The Monastic Sites of Glendalough

A Brief History

In the latter part of the sixth century, St. Kevin crossed the mountains from Hollywood to Glendalough.  Within 100 years, the area had developed from a remote hermitage into one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. The monastery continued to flourish after St. Kevin’s death in 617 A.D.

By the end of the eighth century, the monastery employed up to 1000 laypeople to help grow crops and tend livestock. Monasteries were wealthy. In addition to stores of treasure, most monasteries maintained substantial stocks of food and were able to survive periodic famines. Such rich sites were often plundered. Glendalough’s remote location made it an easy target, and between 775 and 1095 it was plundered many times by both local tribes and Norse invaders.  Usually the churches and houses were burned, but each time the monastery was rebuilt.

The eventual decline of Glendalough’s monastery was not due to invaders, but rather to a shift in political power. When Glendalough was annexed to the diocese of Dublin in 1152, its importance declined. Despite this, the place has retained a spiritual significance.

Glendalough’s Monastic Sites

Today the ruins of the ancient monastic site are scattered throughout the valley. Many are almost 1000 years old. The main sites are located in the area known as the Monastic City, beside the OPW Visitor Centre. Guided tours are available. Further afield are the ruins of other churches, extending from St. Saviour’s Church in the far east of the valley, to Temple na Skellig beside the Upper Lake.

All the monastic ruins in Glendalough are managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and are not under the auspices of the National Park. Queries about the monastic site should be directed to OPW. Entrance to all the historic sites is free of charge. All sites are open at all times. The Monastic City is also served by the adjacent OPW Visitor Centre which has an exhibition, an audio-visual show and also provides guided tours. An admission charge applies to the Visitor Centre and for the tours. Due to the archaeological nature of the sites, none of them are accessible to wheelchairs.

The Monastic City

The Monastic City is the name given to the main monastic site at the eastern end of the valley, close to the OPW Visitor Centre and the Glendalough Hotel. The following monuments can be seen in the Monastic City.

The Gateway

This building stands at the entrance to the Monastic City, and is perhaps one of the most important monuments as it is now unique in Ireland. The building was originally two-storeyed, probably with a timber roof. Inside on the west wall, is a cross-inscribed stone. Visitors entering the Monastic City from the road still pass through this ancient entrance, walking on some of the original stone paving.

The Round Tower

Perhaps the most noticeable monument, the Round Tower is about 30 metres high. The entrance is about 3.5 metres from the base. Originally there were six wooden floors with ladders. The roof had fallen in many years ago, but was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stone. Round towers were multi-functional. They served as landmarks for visitors, bell-towers, store-houses, and as places of refuge in times of attack.

The Cathedral

This is the largest of the churches, and was constructed in several phases. Of note, are an aumbry or wall cupboard under the southern window, and a piscina – a basin used for washing sacred vessels. Outside the Cathedral is St. Kevin’s Cross – a large early granite cross with an unpierced ring.

The Priest’s House

This is a small Romanesque building which was almost totally reconstructed using the original stones in 1779. The east end has a decorative arch. The original purpose of the building is unknown, but it may have been used to house the relics of St. Kevin. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used as a place to inter priests.

St. Kevin’s Kitchen

This church is most noticeable for its steep roof formed of overlapping stone, supported internally by a semi-circular vault. The belfry has a stone cap and four windows facing north, south, east and west, and is reminiscent of a round tower.

St. Kieran’s Church

Only low walls of this church remain. It was uncovered in 1875, and probably commemorates the founder of Clonmacnoise, a monastic settlement that had associations with Glendalough during the 10th century.

Other Monastic Sites near the Monastic City

St. Mary’s Church

Also called Our Lady’s Church, this is one of the earliest churches. It consists of a nave and chancel. The granite west doorway has an architrave, inclined jambs, and a massive lintel. The underside of the lintel has an inscription of an unusual X-shaped cross. The round-topped east window has two very worn carved heads on the outside. St. Mary’s Church is located in a field to the west of the Monastic City.

St. Saviour’s Church

This is the youngest of the Glendalough churches. It was built in the 12th century. The nave and chancel have many well decorated stones. The Romanesque chancel arch has three tiers of decoration. The east window is decorated with various carvings including a serpent, a lion, and two birds holding a human head between their beaks. An adjoining domestic building has a staircase that would have led to a room over the chancel. St. Saviour’s Church is located on the Green Road approximately 1 km east of the Monastic City.

Trinity Church

This is a simple nave and chancel church. A door in the west gable leads to a later annex, possibly a sacristy. There was a belfry in the style of a round tower, but it collapsed in a storm in 1818. Trinity Church is located beside the main road just east of the Visitor Centre.

Upper Lake Historical Sites

Reefert Church

The remains of Reefert Church are situated in a woodland setting, on the south-eastern shore of the Upper Lake close to the Information Office. Reefert derives its name from the Irish ‘Righ Fearta’ meaning burial place of the kings (referring to the local rulers – the O’Toole family). It dates from the eleventh century and is likely to have been built on the site of an earlier church. The church and graveyard were originally surrounded by a stone wall enclosure known in Gaelic as a ‘caiseal’. Most of the present surrounding walls however are modern. The upper parts of the church walls were re-built over 100 years ago using the original stones.

The Caher

This archaeological monument is found on the lawns beside the Upper Lake in Glendalough. It is a stone walled circular enclosure, measuring 20 meters in diameter. It’s original purpose and time of construction is a mystery. Similar structures can be found around the country but they were built on a much larger scale for use as defensive forts. The Caher in Glendalough is likely to be have been used as a station (stopping point for prayers) for those on pilgrimage across the mountains to the remains of St. Kevin’s monastery.

Various Crosses

The lawns by the Upper Lake are the location of several stone crosses. They may have been used as stations during pilgrimages to Glendalough.

Temple na Skellig

The ruins of this small church are located at the base of the cliffs on the southern shore of the Upper Lake. The site is not safely accessible to visitors, but may be viewed from the Miners’ Road, across the lake. West of the church is a raised platform with stone enclosure walls, where dwelling huts probably stood. The church was partly rebuilt in the 12th century.

St. Kevin’s Bed

St. Kevin’s Bed is a small cave in the cliff to the east of Temple ne Skellig. The entrance is about 8 metres above the lake. Please note that the site is not safely accessible, and has been the site of many serious accidents. It may be viewed from the Miner’s Road, across the lake. The cave runs back two metres into the cliff and was reputedly a retreat for St. Kevin and later for St. Laurence O’Toole.

St. Kevin’s Cell

Originally a small bee-hive hut, today only a circle of base stones remain to mark its location on a rocky spur over the Upper Lake.