The Monastery of Glendalough

County Wicklow


Also known as the city of the seven churches, Glendalough is renowned for its early medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by Saint Kevin, a hermit priest, and partly destroyed in 1398 by English troops. The settlement, itself, was enclosed within a circular wat. The solitude in the Wicklow mountains must certainly have appealed to the monks turning away from “worldly life”. Even today the way there is not the easiest. And though the monks have long left, Glendalough’s impressive remains (including a cathedral and a complete round tower) tell of past glory.


Kevin, a descendant of one of the ruling families in Leinster, studied as a boy under the care of three holy men, Eoghan, Lochan, and Eanna. During this time, he went to Glendalough. He was to return later, with a small group of monks to found a monastery where the ‘two rivers form a confluence’. Kevin’s writings discuss his fighting “knights” at Glendalough; scholars today believe this refers to his process of self-examination and his personal temptations. His fame as a holy man spread and he attracted numerous followers. He died in about 618. For six centuries afterwards, Glendalough flourished and the Irish Annals contain references to the deaths of abbots and raids on the settlement.

At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Glendalough was designated as one of the two dioceses of North Leinster.

The Book of Glendalough was written there about 1131.

St. Laurence O’Toole, born in 1128, became Abbot of Glendalough and was well known for his sanctity and hospitality. Even after his appointment as Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, he returned occasionally to Glendalough, to the solitude of St. Kevin’s Bed. He died in Eu, in Normandy in 1180.

In 1214, the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united. From that time onwards, the cultural and ecclesiastical status of Glendalough diminished. The destruction of the settlement by English forces in 1398 left it a ruin but it continued as a church of local importance and a place of pilgrimage.

Descriptions of Glendalough from the 18th and 19th centuries include references to occasions of “riotous assembly” on the feast of St. Kevin on 3 June.

The present remains in Glendalough tell only a small part of its story. The monastery in its heyday included workshops, areas for manuscript writing and copying, guest houses, an infirmary, farm buildings and dwellings for both the monks and a large lay population. The buildings which survive probably date from between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Monuments in the Lower Valley


The Gateway
The Gateway to the monastic city of Glendalough is one of the most important monuments, now totally unique in Ireland. It was originally two-storied with two fine, granite arches. The antae or projecting walls at each end suggest that it had a timber roof. Inside the gateway, in the west wall, is a cross-inscribed stone. This denoted sanctuary, the boundary of the area of refuge. The paving of the causeway in the monastic city is still preserved in part but very little remains of the enclosure wall.


The Round Tower
This fine tower, built of mica-slate interspersed with granite is about 30 meters high, with an entrance 3.5 meters from the base. The conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones. The tower originally had six timber floors, connected by ladders. The four stories above entrance level are each lit by a small window; while the top story has four windows facing the cardinal compass points. Round towers, landmarks for approaching visitors, were built as bell towers, but also served on occasion as store-houses and as places of refuge in times of attack.


The Cathedral
The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, the cathedral had several phases of construction, the earliest, consisting of the present nave with its antae. The large mica-shist stones which can be seen up to the height of the square-headed west doorway were re-used from an earlier smaller church. The chancel and sacristy date from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The chancel arch and east window were finely decorated, through many of the stones are now missing. The north doorway to the nave also dates from this period. Under the southern window of the chancel is an ambry or wall cupboard and a piscina, a basin used for washing the sacred vessels. A few meters south of the cathedral an early cross of local granite, with an un-pierced ring, is commonly known as St. Kevin’s Cross.

The Priests’ House
Almost totally reconstructed from the original stones, based on a 1779 sketch made by Beranger, the Priests’ House is a small Romanesque building, with a decorative arch at the east end. It gets its name from the practice of interring priests there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its original purpose is unknown although it may have been used to house relics of St. Kevin.

Priests House

St. Kevin’s Church or “Kitchen”
This stone-roofed building originally had a nave only, with entrance at the west end and a small round-headed window in the east gable. The upper part of the window can be seen above what became the chancel arch, when the chancel (now missing) and the sacristy were added later. The steep roof, formed of overlapping stones, is supported internally by a semi-circular vault. Access to the croft or roof chamber was through a rectangular opening towards the western end of the vault. The church also had a timber first floor. The belfry with its conical cap and four small windows rises from the west end of the stone roof in the form of a miniature round tower.

St. Kevin's Kitchen

St. Ciarán’s (Kieran’s) Church
The remains of this nave-and-chancel church were uncovered in 1875. The church probably commemorates St. Ciarán (Kieran), the founder of Clonmacnoise, a monastic settlement that had associations with Glendalough during the 10th century.


St. Mary’s or Our Lady’s Church
One of the earliest and best constructed of the churches, St. Mary’s or Our Lady’s Church consists of a nave with a later chancel. Its granite west doorway with an architrave, has inclined jambs and a massive lintel. The under-side of the lintel is inscribed with an unusual saltire or x-shaped cross. The East window is round-headed, with a hood moulding and two very worn carved heads on the outside.

St. Mary's Church

Trinity Church
A simple nave-and-chancel church, with a fine chancel arch. Trinity Church is beside the main road. A square-headed doorway in the west gable leads into a later annex, possibly a sacristy. A Round Tower or belfry was constructed over a vault in this chamber. This fell in a storm in 1818. The doorway inserted in the south wall of the nave also dates from this period. Projecting corbels at the gables would have carried the verge timbers of the roof.

Trinity Church

St. Saviour’s Church
The most recent of the Glendalough churches, St. Saviour’s was built in the 12th century, probably at the time of St. Laurence O’Toole. The nave and chancel with their fine decorate stones were restored in the 1870s using stones found on the site. The Romanesque chancel arch has three orders, with highly ornamented capitals. The east window has two round-headed lights. Its decorated features include a serpent, a lion, and two birds holding a human head between their beaks. A staircase in the eastern wall leading from an adjoining domestic building would have given access to a room over the chancel.

St. Saviour's Priory

Monuments near the Upper Lake

Reefert Church
Situated in a grove of trees, this nave-and-chancel church dates from around 1100. Most of the surrounding walls are modern. The name derives from Righ Fearta, the burial place of the Kings. The church, built in simple style, has a granite doorway with sloping jambs and flat lintel and a granite chancel arch. The projecting corbels at each gable carried verge timbers for the roof. East of the church are two crosses of note, one with an elaborate interlace pattern. On the other side of the Poulanass River, close to Reefert are the remains of another small church.

Reefert Church

St. Kevin’s Cell
Built on a rocky spur over the lake, this stone structure was 3.6 meters in diameter with walls 0.9 meters thick and a doorway on the east side. Only the foundations survive today and it is possible that the cell had a stone-corbelled roof, similar to the beehive huts on Skellig Michael, County Kerry.

St. Kevin's Cell

The “Caher”
This stone-walled circular enclosure on the level ground between the two lakes is 20 meters in diameter and is of unknown date. Close by, are several crosses, apparently used as stations on the pilgrim’s route.

The Caher

This small rectangular church on the southern shore of the Upper Lake is accessible only by boat, via a series of steps from the landing stage. West of the church is a raised platform with stone enclosure walls, where dwelling huts probably stood. The church, partly rebuilt in the 12th century, has a granite doorway with inclined jambs. At the east gable is an inscribed Latin Cross together with several plain grave slabs and three small crosses.


St. Kevin’s Bed
Close by Temple-na-Skellig is St. Kevin’s Bed, a cave in the rock face about 8 meters above the level of the Upper Lake and reputedly a retreat for St. Kevin and later for St. Laurence O’Toole. Partly man-made, it runs back 2 meters into the rock.

St. Kevin's Bed

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