Glendalough (Gleann Dá Loch, “Valley of the Two Lakes”) is a fascinating monastic settlement in a spectacular natural setting just an hour south of Dublin. The monastery was founded by St. Kevin, a hermit monk who died about 618 AD. The extensive ruins of Glendalough include several early churches, a graceful round tower, and various sites associated with the life of St. Kevin.
The area is ideal for walking at all levels, ranging from a short stroll around the ruins to demanding mountain hikes. Lonely Planet Ireland calls Glendalough "truly one of the most beautiful places in Ireland and a highlight of any trip to the island." This author visited for an enjoyable afternoon in August 2007 and couldn't agree more.
History of Glendalough
The story of Glendalough begins with St. Kevin (Irish: Coemhghein), a descendent of one of the ruling families of Leinster. As a boy he studied under three holy men (Eoghan, Lochan and Eanna) and as a young man he went to live at Glendalough “in the hollow of a tree.”
He returned later with a small group of followers. After a life of sleeping on stones, wearing animal skins, barely eating and (according to legend) making friends with birds and animals, Kevin died in about 618.
Glendalough flourished for the next 600 years, with the deaths of abbots and various raids featuring heavily in the Irish Annals. By the 9th century, it rivaled Clonmacnoise as the leading monastic city of Ireland.
In its heyday, the settlement included not only churches and monastic cells but also workshops, guesthouses, an infirmary, farm buildings and houses. Most of the buildings that survive today date from the 10th through 12th centuries.
At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Glendalough was designated one of two dioceses of the province of North Leinster.
An especially notable figure around this period was St. Laurence O’Toole (1128-80), an abbot of Glendalough known for his holiness and hospitality. He was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, but still returned occasionally to the solitude of St. Kevin’s Bed at Glendalough.
In 1214, the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united, and soon after the cultural and religious status of Glendalough began to decline. The settlement was destroyed by English forces in 1398, but even as a ruin it continued to be a local place of worship and a pilgrimage destination.
In the 18th and 19th centuries there are descriptions of “riotous assembly” on the Feast of St. Kevin (June 3).
What to See at Glendalough
The two lakes of Glendalough are known as the Lower Lake and Upper Lake. The main parking area, Visitors’ Centre, the Glendalough Hotel, and most of the monastic ruins are located near the Lower Lake on the east end of the site. The Upper Lake also has a parking area but no facilities. Excellent walking trails connect the lakes and all the ruins.
Most of today’s visitors enter Glendalough by crossing a manicured lawn and a bridge over a peaceful stream, but the medieval entrance was through the monumental gateway to the west (across the stream from the hotel).
This monument is now totally unique in Ireland. Originally it had two stories with two fine granite arches. The projecting walls at each end indicate it had a timber roof. Inside is a cross-inscribed stone, indicating the boundary of the sanctuary or area of refuge.
The largest building at Glendalough is the cathedral, which was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century. The earliest part is the nave with antae for supporting the wooden roof. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
The chancel arch and east window were once finely decorated, but many of the stones are now missing. Under the south window of the chancel is a wall cupboard and a piscine (basin used for washing sacred vessels). A few meters south of the cathedral is an ancient cross of local granite with an unpierced ring, which is commonly known as St. Kevin’s Cross.
Nearby is the Priests’ House, which has been almost entirely reconstructed from the original stones based on a 1779 sketch of the original. It is a small Romanesque building with a decorative arch at each end. Its original use is unknown, but it may have housed relics of St. Kevin. Its name comes from the practice of burying priests there in the 18th and 19th centuries.
St. Kevin’s Church is a stone roofed building with a distinctive round belfry with conical cap at the west end. The church originally consisted of a simple nave with an entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. A chancel (now missing) and sacristy were added later.
The steep roof, formed of overlapping stones, is supported by a semi-circular vault. The church had a wooden upper floor and there was access to the roof chamber through a rectangular opening towards the western end of the vault.
Across the path are the foundations of St. Kieran’s Church, excavated in 1875. The church has a nave and chancel and probably commemorates St. Kieran, the founder of Clonmacnoise – a monastic settlement to the northwest that had associations with Glendalough in the 10th century.
The most visible monument at Glendalough is the fine round tower, rising about 30 meters high. In medieval Ireland, round towers served as landmarks, bell towers, storehouses and places of refuge in times of attack. The door is about 3.5 meters from the ground, which was common practice as a means of protection for the people and treasures inside.
The tower originally had six wooden floors, connected by ladders. The four stories above the entrance are lit by a small window, while the top story has four windows facing the four points of the compass. The conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones.
West of these buildings and accessible only via a separate path from the main road is St. Mary’s Church (a.k.a. Our Lady’s Church), one of the earliest and best constructed of Glendalough’s churches.
Consisting of a nave with a later chancel, it features a granite west doorway with an architrave and massive lintel. The underside of the lintel is inscribed with a saltire (X-shaped) cross. The east window is round-headed with a hood molding and two very worn carved heads on the outside.
Approaching the Upper Lake, the first monument one encounters is the Caher, a stone walled circular enclosure between the two lakes. It is 20 meters in diameter and of unknown date. Close by are several crosses, which were apparently used as stations on the pilgrims’ route.
Across the stream to the southwest is the Reefert Church, whose name derives from Righ Fearta, “burial place of the kings.” The simple nave-and-chancel church dates from c.1100 AD. Its granite doorway has sloping jambs and flat lintel; projecting corbels at the gables once supported verge timbers for the wooden roof. East of the church are two ancient crosses, one with an elaborate interlace pattern. Nearby, on the other side of the river, are the remains of another small church.
Accessed by a steep hike to a rocky spur over the Upper Lake is St. Kevin’s Cell. Only the foundations survive, but it is thought to have been a “beehive” hut like those on Skellig Michael and the Dingle Peninsula. The structure was 3.6 meters in diameter with a 0.9-meter thick wall and a doorway on the east side.
On the far east side of the site (on the other side of the visitors’ center from the lakes) is St. Savior’s Church. Accessed via a 1km walking path and a short trek through an overgrown field, this is the most recent of Glendalough’s churches. It dates from the 12th century, probably during the time of St. Laurence O’Toole.
The nave and chancel were restored in the 1870s using the original stones. The Romanesque chancel arch has three orders and carved capitals; there are more carvings next to the east window, which has two round-headed lights. Carvings including a serpent, a lion, and two birds holding a human head between their beaks.
Quick Facts on Glendalough
|Names:||Gleann Dá Loch · Glendalough|
|Categories:||churches; monasteries; ruins|
|Styles:||Romanesque; Pre-Romanesque; Celtic|
|Dates:||6th C and later|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||53.010707° N, 6.327406° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Glendalough|
- Personal visit (August 28, 2007)
- Glendalough Visitor's Guide - brochure sold by OPW
- Lonely Planet Ireland, 7th ed. (January 2006), 157-60.
Map of Glendalough, Ireland
Below is a location map and aerial view of Glendalough. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.