Glendalough and its Monastic History
Glendalough walks and lakes are jaw-droppingly beautiful. An area of outstanding natural beauty is it also home to one of the most important historic sites in Ireland. Visiting Glendalough and taking one of the Glendalough Walks should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The early Christian monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin, and known as Glendalough is located just south of Dublin in the superb Wicklow National Park. It is easy to get to by car and there are many tours that will take you to the area as well. There is no bus service into the park apart from the tourist tours.
Lonely Planet Ireland calls Glendalough “truly one of the most beautiful places in Ireland and a highlight of any trip to the island.”
Walks at Glendalough
The two lakes at Glendalough are known as the Lower Lake and Upper Lake. The main parking area, the Glendalough 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. There is no fee to enter the Glendalough Park but the parking costs €4 per car.
From the parking lots, the Glendalough Walks are clearly outlined with signs all along the paths.
Glendalough’s Monastic City as it became known as is located near Lower Lake – there is a very small parking area across from the main entryway. 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.
Glendalough Monastic Site Facts
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.
Glendalough is located in a glacial valley consisting of two lakes (the Upper and Lower Lakes) which is where the name derives from – Gleann dá Locha ‘the valley of the two lakes’. Evidence for human activity in the Glendalough valley goes as far back as the Neolithic Period. Recent digs have uncovered industrial activity that may date back to the founding of St Kevin’s monastery around 600AD, due to the history of the area Glendalough is not only one of Ireland’s most visited attractions but also historically one of its most important religious sites.
The Glendalough monastic settlement is the earliest in Irish history, founded by Kevin (Irish: Coemhghein), 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’s Monastic Sites
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 a 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.
Glendalough’s walking routes and trails are all very well marked and are accessible for a variety of abilities.
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.
Glendalough has 9 marked walks from easy to difficult for walkers. The Visitor Centre in Glendalough sells a Trail Guide for only €0.50. The maps list the nine routes with the shortest distance being a few kilometres and the longest 11 kilometres.
Glendalough’s monastic sites are just a short drive from Dublin and there are several bus tours and private tours to the area that you can take if you don’t have a vehicle.
Dublin is a small walkable city with plenty to see and do and here are some more articles you may want to check out before you go.
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If you are looking to get out of Dublin for a day here are a selection of easy day trips you can take:
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