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All You Need to Know: Visit Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains

Posted on Apr 22, 2019 by Dawn Rainbolt

The ancient magical monastic site of Glendalough is a special place in the Wicklow Mountains…

On an island filled with history, Glendalough is one of Ireland’s most beloved ancient sites. It has long been one of Ireland’s most important religious sites, as well as a place of pilgrimage for many. Set amidst the Wicklow Mountains, Glendalough’s Monastic City is mystical and fascinating, and its picture-perfect surroundings are every photographer’s dream. Glendalough (pronounced “glen-da-lock”) is said to be founded by St Kevin, a 6th century monk and hermit who settled in these mountains chosen for their remoteness, beauty and serenity.

Who is St Kevin of Glendalough?

St Kevin was a hermit and Christian mystic and ascetic. He founded Glendalough the monastery, but he also wrote poetry and prose, including rules for Irish monks in verse. The oldest source for St Kevin is an 11th century text called Latin Lives, written 500 years later, today housed in the amazing Marsh’s Library in Dublin (a library that hasn’t changed in 300 years!). St Kevin was recorded as born in 498 but more reliable Annals of Ulster mark his death as 618 – and there’s no way he lived to 120 in a remote, isolated cave in the early Middle Ages. Therefore, it’s more likely he was born sometime later in 6th century.

Kevin was born into a time and land alive with conversion from Paganism to Christianity. Though fertility was revered in Celtic cults, St Kevin decided to dedicate his life to one of austerity, celibacy and inward reflection – new to the Celtic cultures. He was recognised for his ability to perform miracles but didn’t like the fame it brought him.

Because he was supposedly blessed by an angel, St Kevin joined monastic life at a young age, eventually retreating to the Upper Lake in Wicklow, where present-day Glendalough is located. At first living in a tree hollow (according to popular legend), he found Glendalough the perfect place for a simple and austere life where he could have silent reflection.

What is Glendalough?

St Kevin's Church Glendalough

The “Monastic City” of Glendalough is an ancient monastery founded by St Kevin, a 6th century hermit, though most of the buildings date back to the 10th and 11th centuries, and were later rebuilt and restored in the late 1800s.

Though St Kevin originally founded a monastery at Cluaunduach, Glendalough had always held an allure so it was here he returned. He founded Glendalough monastery in the Wicklow Mountains where two rivers flow together in the valley, but he later retreated to the remote St Kevin’s Bed to live an austere life on the shores of the Upper Lake – a place of great beauty and serenity but which remains in shadow for six months a year.

Glendalough is an ancient holy place – in fact, it probably was a holy place before Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 4th century. To a modern eye, the Glendalough seems a far cry from a ‘city.’ But to a person living in the early Middle Ages in Ireland – a land dominated by family clans – Glendalough’s “Monastic City” would have been quite impressive. Those who called it home were considered “citizens of heaven,” and it was known as both a healing sanctuary and a learning centre. At Glendalough, monks would have written, copied and illuminated sacred manuscripts, as well as practiced crafting, teaching and subsistence farming.

To this day, Glendalough attracts visitors from all over world all year long – though up until 1860, June 3rd or St Kevin’s Day was the biggest day of the year for pilgrims (much like Reek Sunday at Croagh Patrick).


How to Visit Glendalough’s Monastic City

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

glendalough 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 Cathedral

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

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 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.

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Outside Glendalough’s Monastic City

Wicklow lakes

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.

Reefert Church

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

Glendalough lakes

Glendalough lakes

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.

The Caher

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.


How to Visit: Hiking to Glendalough

Wicklow Glendalough hiking

Many people make Glendalough a mere day trip from Dublin (meaning the ancient site can get busy during the days in the summer). But to fully appreciate this sacred place, the best way to approach it is on foot.

The Wicklow Mountains are meant to be walked. Though no Alps or Dolomites, the Wicklows are a collection of wild, heathery peaks, and the best way to explore them and bask in their beauty is with a pair of hiking boots.

Wicklow is home to two famous paths perpendicular to each other, the Wicklow Way and St Kevin’s Way – with Glendalough the point where they meet.

The Wicklow Way

Wicklow Way

Hiking the Wicklow Way

The Wicklow Way is Ireland’s first way-marked long distance route, created in 1980. It is a 132 km (82 mile)-long trail that starts in south Dublin and meanders through the Wicklow Mountains National Park. One of its most famous landmarks is Glendalough Monastic Site, a place that provides a window into medieval Ireland.

Other notable points of interest include Powerscourt Estate, which has both the tallest cascade in Ireland as well as one of the top-ranked most beautiful gardens on the Emerald Isle ; Lough Tay, often nicknamed the “Guinness Lake” for its shape, colour and connections to the Guinness family; and mountains such as Djouce and Lugnaquilla (the highest in Wicklow). Having Dublin as the starting point is both exciting and convenient!

Learn more about hiking the Wicklow Way here, or check our our guided hiking adventure along the Wicklow Way to Glendalough and more!

St Kevin’s Way

Running perpendicular to the Wicklow Way is St Kevin’s Way, an ancient pilgrimage path. With two starting points (either at Hollywood or Valleymount) that follow modern roads, the two routes converge at Ballinagee Bridge, where the mostly off-road section of St Kevin’s Way starts. The trail ends at Glendalough, where it meets up with the Wicklow Way. Learn more about St Kevin’s Way pilgrimage path here.

By Car

Otherwise, if you choose not to hike there, it’s still possible to visit Glendalough. About a 10 minute drive from the village of Laragh, Glendalough is accessible by car. However, driving to this historical and iconic locale definitely detracts a little from the spiritual aspect of the ancient place. We definitely recommend the hike!

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Learn more about hiking in Wicklow and how to visit the amazing Glendalough monastic site:

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Hiking - The Wicklow Way

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Location: East – Dublin & Wicklow
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About the author

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Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

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