The monastery at Glendalough was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century.
Kevin (or Chaoimhin – the fair-begotten) was born in 498 into a noble family living in what is now West Wicklow. He studied for the priesthood in Cill na Manach (Kilnamanagh) and after being ordained set out to find his calling.
Kevin came to Glendalough to follow his dream which was to find God in solitude and prayer. He chose to live by the shore of the upper lake, taking for his hermitage an artificial cave on the south side of the lake about 30 feet above the water which was originally a Bronze Age tomb. This was St. Kevin’s Bed which can be seen today from the north shore of the lake.
Kevin lived the life of a hermit in his cave for seven years. The legends and stories handed down to us highlight his significant personal qualities. Primary among these was his love of nature and deep respect for all created things. It seems he had an extraordinary closeness to nature and found his companions in the animals and birds around him. Legend also tells us he lived a very simple life, wearing only animal skins, sleeping on stones and eating very sparingly.
Kevin soon became known as a holy man and others came to Glendalough to seek his advice, to be healed and to follow his way of life. Gradually, small monastic communities were established, including a walled settlement near the lakeshore now called Reefert Church.
Kevin’s fame as a teacher and holy man spread far and wide. Over time, the monastic settlement at Glendalough grew to become one of the great spiritual centres of Christianity in Ireland, flourishing for a thousand years after St. Kevin’s death.
Kevin’s story is often referred to as a journey from solitude to community.
The Feast Day of St. Kevin, who brought Christianity to Glendalough, is celebrated on 3rd June.
Lorcan (or Laurence) O’Toole was born near Castledermot, Co. Kildare. His father, Maurice, was a Leinster chieftain who was engaged in rivalry with the great family of the MacMurroughs.
When Laurence was 10 years old, he was handed over by his father to the MacMurroughs as a hostage for his father’s loyalty. At first, he was treated as a member of the family but, when Maurice O’Toole was again suspected of treachery by the MacMurroughs, the boy Laurence was taken far away and imprisoned in a herdsman’s hut “in a desert, stony place,” where he was given barely enough food to keep him alive.
Laurence remained in this prison until he received sanctuary in Glendalough from the then Abbot who mediated between the two families. When Maurice O’Toole arrived at last in Glendalough to claim his son, Laurence informed him of his desire to enter the monastery there – in this holy place where he had received sanctuary from the hardships of his life.
Laurence remained in Glendalough and eventually became abbot of the monastery. When he was 32, he was forced to leave this retreat as he was appointed archbishop of Dublin, the first native-born Irishman ever to fill the position.
Laurence fulfilled his duties as archbishop during a turbulent time in Irish history. During his time in office, Ireland was invaded by the Anglo-Normans – a catastrophic event which was precipitated by the treatment of Laurence’s sister who had been given in marriage to Diarmuid MacMurrough. Laurence was thus deeply implicated in the national disaster which brought two sieges and a famine to the city of Dublin.
Wherever he could, Laurence sought to mediate between the parties to bring about peace. During the first siege of Dublin, he was actually negotiating peace terms with the Normans outside the gates when some of the soldiers treacherously broke into the city and ran amok among the civilians. Ever the father of his people, Laurence had to rush from the peace talks to save the citizens from being massacred.
In all the subsequent vicissitudes of the invasion, Laurence kept steadfastly on the side of the Irish and sought to bring back the peace that had been lost. Twice he went to see King Henry II as an ambassador of peace. On his second embassy in 1180, Henry refused to see him in England and he was forced to follow him to France. The weeks of strain and travel told heavily on Laurence and, by the time he reached the abbey of St. Victor at Eu, he was mortally ill. The plight of his people in Dublin continued to trouble him on his death-bed and his last words were: “Alas, you poor, foolish people, what will you do now? Who will take care of you in your trouble? Who will help you?”
Laurence was an ascetic. Even when he was archbishop, he continued to live in community as a canon regular of Arrouaise. He wore a hair shirt, never ate meat and fasted every Friday on bread and water. However, he did not let his personal discipline spoil the hospitality he provided for others which was always generous. To have had to leave Glendalough was a deeply personal sorrow. Every Lent he returned to the sacred valley to make a forty days’ retreat in St. Kevin’s cave on a precipice overlooking the upper lake. In this way, he was a living link with the Celtic saints.
Because he died abroad, Laurence received great honour and acknowledgement which he probably would not have received had he died in his own war-riven country. His life was written shortly after his death by a contemporary in Normandy, a French sea port was named after him and a great Gothic church was dedicated to him in Eu where his life continues to be celebrated to this day. Most significant of all, he was canonized only forty-five years after his death – a vindication of the life he led of holiness, charity and, above all, peace.