Glendalough’s ancient buildings set amongst the Wicklow Mountains National Park and the lush wooded lowlands attract visitors from all over the world – though most visit the site as a day trip from Dublin. In order to experience the tranquility of the place, it’s better to visit in the off-season when the monastic city is quieter… and to approach the place on foot as it has been done for hundreds of years, instead of by car (or worse, coach!).
The Gateway & The Round Tower
The main entrance to Glendalough’s monastic city is through the Gateway. Made with intricately-cut stones, the gateway is actually built using a technique called drystone (i.e., without mortar). If a stone were removed, the arch would fall down. It was once cut into the impressive wall that encircled the compound.
The most noticeable structure when you arrive is probably the round tower. A structure almost entirely unique to Ireland, round towers still remain somewhat mysterious. They may have once possibly been used as a bell tower, a symbol of the monastery’s power, for the glory of god, or simply used as a place to house the monastic bell and other treasures. One purpose that is certain is that round towers were used as hiding places (both for treasures as well as the monks themselves!) in the event of an attack, hence why door is high up from the ground.
Entrance was gained by a wooden ladder that could be pulled away. Glendalough’s rounder tower is 30m high (7 storeys) with walls 1 m thick, and is largely the original structure, though the cap had to be replaced in the 19th century after being struck by lightening. Many agree that this is one of best in Ireland.
The largest of Glendalough’s seven churches, the Cathedral is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. The oldest part of the cathedral dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries, probably built on the site of an older structure, perhaps even using some of that structure’s materials. Like much of the monastic city, it was partially restored in 19th century to its original glory. During the heyday of Glendalough, the cathedral was the centre of the monastic city, where the monks would gather for long hours of prayer.
St Kevin’s High Cross & Cemetery
Glendalough high cross
Next to the cathedral is an old cemetery. Mystical and serene, this place of leaning tombstones with a view of the surrounding mountains is the final resting place for many members of the monastic community. Within the cemetery, there is the ruins of a strange building called the Priest’s House, which housed dead priests, though there is speculation it might have been built over St Kevin’s grave or perhaps housed some of his relics.
In Ireland, there are still over 50 intact high crosses and hundreds of broken cross fragments. The most distinctive feature is of Celtic high crosses is the circle around the cross itself, which possibly symbolises Christ’s victory over death. There are three kinds of Celtic High Crosses in Ireland: plain crosses, such as at Glendalough, ornamental crosses (adorned with abstract decorations), or scriptural crosses (which are sometimes nicknamed “sermons in stone” – these crosses have whole stories carved into them). Instead of marking a grave, these high crosses are used to mark sacred boundaries associated with monasteries and churches.
St Kevin’s Church
St Kevin’s Church
This amazing building has its own small round tower built atop the church. Topped with a stone roof (like St Columb’s House in Kells), St Kevin’s Church was erected in the 10th century, with the extensions built 100-200 years later. The unique corbelled stone roof was also built using a dry stone roofing technique we see in ancient sites like Newgrange and Carrowkeel (predating Glendalough by thousands of years) as well as sites that were contemporaries to Glendalough, like the Gallarus Oratory in Dingle.
St Kieran’s Church
Little more than foundations remain of St Kieran’s Church. St Kieran himself was a contemporary and friend of St Kevin. Very little is known about this church – it was covered by a mound of dirt for many centuries, and only uncovered in the 1870s.
St Mary’s Church
Possibly part of a different enclosure for women, the foundations of St Mary’s Church date to roughly the 10th century. Women played a major (possibly equal) role in pre-Christian Ireland, and as such, in early Christianity women still held a similar role, with many places named after Mary who was much revered, but this equality was gradually reduced as the patriarchal society augmented in power.
Outside Glendalough’s Monastic City
The buildings of the Monastic City are clustered below the Lower Lake, surrounded by hills and forests. Follow the paths up towards the Upper Lake through the woods for lovely views and other ruins.
This wee stone church is one of the earliest in the area. Reefert Church was built on the Upper Lake in the 10th and 11th centuries on the site of an earlier wood or mud/wattle church built during St Kevin’s time. It is a mysterious and sombre place especially during winter when no sun shines to this part of the lake’s southern shore and few people visit the church. In the spring, the lake shore comes alive with verdant leaves and lovely flowers. Reefert Church, which probably originally had a thatched roof, was reconstructed in 1870s. It is often said to be a burial place for chieftains and ‘princes’ – maybe St Kevin too?
St Kevin’s Cell
Found on a narrow ledge overlooking the lake, today St Kevin’s Cell is little more than a few stones in the trees though it used to be a beehive hut. St Kevin’s Cell was built to be a place of solitude, silence and inward reflection – in many ways like Skellig Michael. This place would have been where St Kevin received guests and gave spiritual advice as well as where he lived his very austere and simple life.
Temple na Skellig
The westernmost church in the Glendalough area is the 11th to 12th century Temple-na-Skellig, built on a small shelf on to the southern shores of the Upper Lake. Much of it was rebuilt in the late 1800s after nature had taken hold of the ancient stones. Hard to access, but you can view it from the northern shore of the lake.
St Kevin’s Bed
The final destination for most pilgrimages, St Kevin’s Bed is supposedly the place where the inspiration for the Monastic City was born. St Kevin’s Bed is actually a small, natural cave cut into the mountain. It is where legend says St Kevin retreated into order to meditate and pray. Many pilgrims want to climb up to the cave, but this is not recommended.
Glendalough’s Upper Lake & Lower Lake
There are two lakes in Glendalough, conveniently called the Upper Lake and the Lower Lake (the Lower Lake being closer to the monastic city, while the Upper Lake is closer to St Kevin’s Cell and Bed). Long ago, they were one and the same lake until sediment buildup separated the two.
At Glendalough, there are also the remains of an old stone fort, called a caher. The caher is probably an early medieval homestead. Before there were cities in Ireland (brought by the Vikings), most of the local peoples lived in family group or clans, building these round forts for protection. In fact, there are many such forts all over Ireland.
In front of the Caher was Pilgrim’s Field, a place used as makeshift pilgrims shelters, complete with stone cairns and crosses that functioned as stations of the cross.