The Monastic Site

Pre-eminent among the attractions of Glendalough is the Monastic City. Glendalough valley was the site of an early Christian monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. Over time, this early settlement developed into one of the great monasteries in Ireland whose remains can be seen in the Monastic City today.

The Monastic Site contains a number of monastic remains. Foremost among these is the Round Tower which stands 30m high and has been completely preserved. Round towers are a feature unique to Irish monasticism and have evoked much curiosity as to their purpose. As a symbol, the Round Tower has become synonymous with Glendalough.

Other buildings of interest include:

  • the Cathedral which was dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul;
  • St. Kevin’s Church (commonly known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen) dating from the 12th century;
  • St. Kieran’s Church which stands next to St. Kevin’s Church in testament to their friendship;
  • St. Mary’s Church dating from the 10th century which was also known as Teampall na mBan (the Women’s Church) and stands in the outer enclosure of the Monastic City;
  • the Priest’s House which stands in the cemetery.

Remains of other churches outside the Monastic City itself can also be found on the site. These include the beautifully preserved Trinity Church dating from the 11th century; Reefert Church which was one of the earliest built and stands in the area near the Upper Lake known as St. Kevin’s Desert; and St. Saviour’s Church situated at the eastern end of the valley about 20 minutes’ walk from the Monastic City.

A number of other features of archaeological and spiritual significance can be found. A large granite High Cross, thought to be one of the earliest in Ireland, stands at the centre of the Monastic City.

The remains of an old stone fort or ‘caher’ can be found between the Upper and Lower Lake. A further three stone crosses can also be found in this area.

Most significant of all is St. Kevin’s Bed, a Bronze Age cave carved into the rock overlooking the Upper Lake which St. Kevin made his retreat when he founded the monastery. It is a lonely and inhospitable place which gives one an idea of the hardships faced by early Irish monks and the courage and commitment it took to face their challenges.

St. Kevin’s Bed is no longer accessible but can be viewed from the other shore of the lake. However, St. Kevin’s Cell on a ledge of rock also overlooking the Upper Lake can be accessed relatively easily. Here the remains of a beehive hut can be seen which is also thought to have been St. Kevin’s.

Near the Monastic City is a Visitor’s Centre which hosts an interesting exhibition and audio-visual show.

Tourist or Pilgrim?

As we stand on the sacred ground of Glendalough, walking in the footsteps of holy men and women who have walked this ground before us, it is good to ponder whether we are here as tourists or pilgrims.

Have we come to see the sights, walk the hills, take some photos, bring home some souvenirs, maybe a memory or two?

Or have we come to search, to wonder, to be stopped in our tracks by the awe-inspiring majesty of this place? Do we need to rest in the peace of the Lower Lake and be healed by its waters? Do we need to wander the shore of the Upper Lake and bow before the unknown God who calls to us in our heart?

Why have you come to this place? Perhaps you need some time to ponder this question.

Tourist or Pilgrim?

I stand at the edge of myself and wonder
Where is home? Oh! Where is the place
Where beauty will last? When will I be safe? And where?
My tourist heart is wearing me out. I am so tired of seeking
For treasures that tarnish. How much longer, Lord?
Oh! Which is the way home?
My luggage is heavy. It is weighing me down
I am hungry for the Holy Ground of home.
Then suddenly, overpowering me with the truth,
A voice within me gently says:
‘There is a power in you, a truth in you
That has not yet been tapped.
You are blinded with a blindness that is deep,
For you have not loved the pilgrim in you yet
There is a road that runs straight through your heart.
Walk on it.’
To be a pilgrim means to be on the move, slowly,
To notice your luggage becoming lighter,
To seek for treasures that do not rust
To be comfortable with your heart’s questions,
To be moving toward the Holy Ground of home with empty hands and bare feet.
And yet, you cannot reach that home until you have loved the pilgrim in you.
One must be comfortable as a pilgrim before one’s feet can touch the homeland.
Do you want to go home?
There’s a road that runs straight through your heart
Walk on it.

(Macrina Wiederkehr)