With a rich Neolithic history, and innumerable medieval ruins, Ireland has a plethora of unique and sacred sites that can be visited, and more importantly, are easily accessible. Out of all of these locations, however, there is only one site that features the well-preserved ruins of a medieval monastic village, and that is Glendalough. Located in a glacial valley, Glendalough (Gleann Dá Loch) literally translates to “Valley of the Two Lakes”. The site was founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century; and before it was a monastic village it was a location the Saint himself lived had resided in on his own with few of the creature comforts of the time. During that time, according to legends and his writings, Saint Kevin made friends with animals, battled mental demons and knights, and lived a life of austerity in a cave.
Although Saint Kevin died in 618, the monastic village he founded near his cave flourished for hundreds of years, and was one of the leading monastic cities on the island. In 1131, the Book of Glendalough was written, which today is one of three major surviving pre-Norman Irish manuscripts that has survived. From the early 600’s through 1200, Glendalough was a large and thriving community, with a cathedral, churches, monastic cells, farm buildings, and other medieval structures. While the history of Glendalough is long and complicated, what is known is that the city began to decline in status in the 1200’s before its ultimate destruction by English forces in 1398. Despite being destroyed by the English, the location has remained a historic site, and has also remained a pilgrimage site through the present day.
Directions: Glendalough is part of the Wicklow region of Ireland, an area that has grand forests and stunning mountains. The monastic city is located just off the R756, on the R757, and is well-signed on both directions. Visitors planning on traveling to Glendalough should either have a good map of the region, or a portable GPS unit in their rental. While driving times vary, Glendalough is roughly an hour and a half to the southwest of Dublin. It is also worth noting that as it is a well-preserved site with cultural and historic importance, Glendalough is also a popular tourist destination that can be busy during the summer months.
The Monastic Village: From the parking area at Glendalough, the monastic village is located a short walk past the Visitor Center. While exploring the village is free; the Visitor Center charges a nominal fee to enter. In my opinion, the visitor center is a great resource in the area, as it provides visitors with an enormous amount of knowledge about the region and the city; and also has great resources for visitors looking for longer walks or hikes in the area. From the Visitor Center, one will want to gross a short bridge over the Poulanass River, which connects both lakes in the valley, and from which one can see the tall and distinctive Round Tower in the distance.
Once down the path, and into the village, there are a number of sights including, the remains of the Priests’ House, the Cathedral, the arched gateway, St. Kevin’s Church, a number of graves, and most noticeably, the Round Tower. The Round Tower is a thirty meter (90 foot) tall stone tower that despite the passable of time remains intact. While the tower looks like something out of a medieval fairytale, it was in reality, a belltower, and a place of safety for the monks. The sole entrance to the tower is raised some three meters (10 feet) off the ground, in order that monks could ascend via rope safely into the tower during times of trouble, and could further ascend the six wooden levels inside if necessary. While all of the structures that remain are interesting in their own right, the Round Tower is definitely the gem of the site. While interest in ruins and historic locations is hard to gauge, as each person has their own interests and tour schedules, in my opinion, Glendalough is a must visit for travelers to Ireland because of its historic and cultural importance, and because of the beautiful natural setting that it was founded and remains at.
Tips: For more adventurous travelers, there are a number of hikes that leave the Visitor Center parking lot that explore the valley, and lead to other historic spots, such as St. Kevin’s Cave. Also, as with any historic location that has religious significance, visitors should take care to treat the site with the appropriate amount of respect, irrespective of personal beliefs.