St Kevin’s 6th-century monastic site is the crown jewel of the Wicklow Mountains National Park… just don’t forget your hiking boots
The sound of jaws hitting the ground at Glendalough isn’t a recent phenomenon. Kind words of appreciation – along with plenty of visitors – have been coming to this enchanting glacial valley for thousands of years.
“If you’re looking for the epitome of rugged and romantic Ireland, you won’t do much better than Glendalough,” says Lonely Planet.
“Only fancy can describe the charms of that delightful place,” wrote William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, over 150 years earlier. “Once seen, it becomes your friend forever, and you are always happy when you think about it.”
Glendalough (the name means glen or valley of two lakes) in County Wicklow is naturally and spiritually spectacular. The site was carved out in an Ice Age thousands of years ago, with mountain streams and alluvial deposits conspiring to create the Upper and Lower lakes so beloved of walkers today.
The monastic site founded by St Kevin in the 6th century is pitched at its heart, helping to make it one of the most visited places in Ireland.
A city in the hills
St Kevin’s monastic settlement was a veritable city in its time, with a 30m round tower, a gateway building, several churches, a cathedral, farm, houses and a sizeable lay population contributing to 500 years spent as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical centres.
Glendalough was plundered by Vikings, ravaged by fire, and no doubt rocked by the same raw weather dropped onto the Wicklow Mountains today, before ultimately falling to the Normans in 1398.
St Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s patron saint, was a former abbot at Glendalough, and returned there every Lent for a 40-day retreat in a cave known as St Kevin’s Bed.
The cave isn’t safe to access, but you can catch a good photo opportunity above the Upper Lake from the Miner’s Road.
Hiking through history
What really makes Glendalough sing to your soul is its location at the heart of Wicklow Mountains National Park. The valley boasts nine walking trails (you can get maps from the information office onsite), and it’s also a welcome stop along the Wicklow Way, a 130km trail stretching from Dublin’s Marlay Park to Clonegal, County Carlow.
The trail is renowned for birdwatching – don’t be surprised if you don’t spot a lark – and according to legend, workers building Glendalough’s original cathedral vowed to “rise with the lark and lie with the lamb”, but soon grew weary because the bird rose so early.
St Kevin prayed for a solution and, from that day forth, the skylark ceased to sing in the enchanted valley.
But that’s the bird’s loss, isn’t it?