date from the 10th through 12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings over the years, Glendalough thrived as one of Irelands great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214 and the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united. The settlement was destroyed by English forces in 1398. A reconstruction program was started in 1878 and today the valley boasts a visitor centre, wooded trails, walkways and rock climbing. The monastic ruins include a round tower, seven churches, a gateway into the settlement with a Sanctuary Stone, two High Crosses, the Priest’s House, a graveyard, Reeferts Church, St. Kevin’s Bed (cave) and St. Kevin’s Cell (hermitage hut).
Located in the visitor centre is the wonderfully ornate Market Cross. The granite cross stands at two metres high and dates to the twelfth century. The cross bears figure sculpture on one side. At the head is a crucified Christ in high relief and beneath him on the shaft, is a carving of a bishop, probably representing St Kevin. There are a further two figures on the base of the cross. The other side is decorated with ornate carving.
St Kevin's Cross
St. Kevin's Cross is a fine example of a plain cross remarkably carved from a single granite stone. The arms of the cross are over a metre in length. The imperforate cross stands about 2.5m tall. It may have marked the boundary of the cemetery in which stands the priests' house.
A local legend surrounding St. Kevin’s Cross says that anyone who can wrap their arms around the entire width of the cross body and close the circle by touching fingertips will have their wishes granted.
Glendalough, also known as the city of the seven churches, was enclosed within a circular wall. There is a delightful feeling of discovery as you walk through the arches and along the pathway towards the settlement. The very picturesque Gateway has the distinction of being Ireland’s only surviving example of a medieval gateway to an early monastic city. This structure was originally two-storied with two fine granite arches. The gatekeeper would have lived on the second floor. The projecting walls at each end indicate it had a timber roof. Inside the gateway, in the west wall, is a cross-inscribed sanctuary stone (shown below). Very little remains of the enclosure walls.
Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul
The Cathedral is the largest of the seven churches. It was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century. Large mica schist stones, which form the foundation up to the height of the west doorway, were re-used from an earlier smaller church. 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 decoratively carved, but many of the stones are now missing. The north doorway to the nave also dates from this period. Inside there is a wall cupboard, a stone font, many grave slabs, and the remains of a decorated arch.
Reefert Church, whose name derives from Righ Fearta, “burial place of the kings", is a simple nave-and-chancel church. The enchanting approach up the stone-lined pathway gives you the feeling of walking in the footsteps of your ancestors to this humble structure on a small green knoll. The granite doorway has sloping jambs and flat lintel; projecting corbels at the gables once supported verge timbers for the wooden roof. In the ancient graveyard are several fine crosses and many graveslabs. There was probably a church on this site during the time of Kevin, although its remains are no longer visible. This church dates from the tenth century and is the burial place of the O'Toole family, seven of whose princes are buried on the grounds.
The Priest's House (Tomb Shrine)
The Priests’ House has been almost entirely reconstructed from the original stones based on a 1779 sketch of the original building made by Gabriel Beranger. It is a small Romanesque building with a decorative arch at each end. It is probably a tomb shrine and may have housed the relics of St. Kevin. Its name comes from the practice of burying priests there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two priests of the 18th century were said to have remarkable healing powers, and this site has been a popular place for pilgrims to visit. Pilgrims took clay from the graves and applied it to sores and wounds while chanting prayers.
The Caher (stone fort), located between the two lakes, is probably the oldest of the structures. The walls are 3m thick in dry masonry, while the outer diameter is just over 20m. The walls were for protection, just as the stone wall around the monastic city. This area between the two lakes contain the highest concentration of upright inscribed stone slabs and crosses at Glendalough. The crosses may have marked the boundaries of monastic lands or stations on the pilgrims' route.
Another interesting stone is the Sanctuary Stone which stands to the right just inside the gateway to the monastic site. This slab has an unusual cross inscribed on it. Once anyone seeking sanctuary passed this marker they were given refuge within the monastic site.
There are many more richly carved cross slabs and bullaun stones on view inside the interpretive centre, some of which are pictured below. The centre also features an audio visual and a has a model of the monastic site on display. There are so many Bullaun stones around Glendalough, we have dedicated a separate page for them.