Glendalough & the Wicklow Gap, Ireland’s Ancient East
Lonely Planet Ireland calls Glendalough “truly one of the most beautiful places in Ireland and a highlight of any trip to the island.” Truer words were never spoken or in this case written. Glendalough is jaw droopingly beautiful. An area of outstanding natural beauty is it also home to one of the most important historic sites in Ireland. The early Christian monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin.
The two lakes at Glendalough are known as the Lower Lake and Upper Lake. The main parking area, Visitors’ Centre, the Glendalough Hotel, and most of the monastic ruins are located near the Lower Lake on the east end of the site. The Upper Lake area has an overflow parking lot with washrooms, and stalls for picnics, coffee and ice cream. On a busy day, it can take over an hour to get into one of the parking lots and the place is jam packed with both Irish and tourists.
The Monastic City as it became known as is located near Lower Lake – there is a very small parking area across from the main entry way. The medieval stone arches that you enter through are Ireland’s only surviving example of such a gateway. The arch was built with roman style columns and the stones were cut specifically to fit requiring no mortar to bind them together.
This early Christian monastic settlement was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and from this developed the ‘Monastic City’. Despite attacks by Vikings over the years, Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214 A.D. St. Kevin (Irish: Coemhghein), was a descendant of one of the ruling families of Leinster. As a child, 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.”
Kevin lived the life of a hermit in a cave, his friends were the animals and the birds and he preferred a solitary life away from his followers. He was a hermit for 7 years, went barefoot and ate very little. By 540, his fame had spread far and wide and his followers came to Glendalough and developed a seminary and monastery in his name. Eventually, Glendalough, with its seven churches, became one of the chief pilgrimage destinations in Ireland.
The ‘city’ consists of a number of ruins and remains the tallest and most impressive being the round tower which stands over 30 meters high. In Ireland, round towers served many purposes from refuge in times of attack to bell towers and storehouses. The door of a round tower is usually around 3-4 metres above ground and accessed by a ladder than can be pulled up in case of attack. Originally the tower had six wooden floors all connected by ladders. The four stories above the entry way are lit by a small window and the top story has four windows facing the cardinal points of the compass.
What to See at Glendalough
The largest building at Glendalough is the cathedral, with the earliest part being the nave, which is believed to have been built in the 10th century. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
A few meters south of the cathedral is an ancient cross of local granite with an un-pierced ring, which is known as St. Kevin’s Cross.
Nearby is the Priests’ House, which has been almost entirely reconstructed from the original stones based on a 1779 sketch of the original. The original use of the building remains unknown but it may have been a resting place for the relics of St. Kevin… Its name comes from the practice of burying priests there in the 18th and 19th centuries.
St. Kevin’s Church is a stone roofed building with a 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. The incredible roof is formed of overlapping stones, supported by a semi-circular vault. The church had a wooden upper floor and the priests could get to the roof chamber through a rectangular opening on the western side of the vault.
Across the path are the foundations of St. Kieran’s Church, which was excavated in 1875. It is believed that the Church was built to commemorate St. Kieran, the founder of Clonmacnoise.
West of these buildings and accessible only from the main road is St. Mary’s Church which is also known as Our Ladies Church one of the earliest of Glendalough’s churches.
On the trail to Upper Lake, you will see the Caher, a stone walled circular enclosure that sits between the two lakes. It is believed that it was used by pilgrims as a resting place on the pilgrimage, nearby are several crosses, which were used as stations on the pilgrims’ route.
Across the stream to the southwest is the Reefert Church, whose name derives from Righ Fearta, “burial place of the kings.” East of the church are two ancient crosses, one with an elaborate interlace pattern. Nearby, on the other side of the river, are the remains of another small church.
Accessed by a steep hike to a rocky spur over the Upper Lake is St. Kevin’s Cell. Only the foundations survive, but it is thought to have been a “beehive” hut like those on Skellig Michael and the Dingle Peninsula.
The 26 km section from Hollywood to Laragh is known as the Wicklow Gap Road and it is one of only two routes crossing the Wicklow Mountains from east to west, the other being the road through the Sally Gap in North Wicklow. The road through the Wicklow Gap gives you some spectacular scenery and is truly a breathtaking drive.
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