A deep glaciated valley in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, GLENDALOUGH (“valley of the two lakes”) provides a delightfully atmospheric location for some of the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland. Despite the coach parties, enough of the valley’s tranquillity remains for you to understand what drew monks and pilgrims here in the first place. The monastery was established in the sixth century by St Kevin (Caoimhín), who retreated to Glendalough to pray in solitude. His piety attracted many followers to the site, especially after his death in 618, and the monastic community here came to rival Clonmacnois for its learning. It was raided by the Vikings at least four times between the eighth and eleventh centuries, then by the English in the fourteenth, and was finally dissolved during the Reformation. Pilgrimages continued, however, as the pope declared that seven visits to Glendalough would earn the same indulgence as one to Rome, but the pilgrims’ abstemious devotions on St Kevin’s Day (June 3) were often followed by drink and debauchery, and in 1862 a local priest banned the gatherings.
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The Lower Lake sites
The largest structure within the monastic site is the roofless but impressive cathedral, begun in the early ninth century. Among the tombs outside stands St Kevin’s Cross, one of the best remaining relics from the period, consisting of a granite monolith decorated with an eighth-century carving of a Celtic cross over a wheel; unusually, the quadrants of the cross have not been cut through, which suggests that it was left unfinished. Above the doorway of the nearby twelfth-century Priests’ House, which may have been the site of Kevin’s tomb-shrine, are faint carvings of figures believed to depict the saint and two (later) abbots. Downhill from here stands the two-storey, eleventh-century St Kevin’s Church, whose steeply pitched roof and bell turret so resemble a chimney that the building is also known as “St Kevin’s Kitchen”, although it was almost certainly an oratory. Glendalough’s Round Tower rises to over thirty metres, its conical roof having been restored in 1876. Such tapering stone towers are found only in Ireland and probably had multiple functions, as belfries, watchtowers, treasuries and places of refuge from danger – the entrance is usually well above ground level, accessible by a ladder that could be removed if necessary. To the south of St Kevin’s Church, a footbridge crosses the river to the Deerstone, so called after a legend that claims that a tame doe squirted milk into the hollowed-out stone to feed the twin orphaned babies of one of Kevin’s followers.
The Upper Lake sites
You can drive to the Upper Lake car park along the north side of the valley, but it’s far preferable to walk from the Deerstone along the signposted Green Road (part of the Wicklow Way), a scenic track that skirts the south side of the Lower Lake. After twenty minutes or so, this will bring you to the Upper Lake and the tiny, ruined, late tenth-century Reefert Church, whose small cemetery is thought to contain the graves of local chieftains (its name means “royal burial ground” in Irish). From here a path runs up to St Kevin’s Cell, a typically Celtic, corbel-roofed, “beehive” hut on a promontory overlooking the lake. Further up the cliff, St Kevin’s Bed is a small cave into which the saint reputedly moved to avoid the allures of an admirer called Caitlín; he’s supposed to have offered the final resistance to her advances by chucking the poor woman into the lake.