Deep in the Wicklow Mountains is the glacial valley of Glendalough, which takes its name from the Irish gleann dá locha, meaning the ‘glen of the two lakes’.
Designated as a National Park in 1991, this part of the Wicklow mountains was the site of one of Ireland’s greatest monasteries, founded by St Kevin at the end of the 6th century.
As well as a deeply religious person, Kevin was one of Ireland’s earliest conservationists and was renowned for his love of animals and plants. When an angel came to Kevin with a message that God would flatten the mountains and create fertile plains to provide enough food for a great monastery here, Kevin refused, out of concerns for the animals that lived in the valley.
According to tradition it was at the Upper Lake near the head of the valley where St Kevin spent his first seven years in Glendalough, living the solitary life of a hermit. One of the sites associated with Kevin himself is a cave in the cliffs rising from the edge of the lake. Known as St Kevin’s Bed, this tiny cave is entirely artificial, and was reputedly carved from the rock by Kevin with his bare hands.
Nearby are the remains of Templenaskellig. This church was built centuries later for hermits emulating Kevin’s reclusive years in the valley.
Also near the Upper Lake are the ruins of Reefert Church and a series of stone crosses marking a route for later pilgrims to visit the humble beginnings of one of Ireland’s greatest monasteries.
The main monastery is situated away from the Upper Lake, nearer to the entrance to the valley of Glendalough.
Here can be found the gate house to the monastery, the only surviving monastic gate from early medieval Ireland.
Once inside the gatehouse, there are several early Christian churches and related buildings, including the Cathedral, one of the largest churches ever built in early medieval Ireland.
Nearby is one of the tallest and best-preserved round towers in Ireland. This elegant tower was built as a belfry around the turn of the 12th century and was designed to be seen throughout much of the valley.
Also nearby is a small building known as the Priest’s House. Dating to the middle of the 12th century, this tiny Romanesque building was probably designed to house relics associated with St Kevin.
St Kevin’s Church, with its miniature belfry tower perched on the stone roof, is one of the most iconic buildings at Glendalough. It was built on a new site on the south side of the main monastery, beside yet another church that was dedicated to another renowned Irish saint, St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise.
Glendalough also has several hidden treasures rarely seen by visitors to the valley, such as St Mary’s Church, which is believed to have been the site of an early nunnery, separated from the male dominated monastic core.
Trinity Church beside the road from the nearby village at Laragh would have been the first church that greeted pilgrims to Glendalough arriving from the north east.
Further east, on what was once located on an island in the Glendasan River is St Saviours church. Built in the 1150s for a small community of Augustinian canons, St Saviours was the last church constructed at Glendalough. It also features some of the finest Romanesque carvings anywhere in Ireland.
During the 11th and 12th centuries Glendalough was at the height of its power and influence. However, by 1200 its status and importance went into rapid decline.
Gradually many of the church buildings at Glendalough fell into disrepair, and by the end of the 17th century they had fallen into ruins. As a result, the many churches and related buildings at Glendalough survive as one of the best examples of an early medieval ecclesiastical landscape anywhere in the world.
The archaeological remains at Glendalough have been in state care since 1875 and are managed by the Office of Public Works. They are surrounded by the Wicklow Mountains National Park, managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
This video appears courtesy of the National Monuments Service and The National Museum of Ireland. For more, please visit the NMS Youtube channel.