The Ecclesiastical Remains at Glendalough Co. Wicklow (part 1)

Excerpts from the ‘Eightieth Annual Report of the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland’ 1911-12


This interesting group of early ecclesiastical remains were amongst the first vested in the Board of Works under the provisions of the Irish Church Act of 1869, 32 & 33 Vic., c. 42, and comprise “ The ruins of the Seven Churches, with the Round Tower, stone crosses, and other ecclesiastical buildings and structures in the townlands of Lugduff, Camaderry, Derrybawn, and Brockagh, and Parish of Derrylossery, in the County of Wicklow.”
At Glendalough we have one of the most important groups of early Christian remains to be found in Ireland. The patron saint and founder is St. Kevin, who was buried here in 617.

The “ Valley of the Two Lakes ” is closed in on three sides by mountain ranges. The western end of the valley was known at that time as the “Desert” of Glendalough, and it is recorded that there the saint lived as a hermit, until a cell and oratory were built for him on the southern shore of the Upper Lake, the site of which, with remains of a later date, may still be seen. This settlement was the beginning of a religious centre where other ecclesiastical institutions were gradually established, until it eventually became a diocesan see and a cathedral city.

A monastery was founded here, of which St. Laurence O’Toole, “ Successor of St. Kevin,” was Abbot in 1162, when he was appointed Archbishop of Dublin (Annals of the Four Masters).
The city was frequently plundered by the Danes, and was burnt six times between 1017 and 1163, after which it was left desolate for many years.

In 1198 Thomas was Abbot of Glendalough, as appears from a bull issued to him by Innocent III. There is a record of a grant by King John of the “Abbey of Glendalough” to “Thomas the Abbot,” and of a grant made to the archbishop and his successors, giving power to nominate the bishops of Glendalough. The Lord Lieutenant, Count Richard (Strongbow), confirmed the grant of the “ Abbey and Parsonage of Glendalough ” to Thomas the Abbot.

In 1214 the diocese of Glendalough was joined to that of Dublin, William Piro, who died in that year, being the last Bishop of Glendalough, though the separate bishopric appears to have been revived in 1481, when Denis White was appointed to the See of Glendalough by Pope Sixtus IV. He seems to have resigned in 1496-7, and was replaced by Ivo Ruffi, who in 1500 was succeeded by Francis de Corduba.

The native Irish (O’Byrnes and O’Tooles) agitated for many years for an Irish bishop of Glendalough, and though they were only partially successful, there is evidence to show that many of the archdeacons were of the O’Byrne family, as that office was held by Geoffrey O’Byrne in 1487, and three of his six immediate predecessors were of that name. The historical records of Glendalough and the “Life of St. Kevin” are dealt with very fully by Canon O’Hanlon in Vol. VI., pp. 28-90 of his “Lives of the Irish Saints.”

Fig 1 Teampul-na-Skellig. Plan of Church and Surroundings

Teampul-na-Skellig and St. Kevin’s Bed

This is the earliest site mentioned in the life of St. Kevin, and is situated on the southern shore of the upper lake, where a cell had been formed for the hermit with an oratory adjoining. It is in a slight hollow between two cliffs which rise sheer from the water, and is difficult of access save by boat.
The approach from the landing place is by a flight of stone steps leading to the north-east corner of the artificially levelled platform on which the little church or in the solid, 10 inches long, 3 and a half inches wide, and projecting 3 inches. The east window is of later date, and has two lights, 2 feet 9 inches by 5 and a half inches, the heads of which are cut out of one stone. The only other feature is a small aumbry in the south wall, but two granite quoins, similar to those belonging to the east window, are lying inside the church.

Twelve and a half feet west of the church door another flight of steps commences, and a retaining wall sustains a second platform now several feet higher than the first. This retaining wall, partly destroyed, evidently bounded the west and south sides ; another wall marked the north side and held up the outer portion of the platform.

Beyond the flight of eight steps a flagged causeway, sunk below the level of the platform, is continued as shown on Fig. 1. This causeway has only recently been uncovered, and in the ground at either side may be seen a black layer of ashes and charcoal. This layer is from 3 to 9 inches thick, and extends for a distance of 12 to 13 feet along the causeway. It is 27 inches above the level of the causeway and 4 feet below the present surface.

The presence of so much charcoal seems to indicate the existence of former buildings of combustible materials which had been burned. The platform may have supported stone-built cells of which the heavy landslips from the mountain side have swept away all traces.

Fig 2 Teampul-na-Skellig. The East Window

In the interior of the church and outside the east end there are several plain grave slabs, and with those in the latter position, which is indicated on the plan Fig. 1 , are three small crosses, one of which is incised with a two-line Latin cross rising from a base formed of four concentric squares, and decorated with three concentric circles at the centre and two on each of the arms. These patterns are more fully described in the chapter on memorial slabs and crosses, p. 73, of which there are many most interesting examples at Glendalough. See Pig. 71, p. 77.

In the cliff, a short distance to the east of the church and about 27 feet above the lake, is the small and partly artificial excavation known as “ St. Kevin’s Bed,” and traditionally assigned to the Saint as the cell occupied by him during his hermitage.

Its dimensions are 4 feet 2 inches wide and 3 feet 7 inches high at the centre, the entrance and inner end being 2 feet 6 inches wide and 3 feet 3 inches high. The total depth is 6 feet 9 inches.

It is recorded that St. Laurence O’Toole, after he left Glendalough and became
Archbishop of Dublin, often returned to this cell to spend Lent.

Reefert Church

Reefert Church is situated at the south-east corner of the Upper lake, near the brook which flows down from Lugdufi Mountain.
The name Reefert is popularly understood to be derived from Righ and Fearl, the former denoting a king or sovereign, and the latter a grave or tomb ; but the words have other significations. It has, however, been always regarded as the burial place of the chieftains of the district. The structure has been described as Disert Caemhghin (Dysert Kevin), the church erected for the saint by his followers at the time when, he had again retired to his cell and oratory after founding the monastery further down the valley.

It is probably the beautiful church  built to draw him from his hermitage on the cliff over the lake. The graveyard surrounding it contains interesting examples of the ancient form of sepulchral monument used in the district, and some ancient slabs and crosses which will be described further on.

Fig 3 Plan of Reefert Church

It was the burial place of the O’Tooles, chieftains of the district, and of the more ancient clans who inhabited it before the 0 Tooles obtained possession of it. The latter are said to have belonged originally to the district now known as County Kildare, out of which they were driven at the Anglo-Norman invasion.

It should, however, be remembered that they must have had a footing in Glendalough earlier, as one of the clan—Laurence O’Toole, afterwards Archbishop of Dublin, was abbot and bishop of Glendalough in A.D. 1162, and a former abbot named Toole O’Cathail died A.D. 1006. The district had formerly been in the occupation of a family named Maic Giola Mo Colmack, whose chieftains used Reefert as their burial place before the time of the O’Tooles.

The church consists of nave and chancel, the former measuring 29 feet 1 inch in length and 17 feet 3 inches in width, and the latter 13 feet on the north wall and 12 feet 10 inches on the south. The arch between the nave and chancel is 7 feet 11 inches wide, which is the full width of the chancel. The voussoirs are formed of regularly cut blocks of granite, 15 on each face, the western having a very narrow key stone. The walls of the nave are 2 feet 11 inches, and those of the chancel 2 feet 5 inches in thickness. See plan of church, Fig. 3.

As usual in such churches the entrance is in the west gable ; it is of the same early type of which the doorways of the cathedral and St. Mary’s church are examples.

It has a flat lintel and sloping jambs, and is 2 feet 8 inches in width at the base and 2 feet 6 and a half inches at the top. The height is 6 feet four and a half inches, and the jambs are formed of blocks of dressed granite squared on the face and beds.

Fig 4 Reefert Church - South Elevation

The lintel is 3 feet 9 inches min length and 1 foot 3 inches in height, the full thickness of the wall. The lower block of the right-hand jamb has the commencement of a sunk architrave. It will be seen from an inspection of the drawing (Fig. 7) that the sinking starts at 10 inches
from the ground, is 4 and a half inches in width, and 5 and a half inches from the angle of the jamb; the depth of the sinking is half an inch.

In the opposite jamb is a similar stone, but it is now the second from the ground, while the stone below it has the sinking carried from top to bottom. This suggests that some interruption occurred in the continuity of the work, or that there has been a reconstruction of the doorway in which the stones exchanged places. Similar, but ruder sinkings may be seen at the foot of the chancel arch and doorway of the little church of St. Keiran, the remains of which are situated near St. Kevin’s church. These attempts at the formation of a rude architrave are suggestive, and worthy of close investigation.

The nave was lighted by two small round-headed windows in the south wall and the chancel by a single light in the east gable ; the south windows are 2 feet 3 inches in height, and have the heads cut out of single stones. The width of each is 10 inches externally and 2 feet 2 and a half inches internally. The east window is of similar construction, but 3 feet in height and 5 and 3 quarter inches wide, splaying internally to 18 inches. There is a small recess 15 inches wide, 19 inches deep, and 9 and a half inches high in the south wall of the nave near the chancel arch. All these features of construction are indicated on the drawings, Nos. 3 to 8.

Fig 5 and 6 Reefert Church

Trinity church (drawings 44 to 50), at the north-east of the valley, is said to be of the same period as Reefert church, though the masonry in the walls of the latter is not as good as in Trinity or any of the other churches. The plan is similar omitting the later western addition to Trinity, and the dimensions of each, as follows, are closely approximate:

Reefert—Nave 29′ 1″X 17′ 3″, chancel 13′ 0″X 7′ 11″.
Trinity –  Nave  29′ 6″ X 17′ 6″, chancel 13′ 6″X 9′ 0″.
In Trinity church the jambs are dressed, and the arch stones are properly radiated, but there is no attempt at ornament such as is to be seen on the jambs of the doorway at Reefert. It must not be inferred, however, from the absence of ornament at Trinity that it is earlier than Reefert or, as is too frequently taken for granted, because a certain thing is not done at a stated time and place, that the builders did not know how to do it. At Reefert, as at Trinity, there are projecting bracket stones at each side of the gables near the roof level for the purpose of supporting the timbers or securing the covering of the roof. These projecting stones were not required where pilasters or antae were used.

Fig 7 and 8 Reefert Church

It is believed by Petrie that this church, founded in the time of St. Kevin, continued to be a monastic church until later times. There is no trace of monastic buildings within the space which now marks the extent of the ancient graveyard, but there are indications of an ancient settlement immediately adjoining.

On the north bank of the river, opposite Reefert church, are the foundations of a presumably ecclesiastical building with a small triangular space at the north side. It is orientated approximately, and burials have taken place in it. The few remaining quoins are of dressed granite and the jambs of the south door are of slate The walls are 2 feet 9 inches thick, and at the west e^d have a present height of 3 feet. The doorway is 2 feet 6 inches wide, and is near the south west comer. The church is 20 feet 6 inches wide externally, and the length is uncertain owing to the of the east end, but was about 36 feet. Two little rude crosses are fixed in the west wall, and probably mark later burials.

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