Glendalough and St. Kevin (published in 1974)
To speak with authority about Glendalough one should be an archaeologist, an architectural historian, an ecclesiastical historian and a scholar in both Old Irish and Medieval Latin.
I am none of these things, and my only justification for talking about it is that I adore the place. I was under the happy impression that I knew something about it until I came to look a little closer both at the records and at the monuments themselves when I discovered two things. The first was that I knew next to nothing about Glendalough-which would not have mattered very much but for the second, which was that no one else knew very much either.
A whole series of distinguished scholars have written about Glendalough John O’Donovan, George Petrie, William Wilde, Harold Leask, to name only a few but the more one studies what they wrote the clearer it becomes how scarce is real knowledge. This makes writing about it both more complicated and more interesting.
But first a few words about geography for anyone so unfortunate as to be unacquainted with the area. Glendalough means, of course, the valley of the two lakes, the larger Upper Lake and the smaller Lower Lake, and the valley in which they lie runs westwards into the heart of the Wicklow massif.
Starting in a waterfall at the western end of the Upper Lake and running through both is the Gleneala stream. To the east of the Lower Lake it joins the Glendasan which has come down from Lough Nahanagan up near the Wicklow Gap and runs on down the valley to join the Avonmore, and so to Avoca and the sea at Arklow.
In the point of land where the Gleneala and the Glendasan join is the main group of buildings known as the Monastic City. The road west from Laragh crosses the Glendasan at this point and runs past the Lower Lake up to the modern carpark. From there it continues as a track along the north side of the Upper Lake by one of the most beautiful walks in Ireland to the remains of a nineteenth century mining settlement at the head of the valley.
On the north of the lakes is the ridge of Camaderry which divides Glendalough from Glendasan and runs up to Turlough Hill where the E.S.B. are now spending £12 million in the heart of the mountain. South of the lakes is Lugduff rising in spectacular crags from the shore of the Upper Lake fine country for skilled rock climbers but to be treated with respect by anyone else.
Behind is a maze of valleys now thickly planted with conifers, and coming down from them, tumbling through the oakwoods on the lower slopes, is the delightful Poulanass brook which empties into the southeast corner of the Upper Lake. From about this point the Green Road, for walking not driving, runs down past the south side of the Lower Lake and the Monastic City and on to Derrybawn House on the road to Rathdrum.
So much for geography, a simple matter compared to history. From pre-Christian times there are only two survivals, known as Kevin’s Bed and a stone circle in the middle east of the Upper Lake which may or may not be the an early ring fort.
History really starts with St. Kevin. born, we are told, in 498, but the person who tells us is Archbishop Ussher, the same who affixed the date of the Creation in precisely 4004 B.C. More certain is that Kevin died in about 618, a date recorded with some variations in the Annals. He is said to have been 120 years old, from which Ussher reckoned his birth as 498, but this age probably means no more than that he was well stricken in years.
There are various spellings of Kevin’s name in Irish. A common one is Coemgen, and a notorious writer at the end of the eighteenth century, Dr. Edward Ledwich, argued that Kevin was quite a different person and that Coemgen was invented by the Church in the thirteenth century to fire the imagination of the superstitious and savage inhabitants. The name, he asserted, had been taken from a neighbouring mountain but unfortunately for his argument it did not exist either.
There are three Lives of St. Kevin extant in Irish and three variations of a single Life in Latin. The latter is considered the earliest and most reliable, and the fullest version of it is in the Codex Kilkenniensis, the book of Lives of Irish Saints in Marsh’s Library. Another, considerably shorter, is in the Royal Library in Brussels, in the collection known as the Codex Salmanticensis from it having come from the Irish College at Salamanca; it is the one used by the Bollandists, the Belgian Jesuits who compiled the great series of Lives of the Saints in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The third version of the Latin Life, almost identical with the second, is in the Rawlinson collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The full text from the Codex Kilkenniensis, with a couple of interpolations from the Codex Salmanticensis, was published in 1910 in Charles Plummer’s collection of Latin Lives of Irish Saints. It appears to have been written by someone at Glendalough, and his reference to the fierce, warlike and seafaring inhabitants of Dublin in his day suggest that it dates from the tenth or eleventh century, the period when many of the Lives of Irish saints were written down.
The best summary of it, apart from one startling error of translation which I shall mention later, was written by John O’Donovan when in Wicklow on the Ordnance Survey in 1839. The three Irish Lives are in the collection of Irish Lives of the Saints published by Plummer in 1922. The first volume of this gives the Irish texts, the second their English translation, a concession to the weaker brethern that he evidently thought superfluous in the case of Latin. The first two Irish Lives are from manuscripts in Brussels written in 1629 by Michael O’Clery, the first of the Four Masters.
The first Life, in prose, was copied by him from a book in the possession in of a priest named Roibned Purcell Leighlin; the second, in verse, from two ancient books at Castlekevin near Roundwood. These Lives probably originated in the stories told to the pilgrims over the years. The first Life is commonly known as the Prose Life, the second as the Metrical Life. The former is much the clearer but it breaks off before the end. The Metrical Life states that it was composed by the monk Solan, or Solomon, a disciple of St. Kevin, but Plummer holds that the language rules out any possibility of his being a direct disciple. The content is very similar to the Prose Life but more fanciful, less coherent and more concerned with the benefits of pilgrimage to and burial at Glendalough.
The third Irish Life, which is in Trinity College Library, also states that it is written by Solan but this is not accepted as correct. The present manuscript was transcribed in Dublin in 1725 by Hugh O’Daly and is similar to the others but rather woollier. It was, incidentally, the only Irish Life known to O’Donovan when he wrote his summary of the Latin Life. There seems to be no direct connection between the Irish and Latin Lives, but if you omit some of the more extravagant miracles they are fairly consistent, though open to varying interpretations.
Kevin, was born, we are told, among the Dal Messe Corb who lived in the eastern parts of Leinster near the sea and here we meet our first problem. The most recent study of this subject is by Liam Price in a collection of essays presented to Professor Eoin McNeill in 1940. Price was an expert on Wicklow placenames on which he wrote a valuable series of books. He was a member of this society and a paper written by him on the placenames of south Co. Dublin is in Vol. II No. 4 of the Record. He read another in 1941 on St. Kevin’s Road which I have failed to trace but which was probably on the same lines as the above essay. He also wrote an introduction to a 1939 guide to Glendalough by P. J. Noonan which I find particularly interesting as the main text follows what was then the orthodox version of Glendalough history while Price’s introduction gives his reasons for disagreeing with it.
His arguments were so persuasive that his views are now the orthodox ones but I am going to argue that the weight of evidence is in fact in favour of the earlier version. Noonan’s guide is unfortunately out of print. The one now on sale at Glendalough is by another late member of this society, Canon Myles Ronan. Out of respect for Canon Ronan’s memory the less said about it the better.
The best guide to Glendalough is certainly the Official Guide by Harold Leask. Its historical section follows Price and the descriptions and drawings of buildings are taken almost wholly from a report by Dr. Robert Cochrane in 1912. I disagree with many of its comments but it gives the best account there is, and its diagrams are excellent.
The Dal Messe Corb were the ruling sept of Leinster until the end of the fifth century when they were defeated in battle and in consequence lost control of their territory in northwest Wicklow. They finally concentrated in southeast Wicklow and this is where they were when the Latin Life was written five or six centuries later.
Liam Price argues that their location `in the eastern parts of Leinster near the sea’ refers to the writer’s time and that when Kevin was born they were still to the northwest of the mountains. From this he develops what we may call the western version of Kevin’s early life as opposed to the eastern version which took the Latin Life to mean what it said and put Kevin’s birthplace somewhere near the east coast.
All the Lives agree in giving Kevin an impressive regal lineage with which we need not concern ourselves. After sundry miracles that attended his birth and early childhood he was placed as a boy in the charge of three holy elders (or senior saints named Eogoin, Lochan and Enna. No more information is given about them nor about the locality of their establishment.
There are sundry saints of each of these names in various forms but of most of them little is known. One, however, was Eogoin of Ardstraw, near Strabane, whose Latin Life is in the Codex Salmanticensis and was published by the Bollandists. Not only was he a Leinsterman but Kevin’s uncle, and before going north he founded a monastery in Cualann over which he presided for fifteen years. Among his pupils, we are told, was his nephew Kevin who learnt the psalms there and later acted as cellerar.
Cualann is roughly the area south from Dublin to Wicklow between the mountains and the sea. The site is described simply as cella monachorum’, the cell or church of the monks, and a footnote gives the Irish for this as kill manach or killnamanach, a name which it explains was once common for many Irish monasteries. Price identifies it as Kilnamanagh near Tallaght, an opinion commonly accepted but for which I can see no justification.
The former view, of O’Donovan for instance and of Canon O’Hanlon who compiled the many-volumed Lives of the Irish Saints at the end of the last century, was that the words meant no more than a cell where the monks lived. O’Hanlon quotes a local tradition that it was at Lugalla on the shores of Lough Tay but there is no other evidence for this. In his Life of St. Eogoin he puts it at Kilnamanagh in Glenealy but this is refuted by Price on the grounds that this name is really Kyle namanagh, the monks’ wood, dating, he argues, from a medieval foundation since there is no tradition of an early monastery.
Wherever this school was it is from his time there that the best known incident in Kevin’s life is recorded. The name Kevin means `fair-begotten’, and his good looks evidently turned the head of a young lady of outstanding beauty who so pestered him with her attentions that he finally fled into the forest, stripped off all his clothes and rolled naked in a bed of nettles. When she pursued him even there he quickly dressed again, plucked a bunch of the nettles and proceeded to strike her with them about the face and hands and feet. This impressed on her that young saints were not for the likes of her, and she fell on her knees, begged forgiveness and swore to become a nun. Kevin’s fellow-students appeared at this point and were not a little surprised at what they saw.
The Shell Guide to Ireland describes this as a silly story and a modem concoction. You may agree that it is silly but if it is a concoction it is certainly not a modern one. It comes from the Latin Life the only evidence for it and I would agree with John O’Donovan who saw no reason to disbelieve it. It seems a pretty transparent piece of clerical propaganda in favour of celibacy but that need not mean it is a fabrication. But if it occurred it was certainly not at Glendalough.
The name Kathleen for the damsel is a later tradition. The silly story referred to may however be the better known version that Kathleen pursued Kevin to his bed in Glendalough a most unpropitious site for seduction where she found him asleep, and when he awoke and saw her he pushed her off the rock into the lake below where she drowned.
There is no evidence at all for this tale, an invention of local storytellers who could not resist the association of the virtuous Kevin in his spartan bed and the beauteous maiden in love with him. It is not made any truer by Tom Moore having written one of his less-inspired songs about it, for which Daniel Maclise produced an even sillier engraving of Kevin asleep in the cave with the simpering miss sitting gazing at him which merely proves that Maclise had never been to Kevin’s Bed.
Having successfully resisted the temptations of the flesh Kevin devoted himself to his studies. In course of time he resolved to adopt the life of a hermit, a common practice in the early Celtic Church, introduced from Gaul and ultimately from the anchorites of the Egyptian desert.
He was impatient to get on with it but his three masters seem to have been reluctant to let him go. Then one day he was in the forest with an older monk, also called Kevin, who told him to fetch some fire and when he protested that he had nothing in which to fetch it answered irritably that he could fetch it in his bosom which Kevin proceeded to do, without injury to his person or his clothing. He begged the elder to say nothing about this miracle but to no avail, and the odour of sanctity that subsequently encompassed him proved so irksome that he slipped away from the monastery, evidently without permission, and took to the wilds.
After wandering through deserted places in search of a remote retreat he finally found one in Glendalough where he established himself by the Upper Lake in the hollow of a tree. There he remained for many days living on wild fruits and a little water until he was discovered by local herdsmen, or more correctly by one of their cattle. They realised that something unusual was going on when this cow’s milk yield showed a phenomenal increase, and when they followed her into the forest they found that she had been licking the feet of what must have been a rather weird figure perched in a tree.
The Irish Prose Life names the owner of the cows as Dimma, described sometimes as a stranger from Meath, sometimes as chief of the district. Kevin by this time was in pretty poor shape but he protested when they insisted on carrying him out on a litter. so the tree lay down to make way for which Kevin, despite his resentment at the journey, had the grace to give the forest his blessing.
When news of the discovery of Kevin in his tree reached his three masters they came and fetched him back still protesting to their monastery. But it was not long before they let him go again, this time to visit a certain Bishop Lugidus who ordained him priest and sent him off with some monks to found a new church. This he did at an unidentified place called Cluainduach, but for some reason they soon decided to abandon it and move on to Glendalough. This is where its history really begins.
None of the Lives identifies the route followed by Kevin on any of his journeys. The eastern version, that he came from the coast, possibly in the Wicklow area, presents no difficulties, but Liam Price queries it. Mainly from the evidence of the distribution of ring forts he argues that the area east of the mountains between Delgany and Arklow was virtually unoccupied at this date apart from a few settlements along the coast which communicated with the more populated west Wicklow and the central plain across the two passes now known as Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap.
He suggests that Kevin, born in west Wicklow and schooled near Tallaght, journeyed down the west side of the mountains to the Hollywood area and, finding this still too populated, withdrew further from civilisation by crossing the Wicklow Gap to the sparsely inhabited eastern side. This would account for Kevin’s Road across the mountain and the associations with him around Hollywood.
I find this quite unconvincing. The evidence about population is by no means conclusive, especially as to its date, and in any case a thinly peopled area would have been more not less likely as the site of the monastery of the three saintly elders. The Hollywood sites and Kevin’s Road are readily explained by the later pilgrim route to Glendalough.
Price’s argument is not strengthened by his suggestion that the name Hollywood derives from the holy wood blessed by Kevin when the trees lay down to make way for his litter, which is definitely related about Glendalough. The Metrical Life speaks of Kevin having ‘crossed the summits guided by an angel’, which Prices takes to refer to the Wicklow Gap but which, if it means anything, could equally apply to an approach to Glendalough from any direction except straight up the valley.
Arrived at Glendalough Kevin, according to the Latin Life, founded a great monastery in the lower part of the valley where two clear rivers flow together. Once it was properly established he committed it to the care of acceptable men and retired himself to resume his hermit’s life in the upper valley about a mile away.
There he erected a little dwelling on a narrow place between the mountain and the lake where there were dense woods and clear rivulets. This is so exact a description of the narrow ledge on the south shore of the Upper Lake where the ruins of Teampull na Skellig now stand that it is hard to see why the Official Guide tries to identify it with the beehive hut known as Kevin’s Cell whose foundations may be seen above the southeast corner of the lake.
Equally the site where two clear rivers flow together can only be the Monastic City. Canon O’Hanlon suggests that it refers to the area of Reefert where the Poulanass brook enters the Upper Lake, but no one could describe this as two clear rivers flowing together.
But again Liam Price doubts whether the Latin Life means what it says. The oldest building of which any sign remains at Glendalough is Kevin’s Cell, and he thinks there may have been more such huts a little higher up the hill. This whole area round the southeast corner of the Upper Lake is known as Diseart Kevin, and he argues, surprisingly, that that term must refer to the main monastery not to the hermitage to which Kevin withdrew.
He suggests that the present Monastic City was only occupied when the numbers outgrew the original restricted area and its foundation by Kevin is an interpolation in the Life at one its recopyings inspired by the abbot concerned in order to give authority to the move.
This interpretation has been commonly adopted, but again I find it quite unconvincing. The word ‘diseart’ indicates not a monastery but the desert place of a hermitage and the Latin Life makes it clear that it is used in this sense here. The early remains in this area and its peculiar sanctity in later times for pilgrimage and burial are obviously related to the hermitage. Price set some store by the fact that nothing as old as the beehive hut survives in the lower valley, but as the area has never been adequately excavated this must remain an open question.
Kevin did not, as is sometimes implied, arrive at Glendalough a solitary wanderer in search of seclusion. He came with monks who had been with him at Cluainduach. The most natural reading of the Latin Life is that they intended to found a monastery there but for unstated reasons moved to Glendalough instead, to the site at the junction of the rivers which Kevin may well have noted on his previous visit.
Its situation, remote but just off the route across the mountains, well watered with good land nearby, was well suited for a monastery. The original buildings in this well wooded area would have been wattle huts and the establishment of the community already organised from Cluainduach would have been a quick and simple matter. Once the monastery was established Kevin placed it in the care of some of his companions and retired himself to resume his hermit’s life by the Upper Lake.
This was accepted practice, as Dr. Reeves points out in his notes on Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba. Any member desiring a more ascetic life would withdraw to a solitary place in the neighbourhood without ceasing to belong to the community. This is just what Kevin did.
Diseart was the name given to the place to which such solitaries withdrew, and if there were many of them a Superior of the Hermitage might be appointed to take charge. This may well be what happened at Diseart Kevin and would explain the beehive huts as well perhaps as the church of Reefert. The Latin Life records that Kevin’s monks later built a famous church at the site of his hermitage, clearly quite distinct from the main monastery. A few lines further on it tells how, after some time, many holy men came and led Kevin from the desert places and made him live with his monks in the aforesaid cell.
There seems to be some confusion in the writing here, the first reference pointing to Teampull na Skellig, the second to Reefert. There was still a monastery there in the writer’s time, but this might refer to either place. Teampull na Skellig now comprises the reconstructed remains of a small church whose earliest part is dated, without much confidence, to the late seventh century, half a century or more after Kevin’s death. It could be the famous cell referred to. From its west doorway a sunken pathway leads to a stone platform on which wattle huts seem to have stood and this may well be where Kevin and his monks actually lived.
Reefert on the other hand could be the place to which Kevin was later persuaded to move, though there are better reasons for thinking it was Our Lady’s church down the valley. The church, set among hazel trees just above the south bank of the Poulanass, is perhaps the most charming in Glendalough. It probably dates from some time after Kevin and could have been the centre of the settlement of those seeking a more ascetic life.
A smaller church whose foundations exist on the north of the brook was doubtless part of the same settlement. The name Reefert has been interpreted as the royal cemetery, said to derive from it being the burial place of the O’Tooles. If true this cannot date from earlier than the late twelfth century when the O’Tooles were driven from Kildare into Wicklow.
Even less credence can be placed, for reasons that I will explain in a moment, on John O’Donovan’s suggestion that this was Kevin’s own burial place and that the royal title came from his promise to the local chiefly family that they too would be buried there. It was clearly a popular place of burial and there are numerous early graveslabs around the church, but most inscriptions have long since worn off. This is often the case with the flakey mica-schist at Glendalough by contrast with the sandstone at sites like Clonmacnoise.
Kevin spent four or seven years as a hermit on the Upper Lake. The wild beasts, we are told, came to him and drank water from his hands, one of the many associations of animals with Kevin. Some of these may have been wished onto him from the old pagan god of the beasts, but he does seem to have something of the touch of St. Francis.
We need not accept literally that Kevin lived in this period on nettles and sorrel and without shelter or fire, but he must have had few comforts. He lived some of the time in his little hut at Teampull na Skellig, some in an oratory of twigs that he built on the north shore and some in the cave known as Kevin’s Bed. This cave is hollowed out of the face of the cliff a little east of Teampull na Skellig.
The Official Guide describes it as probably a bronze age burial chamber but I suspect that it may have been an opening for an intended bronze age mine. It is officially described as accessible only by boat, but anyone of agility and persistence can reach it by scrambling and wading round the lake shore from the west or climbing round the cliffs from the east. It is easier if, like Kevin, you have an angel to guide you; if not the journey is entirely at your own risk.
You approach the Bed up some rough steps in the rock and it is easy to climb past it without realising. To get inside you slip over the edge of the rock onto the narrow ledge in front and may easily suffer the supposed fate of the lovesick Kathleen and slither on into the black water thirty feet below – there is nothing to stop you and nothing to hold onto. The cave runs back a little over 6 ft. into the rock and is from 2 to 4 ft. wide and up to 2 ft. 9 ins. high.
Kevin may not have spent as much time in this uncomfortable retreat as is sometimes suggested, but once, when there for Lent, he was visited by an angel who told him to move as the rock above was about to fall. In fact inside the cave was probably safer than outside in case of a rockfall, but anyway Kevin had a pretty short way with angels and told this one to go about his business and not interfere with his lenten penance. The angel did as he was told, and on Easter Eve returned with the same warning. With Lent over Kevin agreed to go, and no sooner had the angel taken him dryshod across the lake than the rock came tumbling down. It was after this incident that the angel led Kevin, under protest, to the spot where his resurrection was to take place and bade him build a church there. When Kevin pointed out that the ground was too rocky for burials the angel promptly loosened all the stones.
O’Donovan identified this site as Reefert on the grounds that the Latin Life puts it at the eastern end of the greater lake. It is therefore a little disconcerting to find that the words used are `in oriente minoris stagni’, which can only mean to the east of the lesser, that is the lower lake.
Reference to the Codex Kilkenniensis shows that this apparent blunder in translation is in fact a misreading of the manuscript shorthand. The first church east of the Lower Lake is Our Lady’s which is where Petrie, on the basis of local tradition, thought that Kevin was buried. There are good reasons of style for thinking it the oldest church in Glendalough.
Liam Price treats this whole interview with the angel as an interpolation to lend authority to the later move, but again I can see no justification for this. This move is the last clear event in the Lives until Kevin’s death which is described in the Latin Life but with no date. It is from the Annals of Ulster that we get the year as 618. There are various disconnected tales about his later life but they tell us little about Glendalough.
In the centuries after Kevin we catch only occasional glimpses of Glendalough, generally of trouble. It seems to have been a fairly typical early Irish monastery, growing up round the reputation of its saintly founder, ruled by its abbot in semi-independence but in close relationship with local rulers. It was a centre of religion and learning from Kevin’s time down to the Norman invasion but the only surviving manuscripts thought to have been written there are the Drummond Missal in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York and two pages from a Latin textbook in the British Museum.
The Annals note the deaths of numerous abbots and others as well as disasters of fire and pillage, but little more. It is to the latter that the lack of written records must be attributed. The stone buildings had fittings and roofs of timber and thatch and there must also have been numerous combustible structures in which the monks and students lived. When we read of Glendalough burnt these are what are referred to, these and their contents including manuscripts.
Dr. Lucas has recently demonstrated that the burning and plundering of churches was no prerogative of pagan strangers from overseas but a common practice in Ireland from the seventh century right through to the sixteenth. He notes 900 instances between 615 and 1546 and attributes them in general to the custom of using church precincts as sanctuary not only for persons but also for goods and cattle.’
The first recorded destruction of Glendalough by fire was in 770, a quarter century before the appearance of the Vikings at Lambay. Over the next four centuries there are 19 recorded instances of burning, plundering or destruction. Danes or Ostmen are blamed for only nine of them, Irish for one, accidental fire for three and the other six are unspecified.
A twentieth incident was in 1176, just after the Norman invasion, when Glendalough was plundered by English adventurers. The next year nature took a hand with an astonishing flood through the city and swept away the bridge and some mills.
Shortly before these last disasters Glendalough had its most celebrated figure after St. Kevin. This was St. Laurence O’Toole. He was born in 1123 of a ruling family on the west of the mountains and as a boy was handed over by his father as a hostage to Dermot McMurrough at Ferns. This was a common practice by which a greater king secured the loyalty of a lesser one, but seems Dermot to have treated the boy unusually harshly and, after forcible protests from his father, agreed to hand him over to the custody of the Bishop of Glendalough.
There Laurence became attracted to the religious life and when his father came to discuss his future with the bishop he declared that he would enter the Church. He is said to have been chosen abbot at 27, but as the date is given as 1153 he may have been a little older. His regime was marked by great virtue and prudence and a strict enforcement of the rules. In its early months there was a severe famine during which Laurence spent both the monastery’s treasure and his own patrimony in feeding the poor and building churches.
There was a good deal of building in the twelfth century, part of the reform movement, and much of it has been attributed to Laurence, but it should be remembered that he was abbot for only nine years until 1162 when he became Archbishop of Dublin.
The Celtic Church does not seem to have had territorially defined dioceses but the Dublin area was evidently regarded by the native Irish as under Glendalough. Its Ostmen inhabitants did not care for this and once they had become Christian they had their own bishop consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps during the reign of the Danish Canute. In 1152 at the Synod of Kells Dublin was created an archbishopric.
The Papal Legate wanted to merge Glendalough with it but in the face of Irish opposition he allowed the two to remain separate for the time being. Laurence seems to have been acceptable to both parties and his appointment was one step towards settling the dispute. A second followed in 1214 on the death of William Piro, when Glendalough was annexed to Dublin.
The offices of bishop and abbot were quite distinct, though held by the same man, and this refers to the bishopric only. As part of the twelfth century reforms the monastery, like many others, seems to have passed into the hands of the Canons of St. Augustine. With the coming of the Normans the surrounding mountains became a virtually independent enclave of the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles, driven out of Kildare by the invaders. In 1214 the Archbishop of Tuam writing to the Pope described Glendalough as desolate for forty years and a den of robbers and homicides, but the archbishop in question, Felix O’Ruadan, was a prominent advocate of submission to the Normans and it may well be that the robbers and homicides he had in mind were the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles.
By 1398 there was enough of a settlement for its destruction by English forces to be noted in the Annals, and half a century later the diocese was re-established with bishops acceptable to the Irish. This was short-lived, for the last of them made his submission to Dublin in 1497, and in due course whatever was left of the monastery was suppressed by the Defender of the Faith.
Little is heard of Glendalough during the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but pilgrimages doubtless continued. The pattern was celebrated on St. Kevin’s day, June 3rd, and Lecky gives an account of its dispersal by the sherriff as a riotous assembly in 1715. Sir William Wilde, writing in 1873, describes how he had often attended it in his youth when great crowds of country people encamped among the ruins, the drink flowed freely and, as night wore on, the inevitable faction fights broke out.
This had been stopped some thirty years earlier by the parish priest who gathered up the hurleys and poured the whiskey into the river. One feature was the dawn procession up the Glendasan River with sickly children to dip them in Kevin’s Keeve, a pool whose site now seems to have been lost.
The pilgrimage is said to have culminated in visits to Kevin’s Bed regarded as peculiarly effective in ensuring a safe delivery for pregnant women but I cannot vouch for this, neither the fact of the visits nor the consequences for expectant mothers.
The written records of Glendalough are therefore scarce and unsatisfactory but we still have the records in stone. Their extent leaves no doubt that it was a monastic centre of considerable importance but there is so little agreement about their age and purpose that they often do little more than replace ignorance with confusion. They are well illustrated in Dr. Cochrane’s report of 1911 /12, most of which is reproduced in the Official Guide.
The ruins were all vested in the Comissioners of Public Works under the Irish Church Act 1869 and during the 1870’s a good deal of restoration work was done under the supervision of Mr. T. M. Deane, better known as Sir Thomas Deane, the eminent architect. Full details of what was done are unfortunately not available and the best information we have is the Cochrane report.”
I have already mentioned the monuments by the Upper lake – Teampull na Skellig, Kevin’s Cell, Reefert and the foundations nearby. I would like now to take a quick look at the rest.
The main monastery was certainly the area now known as the Monastic City at the confluence of the rivers. The point in doubt is whether it was founded by Kevin himself when he arrived with his monks, by him later at the angel’s behest or by one of his successors as argued by Liam Price.
The principal entrance in in the northeast corner opposite the bridge over the Glendasan. Before this bridge was built, about 100 years ago, there was a ford here which can be seen in an engraving by Jonathan Fisher of 1795. From the ford a path, since replaced by steps led directly up under the double-arched gateway. The Gatehouse today differs little from Fisher’s print except that the lower portion of a narrow slit window in the ruined wall above the arch is no longer there. If Fisher was accurate this may indicate the original presence of an upper room, but the idea that the stones projecting from the inside walls were to take its floor is untenable since they are lower than the tops of the arches.
The Gatehouse is a unique survival among Irish monastic buildings; it would be even more unique if it had had a round tower on top of it but there are no grounds for this oft-repeated idea.
The real Round Tower, 100 ft. from ground to apex, stands in the northwest corner of the City. Its cap is a reconstruction by the Public Works in 1876 from the original stones, but so well done that the tower today is one of the finest in the country. Anyone who wants to know about Round Towers must read George Petrie whose essay on the subject won the Royal Irish Academy’s gold medal in 1833. His conclusions that they were built as towers for bells and used also as treasure stores, refuges and watch towers, still stand, though some people would, maybe wrongly, put the emphasis the other way round.
Petrie dated this one to the seventh century but modern opinion puts it rather later, possibly during the lull in the Viking attacks between 835 and 977 – a view commonly treated as proven but in fact nothing of the sort.
The largest building, 140 ft. southeast of the tower, is the Cathedral, possibly what the Annals refer to as the abbey which was repeatedly destroyed. Parts of it are clearly rebuilt, and the chancel is a later addition, probably of the twelfth century, perhaps by Laurence O’Toole. The east window and the chancel arch were rebuilt by the Public Works in the 1870’s from stones found lying about.
The nave, 48 ft. by 30 ft., is the widest of any early Irish church. Its length is 1.6 times its breadth and this relative shortness is a mark of an early date. Reefert and Our Lady’s are much the same, as are St. Kevin’s and Trinity. The west doorway has inclined jambs capped by a heavy lintel stone, another early feature. A relieving arch built into the wall above the lintel may date from one of the rebuildings.
Petrie dated the Cathedral from Kevin’s time or possibly a little later, contemporary with the Round Tower. The Official Guide puts it in the tenth century but does not explain why. One feature is the presence of very pronounced antae, those projections of the north and south walls beyond the east and west walls of the nave which appear on many early Irish buildings. The purpose, or anyway the effect, is to provide bases for the roof timbers. The same purpose is served at Reefert by corbels projecting from the external corners but the weight of the roof there would have been much less.
A curious result in the Cathedral arises from the twelfth century chancel having been built on a slightly different alignment leaving an odd gap between its walls and the antae to which they are not quite parallel.
Southwest of the Cathedral lies the old cemetery, once surrounded by a wall of which parts can still be seen. A plain granite cross, 11 ft. high and known as St. Kevin’s Cross, is set in the centre of the east side.
Within the cemetery area is the small building known, from a number of Catholic priests having been buried there in the eighteenth century, as the Priests’ House. Its original purpose is unknown. Its east wall has an unusual arched recess on the outside, but this is an incorrect reconstruction. The entrance, at the west end of the south wall has above it a curious half portion of a stone with parts of three figures carved on it. There are doubts about this too, but there is no space to go into these mysteries here.
South of the Priests’ House is the building popularly known as Kevin’s Kitchen – from the small round tower on its west gable that is seen as a chimney. It is more respectfully known as St. Kevin’s House or St. Kevin’s Church. Petrie thought it might have been occupied by Kevin as a dwelling and was converted into a church after his death, but modem opinion dates it rather later.
It is the only roofed building among the monuments and is constructed, like Columcille’s House at Kells, with a corbelled stone roof supported on the inside by a stone vault, leaving a small croft between the vault and the roof. Petrie thought that the tower was a later addition but Wilde who, unlike Petrie, got inside was convinced that it was part of the original structure.
Later, probably in the twelfth century, the east wall was opened up to form the present doorway and a chancel and sacristy built on. The chancel was demolished early in the last century but the sacristy remains. Both here and in the Cathedral these additions are of very shoddy construction compared to the original work. St. Kevin’s is now used as a store for various old crosses and stones – and for the sale of postcards.
Close by on the southeast are the remains of the last church inside the city, a small building uncovered by the Board of Works in the 1870’s, known as St. Kieran’s. Like Reefert it has coeval chancel and nave. It may have been erected in honour of Kieran of Clonmacnoise who was a friend of Kevin’s and died young in 548, but as usual that faceless authority `modern opinion’ doubts if it could be so early.
The main grounds seem to be that the use of mortar was not general in Ireland until later, but in my view too much stress has been laid on this very shaky evidence. Mortar, like the principle of the arch, was unknown in preChristian Ireland but Petrie considered that it came in with St. Patrick, whose household according to an eleventh century poem included three stone masons. With the contacts with the post Roman world that followed the introduction of Christianity it is hard to believe that knowledge of mortar did not come too. Leask puts it possibly in the seventh century, more likely in the eighth, but there seems no good reason why it should not have been earlier, possibly in Kevin’s early life in the sixth.
Across the bridge from St. Kieran’s is the famous deerstone. The Prose Life tells how a local chief named Colman who had put away his first wife found his sons by his second being bewitched by her and killed. To save the latest from the same fate he confided him as a small baby to St. Kevin whose superior powers successfully frustrated the lady’s spells. The feeding of a small infant posed a problem in the monastic establishment but this was solved by the miraculous appearance of a white doe who allowed herself to be milked each day into a hollow stone at the entrance to the monastery.
The child duly grew up to be a devoted follower of the saint, the stone is still there for all to see and the bridge beside it is known as the Bridge of the Doe, while the rejected wife has passed into legend as the Hag of Glendalough.
Outside the Monastic City are three more churches, Our Lady’s a little to the west, Trinity a quarter mile to the east and St. Saviour’s about a mile down the valley.
Our Lady’s has an early nave, possibly the earliest in the valley, with a later chancel. Its west doorway of seven massive blocks of dressed granite is one of the finest trabeate doorways in the country and held Sir Walter Scott spellbound in 1825. It has an unusual saltire cross incised on the underside of the lintel.
Petrie thought this church may have been built in Kevin’s time in the sixth century and that he was buried there as local tradition related. It is fashionable to treat Petrie’s datings as too early but I have yet to see any convincing reason to doubt them. If this was the church built by Kevin at the angel’s behest it was here that he told the chief Dimma and his sons to `cut away the thorns and thistles and make a beautiful spot of this place’. Anyone who has negotiated the mud and thorns that now surround it will wish Kevin back. The dedication to Our Lady may indicate that this church was reserved for women, possibly nuns, and it has been suggested that the name arises from an error in translation or transcription.
Trinity Church lies on the south of the road to Laragh and was described by John O’Donovan as the finest specimen of an early Irish stone church that he had ever seen. Its original dimensions are very similar to those of Reefert and it has the same trabeate west doorway, a similar though finer granite arch spanning the full width of the chancel, and the same corbels at the external corners.
At a later date an annex was built onto the west end as a base for a round tower and a doorway was inserted in the south wall of the nave. The tower fell in a storm in 1818 but it appears in eighteenth century prints under a heavy mantle of ivy which gave the church its alternative name of the Ivy Church. The tower stood wholly on the annex and had no connection with the gable of the nave.
A disciple of St. Kevin’s, a British saint named Mochuarog who administered the last sacrament to him, is described in the Latin Life as having had his cell to the east of the city of St. Kevin. This has been taken to refer to the site of this church, but the present building is dated in the Official Guide to the ninth or tenth century.
Finally a mile down the Green Road on the south bank of the river is the Priory of St. Saviour’s, a name for which there may be no authority but which has been generally adopted. When taken over by the Board of Works in the 1870’s it was largely in ruins and overgrown with trees.
The present chancel arch and east window and a good part of the walls are reconstructed from the original stones. It is dated to the twelfth century and may be the work of Laurence O’Toole. This dating is largely based on the carving on the east window and the chancel arch which is well illustrated in the Official Guide.
The reconstruction is not quite accurate but the general effect is most satisfactory. Many visitors to Glendalough never get as far as St. Saviour’s, which is a pity. Unfortunately it will soon be lost to view in a forest of conifers but the site itself has been left clear and will still repay the effort of penetrating the forest down to the river bank.
The carving in St. Saviour’s is of the Irish Romanesque style of which there are many examples all over the country. It represents the last flowering of the sculptural art of the early Celtic Church and a great deal of learned argument has gone on about its details. In my opinion it is interesting and sometimes quite attractive but lacks the essential simplicity of the early unornamented churches which contrast so markedly with the complexity of contemporary metalwork and manuscript illumination.
St. Saviour’s may well have been in building when the Synod of Kells met in 1152 and while the Cistercians were putting up their first church at Mellifont between 1142 and 1157. It is therefore one of the last examples of Irish church architecture before it was engulfed in that of Medieval Christendom.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his life of St. Malachi, speaks of the church that Malachi built at Bangor in about 1140 after his return from the continent where he had arranged for the coming of the first group of Cistercians. He quotes one supposed critic who queried why Malachi should introduce such novelty and what need there was for `such proud and unnecessary work’. This passage used to be cited as evidence that this was the first stone and mortar church built in Ireland.
Petrie finally demolished theory, and he suggested that what Malachi’s critics were really complaining of was the innovation of the more elaborate continental style. Nothing survives of the church at Bangor, which may have been simple compared to what St. Bernard was to was accustomed to but must have appeared extravagant compared to any hitherto built in Ireland.
Much though we may admire the great Romanesque and Gothic structures dating from that period in different parts of the land we can surely sympathise with those people at Bangor. The beauties of this `proud and unnecessary work’ must not blind us to the simple elegance of so much that went before it, and which I like to think is coming back in many of the new churches being built today.
Nowhere can this early simplicity be better seen than at Glendalough, in the churches of Trinity and Reefert, in the naves of Our Lady’s, the Cathedral and St. Kevin’s and in the soaring grace of the Round Tower. Whatever their correct dates they all form a lasting memorial to the great monastery founded by St. Kevin some fourteen centuries ago.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the Old Dublin Society.
Original article in: Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Mar., 1974), pp. 49-64
NOTE: This article contains numerous footnotes which are not published here due to reformatting issues. Please access attached pdf to view these.