About 30 miles south of Dublin is the valley of Glendalough (the valley of two lakes). The valley almost divides into two distinct areas of interest as well. It’s for its ruined monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by Saint Kevin, that most people come to Glendalough for. Glendalough is perhaps the best example of its sort in Ireland with its iconic round tower and high crosses.
Saint Kevin, was a descendant of one of the ruling families in Leinster, and studied as a boy under the care of three holy men. During this time, he went to Glendalough. He was to return later, with a small group of monks to found a monastery. Saint Kevin’s writings discuss his fighting “knights” at Glendalough; scholars today believe this refers to his process of self-examination and his personal temptations. His fame as a holy man spread and he attracted numerous followers. He died in about 618, traditionally on 3 June.
For the next six centuries, Glendalough flourished, albeit punctuated with bouts of bloodshed. As the monasteries of northern England would also discover, monastic scholars weren’t terribly effective adversaries against marauding Viking raiders, most notably in 1176, where the Annals of Tigernach record that Glendalough was ‘plundered by the foreigners’
Ultimately what the Vikings never fully achieved was left instead to the English. The destruction of the settlement by English forces in 1398 left it a ruin but it continued as a church of local importance and a place of pilgrimage.
The present remains in Glendalough tell only a small part of its story. The monastery in its heyday included workshops, areas for manuscript writing and copying, guest houses, an infirmary, farm buildings and dwellings for both the monks and a large lay population. The buildings which survive probably date from between the 10th and 12th centuries
The most striking feature of Glendalough is the high round-tower which dominates the site. Built of mica-slate interspersed with granite it is about 30 metres high, with an entrance 3.5 metres from the base. The conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones. The tower originally had six timber floors, connected by ladders. The four storeys above entrance level are each lit by a small window; while the top storey has four windows facing the cardinal compass points. Round towers, were built as bell towers, and places to observe approaching hostiles but also served as store-houses and perhaps precariously, places of refuge in times of attack. The round-tower at Glendalough is probably the finest surviving example in Ireland
Glendalough with the famous ’round tower’ prominent
The Gateway to the monastic city of Glendalough is one of the most important monuments, and is now totally unique in Ireland. It was originally two-storeyed with two fine, granite arches. The antae or projecting walls at each end suggest that it had a timber roof. Inside the gateway, in the west wall, is a cross-inscribed stone. This denoted sanctuary, the boundary of the area of refuge. The paving of the causeway in the monastic city is still preserved in part but very little remains of the enclosure wall
The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, the cathedral had several phases of construction, the earliest, consisting of the present nave with its antae. The large mica-schist stones which can be seen up to the height of the square-headed west doorway were re-used from an earlier smaller church. The chancel and sacristy date from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. A few metres south of the cathedral an early cross of local granite, with an unpierced ring, is commonly known as Saint. Kevin’s Cross.
St. Kevin’s Church or “Kitchen” is one of he more impressive survivors. This stone-roofed building originally had a nave only, with entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. The belfry with its conical cap and four small windows rises from the west end of the stone roof in the form of a miniature round tower. In addition to this structure, there are numbers of smaller churches and chapels dotted around the lower glen as this was a thriving community at its height
Interest isn’t confined to the lower glen however. Situated in a grove of trees, the Reefert Church is perhaps the most striking building of the upper glen this nave-and-chancel church dates from around 1100, although most of the surrounding walls are modern. The name derives from Righ Fearta, the burial place of the kings. The church, built in simple style, has a granite doorway with sloping jambs and flat lintel and a granite chancel arch. East of the church are two crosses of note, one with an elaborate interlace pattern. On the other side of the Poulanass River, close to Reefert are the remains of another small church
You don’t need to immerse yourself in ecclesiastical influences and deep Celtic mysticism however to appreciate Glendalough. The bewitching and beguiling landscape works equally as well for those in pursuit of recreation.
There are nine way-marked trails of varying difficulty around Glendalough. Some of the trails stay on mostly flat-ground pathways around the two lakes of Glendalough (The Miner’s Road Walk, Green Road Walk), others lead up the Poolanass Waterfall area with options beyond into a network of forest paths (e.g. Derrybawn Woodland Trail). The most notable trails take the steep 600–step boarded path (using railway sleepers), from the Poolanass Waterfall up to vantage platform of The Spinc (from the Irish “An Spinc”; meaning “pointed hill”), which overlooks the upper lake and the Glendalough valley below
The lower lake at Glendalough
The most noted Spinc trail is the White Route which follows a further scenic boarded path westwards along the cliffs of the upper lake to the Glenealo Valley (home to herds of red deer), and down on stone paths to the Miner’s Village, and back along the Miner’s Road on the north shore of the upper lake, to finish at the upper lake car-park
The entire White Route loop is on paths (either stone/sand paths, or boarded railway sleepers), it can be completed in running shoes and does not require climbing footwear; the entire 9 kilometre loop of the White Route, starting and ending at the upper lake car-park, takes three hours.