A Guide to the County of Wicklow (Excerpts, 1834)
The Seven Churches
The valley of Glendalough, commonly called the Seven Churches, is situated in the barony of Ballinacor, twenty- two Irish miles from Dublin, eleven from Wicklow, five from Roundwood.
It is a spacious valley, between one and two thousand yards in breadth, and about two miles and a half in extent, having lofty and precipitous mountains hanging over it every side, except on by which it is entered between Derrybawn on the south and Broccagh mountain on the north.
“We shall not be accused of under-valuing the wonder-working powers of nature in her exhaustless combinations: we must nevertheless affirm, that the effects of height, depth, and extent; the magic of light and shade, with all that is imposing in form, or exquisite in coloring – all enchants the sense or transports imagination beyond it: in a word, beauty, and stern sublimity in their most splendid varieties, are ineffective, compared with the moral power of associations belonging to a scene like Glendalough.
You pass up the valley
“You pass up the valley,’ says the spirited describer, C. 0., in introducing whom to the informed reader, we may say, gentlemen, you are acquaintances, we presume, ‘through which a stream winds, for about half a mile, and ascending an eminence in the road, see before you, at a quarter of a mile distance, the site of the Bishopric and Abbey of Glendalough. Nothing can be more grand and interesting than this view – interesting from the association of ideas connected with these ruins-interesting from the wild and sublime character of the scenery around.
The principal ruins stand on a green eminence
The principal ruins stand on a green eminence that slopes down gradually from the breast of a mountain ridge, separating two deep glens, and terminating in a rich verdant swell just above the churches; the vale to the left is that of Glendalough, ‘anglice,’ the glen of the two lakes; that to the right neither so extensive nor so deep, nor surrounded with such precipitous mountains, contains some rich lead mines, which are now in full work; at the foot of the eminence on which the ruins stand, the streams, flowing from the glens to the left and right, unite and form the river, which running down by Lara, falls into the Ovoca.
The ruins of Glendalough are more interesting from their grouplng and position than from any grandeur in their separate parts. Here is a lofty and perfect round tower, and here is one of the old stone-roofed buildings, similar to that on the rock of Cashel, and at St. Doulough’s, near Dublin, which is called Kevin’s kitchen.
There is a full view up the two glens
From the round tower, which is one of the finest I have seen, there is a full view up the two glens, and down the valley towards Lara – you enter the church-yard surrounding those buildings by an old ivied Saxon arch, which is now only kept from falling by the ivy that surrounds it.
I repeat that there is nothing in these buildings peculiarly interesting – it is their extraordinary position, in the midst of the lonely mountains, placed at the entrance of a glen singularly deep and secluded, with its two dark lakes winding far in gloom and solitariness, and over which deep vale hang mountains of the most abrupt forms, in whose every fissure, linn, and gorge, there is a wild and romantic clothing of oak, and birch, and holly.’
A natural excavation in the front of a perpendicular rock
“On the southern side of the vale are the hills of Derrybawn and Lugduff. in the latter of which is St. Kevin’s bed, a natural excavation in the front of a perpendicular rock, thirty feet above the surface of the lake. “Between Lugduff and Derrybawn is a stream of peculiarly clear and cold water, dangerous to bathe in, as the sun has no influence on its surface at any period of the day, from the thickness of the woods overhanging it, and from the narrowness and depth of the dell.
An extraordinary fissure
A little to the east is an extraordinary fissure, where the horizontal strata of mica slate, composing the mountain’s brow, are cleft perpendicularly, and one part of the hill appears to have sunk below the level of the other; this is called the Giant’s Cut. I believe,” says the author from whom we quote, “such an appearance is called in miner’s language a fault, and in every instance where it occurs, the strata fall down more or less, and then at a lower level continue their course, at the same angle with their horizon.
This fault or break in the stratification, looking as if the side of the hill was cut in two, and the continuity destroyed by some sharp instrument, has given rise to a legend, which of course had its place in Mr. Irwin’s catalogue.
Legend of Finn McCool
“That’s Fin M’Cool’s job – the cut above us he made with his own two-handed sword,’ – ‘ No bad specimen, Irwin, of his arm’s strength, or his steel’s temper; but on what occasion pray ?’ – ‘Look, your honour, across the lake, and you can’t but see, on the brow of Comaderry, a big white rock. Well, Sir, upon a day, as Fin M’Cool was resting and cooling himself with an odd whif of a pipe, up there above us, on Derrybawn; who should come, but Brian Borou, King of Munster, and he sits him down just opposite, on the big white rock of Comaderry, and the king cries out to General Fin – “bright morning to you Fin, ma bouchal; sure I’m come from giving the Danes the greatest leatherin’ that ever the villains of the world got, since they came from the East sea – troubling and racking poor Ireland – the villains! – I’ve finished their job at Clontarf,’ or, as the place is spelt in English, the Bull’s field, near Dublin, – ‘ah, it’s there I’ve bullied them – I’ll be bound it’s little more nose-rent they’ll ever again gather in green Erin – and Fin, my tight youth, as I have done a good hand’s turn for Ireland, now’s your time; for I have got the hard word that those thieving Danes, fairly beat as they were by me on Clontarf, have got a magician from out of Norway to come and gother all the giants that were ever in the known world, from Goliah of Gath to Gog and Magog; and he has them all in a camp on the Curragh of Kildare.
Big, factious, and heathenish fellows
“So Fin, my son, you’re the only man in all Ireland, you and your Fions, to go against these big, factious, and heathenish fellows, who have no fear of God, or of his sacred saints, Patrick, or Bridget, or Kevin, before their eyes.
“But Fin, my dear man, though I send you, as it is proper I should being king commander of all Ireland, I’m in dread that I’ll never lay my two eyes on you again – for these monstrous fellows must and will eat you up, even supposing you were twice as game and stout as all the world knows you are’.
“Never you fear me,’ replies Fin ‘I’ve a bit of a sword along my leg that never yet failed, or let me come off in fight or ruction second best.’ Well then, says Brian Borou, King of Munster, ‘I’d give the best cow on all the corkasses of Clare, to see you try that good sword upon a giant’s skull.’ – ‘Troth then, now,’ says Fin, laughing, the good natured fellow! ‘more’s the pity, for the sake of your Majesty’s fun, that I have not the head of one of fellows under my fist, until I’d give you a pattern of what I could do-but, any how, you shan’t want for a holy show’-so he ups with his sword, and taking advantage of the fall of the hill, he hits the mountain such a skelp, that he just gashed it down and left it as you now see.’
Description of Joe Irwin, the guide
“Leaving my horse at a wretched inn near the bridge, I was accosted as I proceeded towards the churches, by a queer-looking old fellow, attired in what once was a military frock coat, that might have been scarlet, but now by some dirty dye had assumed the hue of bog-water; this hung in stripes about his heels, with an old shapeless felt on his head, such as country boys call a cobbeen – his countenance was not less uncouth than his attire – a leering cautious cunning in the wink of his eye, a hooked miserly formed nose, a huge mouth, whose under lip hung loose and pendulous.
Practised confidence, cunning, and meanness
‘The expression of the whole outward man denoted practised confidence, cunning, and meanness. Addressing me with the assurance that denoted his calling “Here I am, Joe Irwin, the best and only guide to the Churches – I’m the boy that can show your honour all, and tell you all; sure it’s I that’s in the book.’ “What book ?’ “‘ Why Doctor Wright’s book, that tells the quality all about the county of Wicklow – sure I’m down there, printed off in black and white and sure it was nobody else but I, that showed the Duchess of R—— all and every thing about the churches – ’twas I, my own self, that handed her, all as one as if I was her Duke, into Kevin’s bed – and there I brought also, the great Sir Walter Scott, who, though he be short of one leg, is an active and proper man sartainly, and very free, and dacent, and generous, as I may say, to a poor body.
Cheeks as red as poppies among the corn
It’ was just at this hill where we now stand, that the Duchess ordered her coachman to draw up, and the darling lady looked out amongst us all, as we stood around, and a posy she was, with her cheeks as red as poppies among the corn; a proper woman too, as to size, as becomes a Duchess – so my dear life, out she drew her book, and then she axed “where is the guide that is down in this book, for no other will my Grease have,” says she; so says I to myself, “now’s your time, Joe Irwin, to step forward, for your the boy for her money;” so out I started from among the poor crathurs who were about the coach, for they all knew, sure enough, that I was the man in the book; so taking off my hat, and not forgetting to make a bow and a scrape of the heel, “I’m the boy you want, my Grease,” says I; ” I know the ins and outs of every thing here, and can tell yees all about St. Kevin, and King McThoul, and Cathleen, and the dog, and the serpent, and the willow apple, and any thing else your Duchess pleases.” “Come along then,” says my Duchess, ” you’re the man for my money; and so let all the other spalpeens sneak off about their business, for not a mother sowl shall be a follower or get a penny of mine, but the man that’s down in the book, and that’s yourself, honest Joe Irwin.’
And now for Saint Kevin
“And now for Saint Kevin, ‘Come,’ says I to Mr.Irwin, my guide, as I sat down to rest myself under the shade of the old archway ‘tell me, as you know all about Glendalough, tell me something about it in old times.’ ‘With all the veins of my heart, Sir. St. Kevin was born not long after St. Patrick; his father was a blood cousin of King McThoul, or O’Tool, for it’s all one a Irish: he was the prettiest child ever born, they say, in Ireland, so beautiful that an angel from heaven came down, kissed him, and christened him himself, and called him Comgan, or Kevin, which signifies in Irish, the pretty boy.
He resolved to be a clargyman (sic)
As he grew up he did not throw any discredit upon his christening, for he learned Latin as fast as another would sup milk and instead of playing commons or pitch-and-toss like other boys, he was always counting his beads; and instead of spending his time a courting, as any other pretty gentleman would, he resolved to be a clargyman, and was full of holy thoughts; so he one day came up here, on a visit to his blood relation, King McThoul, who owned all these mountains and vallies, and was now grown old, and, as a body may say, a little the worse of the wear, in mind as well as body.
Too old to hunt the bucks and boars
“How,” says young Kevin to King McThoul, “does your lordship now spend your time, seeing you are grown too old to hunt the bucks and boars through the glen?” “Why it’s no other way I spend my time, than seeing my geese swimming about the lake: and once on a time I had the greatest sport you ever saw with the gander, for he used to take flight about all those hills, and come back again to his old master; but now he has grown old too, and can fly by no manner of means.” ” What will you give me,” says Kevin, ” if I make him fly again for you?’ “Why I’ll give you,” says the easy, soft-hearted king, “all the ground he flies round, even suppose he flew round the whole glen.”
So blessed St. Kevin took the old gander in his hand, and bid him fly away. And, my dear life, away he went, round he flew the whole valley, up even to the tops of the hills, enclosed the place where the churches now stand, and the fine meadows along the river, and then came back to St. Kevin. “Now,” says the saint, “King McThoul, be as good as your word; give me this place, and I will dedicate it to God.” And the king, if he were sorry, kept his grief to himself, and putting a handsome face on the thing, he made over to the saint, for ever and a day, this valley, and all belonging to it: and so then he began to build these fine churches, and that great tower.’
“We shall conclude our notice of Saint Kevin with another amusing extract, from the lively and characteristic writer who has already stood us so much in good stead.
Legend of Garadh Duff
“Having rested myself sufficiently, I proceeded with my guide through the grave-yard towards the largest of the ruined churches, which is called the cathedral. In passing along, Mr. Irwin directed my attention to an old grave-stone with a round hole in it. “This, Sir, said he, “is the tomb of Garadh Duff, or Black and Yellow, the horse-stealer, whom St. Kevin killed for telling him a lie.
It happened as follows: Black and Yellow one day was coming over the ford, there above, not far from Lough-na-peche, riding a fine black mare, with a foal at her foot and meeting the saint, blessed Kevin asked him, “where, Garadh, did you get that fine beast?” “Oh, I bought her from one of the Byrnes.” “That’s a lie, I know by your face, you thief.” ” Oh, may I never stir out of this spot,” says Garadh, ” if what I say is not true.”” Dare you tell me so: now in order to make a liar, and a thief, and a holy show of you to the world’s end, I’ll fix your foal and mare there in that rock, and the print of their hoofs shall remain forever, and you yourself must die and go to purgatory.” ” Well, if I must die,” said the thief, “please me, holy father, in one thing, bury me in your own churchyard, and leave a hole in my tombstone, so that if any stray horse or cow should pass by, I may just push up my arm and make a snap at their leg, if it was nothing else but to remind me of my humour, and that I may keep my temper during the long day of the grave.”‘
The curiosities of Glendalough
“We recommend the tourist to visit the curiosities of Glendalough in the order of the following description: “The first ruin on the road side, on the north of the vale, is usually called the Ivy Church; it was a small chapel, originally roofed with stone, at one end of which are the remains of a round tower, perfectly detached from the body of the church,although only by a distance of a few feet. The ruins of this church are too imperfect to detain the tourist long.
Ruins of the famous city of Glendalough
“At the distance of about a quarter of a mile are the supposed ruins of the famous city of Glendalough. The origin of this city, and its celebrity as a seat of learning, are attributed to Saint Mochuorog or Mocorog, a Briton. A little paved space, of a quadrangular form, now called the market place, indicates its site; from this a paved causeway led to Hollywood, on the borders of the county of Kildare, through the vale of Glendason.
St. Kevin’s Keeve
This little Appian way, which is yet visible, was composed of blocks of hewn stone, placed edge-wise, and was about twelve feet in breadth. “Not far from the village is a rivulet, called St. Kevin’s Keeve, which is said to possess miraculous powers.
Used as a sacristy
“Near the cathedral stand the ruins of a small building, probably used as a sacristy, or place where the relics and religious vestments were preserved. Visiters are recommended to turn round three times in this closet, as a preventive of future head-aches. In the confused heaps around these buildings, a stone is pointed out, bearing three figures; that in the centre represents some religious person, on whose right hand is a pilgrim, leaning on his staff, and on the left, a sinner extending a purse of money as a commutation for penance.
Several remnants of crosses
“Several remnants of crosses lie scattered up and down, the most remarkable of which is that standing in the cemetery of the cathedral, eleven feet in height, and formed of one solid block of granite. Certain miraculous properties are attributed to this: but it is first necessary that the votary should completely embrace the stone, making his hands meet at the opposite side. The stranger naturally walks up to the front of the cross, and throwing his arms about the stone,”attempts to unite his hands; this he will soon find impracticable, from the great breadth of the flat front; but upon changing his situation, and standing close up to the narrow side of the shaft, the object will be easily accomplished.
Our Lady’s Church
“To the west of the cathedral stood our Lady’s Church: this could not have been a very extensive structure originally, but from the traces still discoverable, it appears to have been built with more architectural taste and knowledge than the others. The doorway must have been admirably executed : in the lintel was wrought a cruciformed ornament, not unlike the flyer of a stamping press. The walls, as high as the doorway, are of hewn stone of a large size, and the remainder of a rag stone, admirably cemented. The eastern window was like that of the cathedral, but it is now in a ruinous condition.- There are several recesses in the wall, in which females, particularly those lately united in the hymeneal bonds, are advised to turn round three times: the advantages of this ceremony will be satisfactorily stated by the guide.
St. Kevin’s Kitchen is now the most perfect of Seven Churches, it is roofed with stone, and has a steeple at one end, a perfect miniature of the round towers. It was lighted by one window, the architrave of which was of freestone, richly sculptured, but want of good feeling and of good taste permitted this enriched moulding to be carried away, and bruised into powder for domestic purposes.
The interior measures twenty-two feet nine inches in length by fifteen in breadth; its height is twenty feet, and the thickness of the walls three feet six inches. At the eastern end, an arch, the chord of which measures five feet three inches, opens a communication with a smaller chapel, ten feet six inches in length by nine feet three inches in width, having also a small eastern window.
The several lower courses of the walls are of a coarse mountain granite; their thickness is three feet, and height about twelve; the door is six feet eight inches high, two feet four inches wide at the top, and four inches wider at the bottom, the stones running the entire thickness of the wall.
“The belfry, which rises from the west end of the church, is a round tower, about fifty feet in height; It is accessible by a small aperture in the ceiling, over which, between the cove and the roof, is a large dark void; it was lighted by a small loop-hole, near the summit.
The roof of the church, which is still perfect, and very curious, is comprised of thin stones or flags, neatly laid, and with a very high pitch; the ridge of the roof is thirty feet, while that of the double building at the east end is only twenty.
“Beneath the dark, frowning cliff of Lugduff, on a little patch of arable land, almost inaccessible, except by water, are the ruins of a church, called Teampull-na-Skellig–i. e. the Temple of the Desert or Rock; it is also called the Priory of the Rock, and St. Kevin’s cell. Here the saint used to seclude himself for the Lent season, and spend his time wholly in penitence and prayer.
Dropped her eggs in St. Kevin’s hand
It was at a window of this cell, while in a supplicating attitude, and with one hand extended, that a blackbird is said to have descended, and dropped her eggs in St. Kevin’s hand. Tradition states, that the saint never altered the position of his hand or arm, until the poor creature had hatched her eggs, which is the reason that all representations of St. Kevin exhibit him with an outstretched hand, and a bird perched upon it.
Pilgrims perform their appointed penance
“Near the Rhefeart church is a Cairn or circular heap of stones, round which pilgrims perform their appointed penance.” Our description of the most eastern church, perhaps the most important, and which is nearest to the entrance of the vale, has been intentionally postponed, because the visitor generally enters at the northern side of the valley, and making a circuit, takes his leave by the south ; this is generally called the abbey, and was dedicated, like the cathedral, to St. Peter and St. Paul.
St. Kevin’s Well & The Abbey
St. Kevin’s well lies near the pathway leading from the Rhefeart church to the abbey. The abbey appears to have been the most masterly specimen of the art of building amongst this extensive collection of architectural remains; it originally consisted of two buildings parallel to each other, and of curious and beautiful workmanship; the eastern window was ornamented with rich sculpture.
Several of the carved stones were removed and used as key-stones for the arches of the bridge at Derrybawn, but some very curious devices are still to be seen; on one is an engraved wolf, with his tail in his mouth, the whole figure within a triangle. The wolf was an old inhabitant of Glendalough, and not totally extirpated until 1710; the triangle may have some reference to the Trinity; which we know was illustrated by the trefoil or shamrock by St. Patrick.
A mere emblem of mortality
On another stone, two ravens are represented pecking at a skull, a mere emblem of mortality. Runic knots may be ‘discovered on several stones: on one is seen a wolf, the tail of which is entwined in the hair of a man’s head; and on others, wolves, or rather wild beasts in general are represented devouring human heads, all simple emblems of mortality. “
These specimens are quite unique in Ireland. ” Why there were exactly seven churches, can be explained only by stating, that the ancient Irish attached some peculiar merit to this number; witness the Seven Churches at Cluanmacnois, Iniscathy, &c., and the seven altars at Holy Cross and Clonfert, &c.
This article appears courtesy of jstor and is an excerpt from a larger piece called ‘A Guide to the County of Wicklow’ that appeared in The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 3, No. 123 (Nov. 8, 1834), pp. 145-148
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