The Ecclesiastical Remains at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow (part 3)

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

The Round Tower

The Round Tower is situated 140 feet north-west of the cathedral, and on slightly higher ground. Its external diameter is 16 feet above the first offset over ground level, tapering to about 13 and 3/4  feet below the base of the conical roof; internal diameter
8 feet 10 inches. Its total height is 103 feet above the foundations, including the three offsets. The roof had fallen in many years ago, and has been rebuilt with the original stones, which were found in the debris below.


The foundation courses consist of two regular offsets, the first being 4 and a half inches wide and 10 inches deep; the second is 6 inches wide and 12 inches deep, the ground is now level with the top of the latter offset, below which is an irregular footing course about 18 inches wide and 2 feet deep: thus the foundation is 3 feet below the present surface of the ground.
This tower has a peculiar feature in a rectangular opening through the wall 5 inches by 6 and a half inches, placed 2 feet 2 inches above the offset, and facing S.S.E. (See A on plan and section. Figs. 14 and 15.) Its purpose is uncertain, but it is surmised that it was used to communicate with an anchorite immured in the lower storey of the tower.

The masonry of the tower is composed chiefly of the mica slate of the district, interspersed with blocks of light grey granite, some of which appear in irregular courses, like encircling bands, in several places in the height of the tower. The lower portion is better built than the upper, and contains larger stones ; some of them are 4 feet in length, and are worked carefully to the circular curve of the circumference of the tower.

The Round Tower

The doorway is round headed with inclined jambs, and the sill is 11 feet 6 inches above the ground. It faces south-east, which is towards the cathedral door. The opening is 5 feet 8 inches high by 2 feet wide at the sill and 1 foot 9 inches at the head. The arched head and the sill are each one granite block the full depth of the wall, which is 3 feet 3 inches in thickness at that level.

The jambs are formed of large stones, as shown in Fig. 16, all except the two smallest being granite, and going right through the wall. The stones are all accurately dressed and fitted.

Above the ground level there were six stages on beams let into the wall; there are no offsets or corbels such as are seen in many other towers. The first stage has no aperture but the door, and the second, third, fourth and fifth have each a small lintelled window, with slightly inclined jambs, about 10 inches by 18 inches with no internal splay. These face in four directions at right angles in order, the lowest facing south-west by south.

The sixth, or top floor, has four windows similar to the others, but rather larger, and placed almost but not quite over them. This can be clearly seen on the south-east side of the tower, the window, of the fifth floor being on that side and near one of the top windows. The top windows do not exactly face the cardinal points, but are a few degrees south of east and north of west: the cathedral, too, whether by accident or design, has its axis turned slightly south of east, but not quite so much.

The Priest’s House (Mortuary Chapel in the Ancient Cemetery)

This structure is so called from having been formerly used as a burying place for the clergy of the district, whose graves occupy the interior. It has been suggested amongst other conjectures that this structure might have been erected over the grave of St. Kevin, as patron saint of Glendalough. It was visited by Beranger in 1779 ; he made a plan and careful drawing of the east end, and from them the building, which had fallen, was restored some time afterwards.

The inside dimensions are 14 feet 8 inches long and 7 feet 9 inches wide. There is a recessed seat 2 feet 6 inches wide in the west wall, and a narrow doorway 5 feet 10 inches high and 1 foot 10 inches wide in the south wall The lintel of this doorway is the stone illustrated by Petrie, on which is carved an ecclesiastic, thought by some to represent St. Kevin, seated between figures bearing respectively a crosier and a bell. The upper part of this stone is unfortunately lost, but when complete it was triangular in shape, and was probably intended for a position similar to that which it now occupies. See Figs. 18 and 18a.

The most unusual feature, however, is the arched, splayed, and moulded recess, 7 feet 1 inch wide, in the outer face of the east wall. This is now closed with masonry and contains a small window opening. The recess has moulded pilasters with carved bases and capitals, which, with the fragments of the ornamented arched head, have been put together as shown in Petrie’s drawings. The arch ring is decorated with chevrons and leaf pattern, and has a hood moulding bearing small chevrons fitted closely into each other. See Figs. 19-21.

The boundaries of the ancient cemetery for which this building was the mortuary chapel are still visible around it. The enclosing wall is about 4 feet in thickness and the same in height, composed of large flat bedded stones laid without mortar, like the walls of an ancient Caiseal.

The enclosure was roughly quadrangular in form, and averages 100 feet in length east to west, and 75 feet north to south. It is interesting to note that the high cross, 11 feet in height, known as St. Kevin’s Cross, stands near the centre of the eastern boundary of the enclosure, forming a termon cross for the original cemetery. The present graveyard is about ten times the size of the cemetery as it was in monastic times. There is an indication of an entrance in the north wall of the enclosure, the cathedral being to the north-east, and there was probably another entrance in the south wall, but owing to the prevalence of graves and the consequent uprooting of the foundations of the greater part of the wall, investigation here became difficult. (See plan of enclosure. Fig. 17a.)

St. Kevin’s Cross, measuring 11 feet in height and 3 feet 10 inches across the arms, is a monolith of local granite. The cross is quite plain, and has a ring sunk in the solid but not perforated. The shaft is 17 inches wide, and at the base is enlarged to 22 and a half inches, for 19 inches in height, as shown in the drawing 21a. In thickness the stone measures 12 inches at the base, tapering to 11 inches at the top.

St, Kevin’s Church, commonly called “ St. Kevin’s Kitchen.”

This is one of the most remarkable of the interesting group of in the Glendalough ruins now remaining in the Glendalough  valley. Both Petrie and Brash assign its erection to the period of the saint whose name it bears. There may not be any great difficulty in dating the earliest features of the work from that time, but the round tower resting partly on the western gable and partly on the extrados of the internal vault, marks a much later stage in its history, probably coming down to the beginning of the eleventh century or somewhat later. The original church consisted of a nave only, measuring 22 feet 8 inches in length and 14 feet 7 inches in width at the ground floor level. (See plan and section, Figs. 22 and 23.)

The first feature of interest is seen in the batter or slope of the walls from the perpendicular,
on the outside up to the level of the string or eaves course, and on the inside up to a height of 12 feet, where the stone roof commences. Here the width narrows to 14 feet 4 inches, and the length becomes 22 feet 5 inches. This gives an internal batter of inches to each of the four walls, and indicates a very early period in the construction of ecclesiastical buildings.
The next feature calling for remark is the construction of the roof, which is formed with overlapping stones laid on the corbel principle, and though laid in horizontal courses they assume internally the form of the intrados of a semi-circular arch ; externally they are roughly dressed to an angle so as to form the straight slope of the roof. The stones are bedded at a slight angle, sloping outward to keep the interior of the roof dry.

A remarkable change occurs in the construction of the roof at the point where the inward corbelling has reduced the space to be covered to about 7 feet in width, and here a true arch is introduced, formed of stones with the joints properly radiating for the most part from a common centre, though the change from the horizontal corbel courses to the truly radiating joints of the central arch is gradual. (See sections, Figs. 23 and 27.)
The soffit of the vault thus formed is not of a perfectly semi-circular form, but is rather that of a semi-ellipse with the long axis vertical, the effect of which is to give greater strength and thickness to the corbelling at the point most required, where the soffit of the vault approaches most nearly to the external surface of the roof.

This singular construction will be seen clearly from an examination of the drawing showing a section through the side walls and roof of the church. The total height from the sill of the west door to the under side of the vaulted roof is 20 feet 6 inches, and at 12 feet 6 inches from the ground a wooden floor existed, forming a chamber the whole length of the church, heaving a height of 7 feet 3 inches in the centre.

This apartment was lighted by a window in the east gable, and the only means of approach would appear to have been by a ladder through an opening in the floor. There is no trace of this floor except the four beam holes, 12 inches to 15 inches deep, in each of the two side walls, where the ends of the beams which carried the floor rested. One of these spaces was displaced by the modern masonry in the head of the window inserted in the south wall. The doorway is in the west gable, and has a flat lintel with a discharging arch over it, and, like the roof, shows a combination of the traheated style of construction with the use of the arch. (See Fig. 25.)

The doorway measures 2 feet 8 inches in width at the floor level, narrowing to 2 feet 4 inches at the lintel, and is 7 feet 2 inches in height. The lintel, which is a block of mica slate, is 11 inches in thickness, and of the full width of the wall, with a hood or projection of 4 and a half inches on the outer face over the door, and cut out of the solid stone. Two vertical holes are formed in this hood for the hanging of the door, which must have been suspended from the top, and was hung outside, or was fitted as a shutter.

The external jambs are checked or rebated in five places to receive the ends of the horizontal ledges on the back of the wooden door, and there is a hole sunk in the sill for securing it at the bottom. The relieving arch over the lintel springs from the ends of the lintel, and extends right through the wall.
The string or eaves course, forming a cornice all round at the commencement of the roof externally is 4 and a half inches wide on the face and has 4-inch projection. It is of a
thickness of about 5 and a half inches to 6 inches, weathered outwards on the top surface,
and is remarkable as having joggled or overlapping joints in the west gable; there are two such joints on the north side, one on the south, and none in the string course of the east wall.

The window lighting the upper chamber is 6 and a half inches wide at the sill, narrowing
to 5 inches at the head, and is 2 feet 6 inches in height externally. It has a small horizontal string or dripstone over its head, corresponding to a similar string or hood over the east window of Trinity Church. The sill is splayed downwards internally, and the internal jambs are unequally splayed, sloping more to the south. The upper window in the east gable lighting the croft is 6 inches wide and 1 foot 8 inches in height, with jambs splayed internally to 1 foot in width.

The site of this church is just outside the first line of circumvallation of the ancient enclosure forming the original cashel which existed previous to the foundation of the “Ecclesiastical City” of Glendalough ; the southern boundary afterwards extended down to the bank of the river.

The subsoil here is formed by the lower slope of the glacial gravel bank on which the cashel was formed, and this was covered at a later period by alluvial earth, so that it was necessary to carry up the original foundations from a considerable depth. An examination of the foundations of the south wall for a depth of 4 feet below the plinth course showed the ground to be very soft, and there was every indication that the masonry went down to a much greater depth. Such care to ensure good construction is not usual in primitive buildings.
The same precaution was not observed in the foundations of the later chancel and sacristy; the former has disappeared, and the south wall of the latter has fallen away about 6 inches from the east wall of the church owing to the settlement consequent upon a bad foundation, and it is now largely sustained by the better foundation of the north angle of the original church on which the sacristy rests at that point.

There is a considerable crack in the south wall of St. Kevin’s church, extending into the corbelled roof ; this, however, does not arise from any defect in the original work, but is caused by the breach made in the wall by the removal of the original window and the insertion of a much larger one about the year 1843. This alteration was clumsily made, and greatly endangered the stone roof.

The original church, which consisted of a nave only, was extended by the erection of the chancel at the east end and the sacristy north of the chancel in the position shown on the plan. The masonry of this later work was not bonded into the walls of the church. The jambs and arch of the opening into the chancel through the east wall of the nave were not properly built, and a chancel arch was not formed in the masonry, but the opening was roughly broken out. A few stones in the form of an arch are inserted in the lower part of what remains of the original east window opening, to carry the rough masonry filling over it.

The chancel measured 10 feet 3 inches in length east to west and 9 feet 0 inches in width, and the sacristy still standing is 9 feet 3 inches in length by 7 feet 8 inches in width, and 12 feet 0 inches in height internally. The sacristy has a window opening in its east wall (5 inches wide and widely splayed internally) with a semicircular head in one stone. To the left of the sill of this window may be seen, built into the wall, another stone with the commencement of a semicircular window head of the same width as that existing, cut out for an inch or two in depth. This stone was evidently intended to be used for this window head, but being of hard granite, was found to be too difficult to work, and a less refractory stone of mica slate was substituted. The rejected stone has been used as a quoin for the south jamb of this window. (See window of sacristy in east elevation. Fig. 26.)

The roof of the sacristy is like that of the church, partly corbelled and partly standing in 1772; its stone roof appears to have been formed in the same manner as that of the sacristy, with a stone gutter between ; the slope of the roof of the chancel may be seen where the masonry of the east gable of the church was cut into to receive the stones forming its oversailing or flashing course. The settlement in the sacristy, the south wall of which supported one side of the chancel roof, was a contributory cause to the falling of the latter. The whole of the masonry of both chancel and sacristy was of very inferior type, not in keeping with the better work in the original church.

The tower, which is a very prominent feature, is 3 feet 6 inches in internal diameter
at its base where it rests on the vault and gable. (See section, Fig. 23.) It has three internal offsets dividing it into stages, each stage being contracted to a smaller diameter of about 3 feet 2 inches at its upper part, broadening again to 3 feet 6 inches at the level of the upper windows above which the corbelling of the conical roof commences.

The tower rises from the roof slope of the church for a height of 15 feet 3 inches measured to the upper side of the cornice or string course, and is 20 feet 3 inches to the apex, which stands 15 feet 4 inches over the ridge of the roof of the church. The total height from the west door sill is 45 feet 3 inches. The top stone or finial is missing, and the last stone now on the roof has a dowel hole sunk in its upper surface to receive it.

There is an opening in the vaulted inner roof of the church at 3 feet 6 inches from the inner face of the west gable. This opening is 1 foot 9 inches square, and is roughly built. It gives access to the small space or croft, 5 feet 6 inches in width, between the arch and the apex of the corbelled outer roof. The doorway leading from this space into the tower is 5 feet high and has sloping jambs, which give a width of 1 foot 7 inches at the bottom and 1 foot 2 inches at the top on the west side, and is splayed outwards to the croft.

There are four windows near the apex of the tower, one facing each of the cardinal points; there is also a window facing east in the intermediate stage and a smaller one facing west in the lower stage. The tower, which is 6 feet in external diameter for the full height above the roof level, has a clear internal height of 20 feet 9 inches from its floor to the underside of the conical apex.

The floor rests on the thickness of the gable wall for 2 feet 1 inch, and for 1 foot 5 inches on
the vaulted arch, and in the latter space there is a hole in the floor about 2 and a half inches in diameter for a bell rope, and there are traces of two other holes. The masonry of the tower is of an inferior quality compared with the lower part of the church, and the windows have slightly sloping jambs of rude construction, small flattish stones being used.

There are fragments of hanging irons in the sacristy window and in the window in the east gable, evidently for external shutters. The small cross now on the apex of the east gable is not part of the original work. In the upper surface of the string course of the east gable, immediately over the original east window, there is a sinking about inches square to receive the base of a cross or finial, which has not been recovered.

A comparison of the mode of construction adopted in other stone-roofed churches may be of interest, and with this object a diagram of the building known as St. Columba’s house, at Kells, the erection of which is attributed by some to the 6th and by others to the 8th century, is given in Fig. 29, and a section of Cormac’s chapel, usually stated to have been finished in A.D. 1134, is shown in Fig. 28.
The occasions on which Glendalough was burned, plundered and sacked as recorded in the Annals are very numerous, covering the period from A.D. 770 to 1308, and there is special mention of “ St. Kevin’s House,” as the church was then called, having been “consumed by fire” in A.D. 1163. Its final “burning” took place in 1398, and since then it has remained a ruin, except for a short period about the middle of the last century, when it was occupied for religious service by the parish priest of Glendalough, the modern church not having been then erected.


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