Glendalough & Glenmacnass (Co. Wicklow / Central)
Glendalough (Glean da Locha – “Valley of the Two Lakes”), a place of great natural beauty and historical importance, is now a very popular tourism destination; so much so that access roads often become overcrowded with traffic jams of coaches and hordes of day-trippers.
Nevertheless, it is well worth a visit at any time of year, ideally in the early morning or late afternoon, not only to see the famous Monastic Ruins (traditionally known as “the seven churches”) but also or perhaps especially for the beautiful walks around the two lakes and up into the surrounding hills, where there are woods and bogs, scenic streams and waterfalls, abundant wildlife and fantastic views.
Maps are on sale from the Visitors’ Centre at the Monastic Ruins and from the Information Office at the Upper Lake, the starting point of several well-marked trails of varying difficulty.
The Lower Lake gives way to marshy wetland, a valuable breeding place for dragonflies, frogs and lizards, often found sunning themselves on the wooden trackway. ((Photo © Jolanta W. Wawrzycka)
Glendalough’s Monastic Ruins
Saint Kevin (498 – 618 AD) established a hermitage in the lower valley in the mid-6th. Many soon came to benefit from his teaching, and a sizeable monastic settlement developed and expanded over the centuries.
In its heyday, the site was a walled university town with workshops, a scriptorium for manuscript writing and copying, a library, guest houses, kitchens, dining halls, an infirmary, and farm buildings and dwelling for both monks and a large lay population. None of these wooden edifices have survived.
Glendalough was attacked several times by Vikings from Dublin, and finally destroyed by English soldiers in 1398.
St Kevin’s church is popularly known as St Kevin’s Kitchen because of its distinctive chimney-like belfry. (Photo by Warren Fish)
The original C7th Cathedral underwent many alterations, and what now remains is basically a roofless C10th church with remnants of a C12th Romanesque chancel arch and an early C13th sacristy.
St Kevin’s Cross, a few metres south of the cathedral, is an early cross made of local granite, with an unpierced ring.
St Mary’s church (set apart for the use of women) is supposed to be the site of Saint Kevin’s grave, and was the scene of annual devotions and drunken revelry every 3rd June until the C18th Penal Laws forced such practices to cease.
The Deer Stone is an ancient baptismal font, associated with one of many charming legends about Saint Kevin.
Glendalough’s C10th Round Tower is about 30m high, with an entrance 3.5 m above the ground. The tower originally had six timber floors connected by ladders. The four storeys above entrance level are each lit by a small window; while the top storey has four windows facing the cardinal compass points. The conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones.
The cemetery was still in use until quite recently. Many of the gravestones are of great antiquity.
The gatehouse, unique in Ireland, was part of a defensive wall around the monastic community.
Trinity church, beside the main road and east of the main ruins, used to have a belfry like St Kevin’s, destroyed in a storm in 1818, and still features a fine chancel arch.
St Saviour’s Priory, aka Glenlorcan or Regles, is the youngest of the Glendalough complexes, and lies downriver from the Lower Lake. Comprising a church and associated buildings constructed during the abbacy of Saint Lawrence O’Toole, between 1152 and 1163, when it was taken over by the Augustinian Order, it was unscientifically restored in the 1870s using stones found on the site. Interesting Hiberno-Romanesque features include a triple chancel arch with decorative motifs such as a serpent, a lion, and two birds holding a human head between their beaks.
The “Caher”, a circular stone-walled enclosure of unknown date on the level ground between the two lakes, measures 20m in diameter. Close by, are several crosses, apparently used as Stations on the pilgrim’s route.
Reefert church, situated in a grove of trees near the Upper Lake, derives is name from Righ Fearta– the burial place of the Kings, and dates from around 1100. East of the church are two crosses of note, one with an elaborate interlace pattern. On the other side of the Poulanass River are the remains of another small church.
Temple-na-Skellig /(“the church of the Rock”), a 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 C12th, 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 Cell, situated amid trees on a spur of rocks overlooking the upper lake near a small mountain stream, appears to have been a circular beehive hut made of stones and measuring about 3.5m /12 ft. in diameter. Saint Kevin spent four years of severe austerity here, living on roots, berries, herbs and fruit. He left at the persuasion of his followers but vowed to remain in the valley for the rest of his life, perhaps not anticipating the 60 years that were to elapse before his death.
St Kevin’s Bed, a manmade cave cut in the rock face a short distance east of the Church of the Rock, is very close to the edge of the mountain and overlooks the upper lake from a height of about 10m / 30 ft. The cave is just 1.5m / 4 ft. wide and less than 1m / 3 ft high. Access is through a a short passageway 1m / 3 ft high; it is much easier and safer to look at the site from a boat. Thought to be the oldest piece of work in the glen, it was used by Saint Kevin as a sleeping place. Legend claims that Saint Laurence O’Toole put it to similar use, and the famous Wicklow rebel Michael Dwyer is reputed to have taken shelter here while he was on the run from British soldiers. The story goes that he escaped capture one morning by diving into the lake and swimming to the opposite side.
Altogether the ruins and monuments, which include remains of several more churches (some with fine Romanesque decoration), a number of Stone Crosses and Ballaun Stones, extend over a distance of about 3km.
The Upper Lake. A traditional song laments that “By that lake whose gloomy shore / Skylark never warbles more” since a woman followed Saint Kevin to his cave one night and tried to tempt him; he pushed her away, and she fell into the lake and was drowned. (Photo courtesy of Lynda Kennedy)
Poulanass (Poll an Eas – ‘Hollow of the Cascade”) comprises an enchanting waterfall and plunge pools, beyond which a steep path leads to the upper reaches of Derrybawn Mountain, clothed with natural oak woods. Red squirrels and birds such as jays and treecreepers are often seen here. In early summer, wood sorrel, anemones and bluebells enliven the woodland floor.
The remains of a C19th mining village can be seen at the head of the Upper Lake. Of the neighbouring valleys, Glendasan is scenic, while Glenealo is a spectacularly beautiful Nature Reserve, home to a large herd of deer on the shores of Lough Firrib.
Beyond these ruins, the trail zigzags steadily upwards into the lovely Glenealo Valley, where small herds of hybrid deer roam the hillside. At the crest of the trail, a wooden bridge spans a clear mountain stream.
On Spinc (An Spinc – ‘pointed hill’) a boardwalk hugs steep cliffs upto a viewing point overlooking the Upper Lake and thence down more than 600 wooden steps to complete a circular hike.
Lugduff Mountain is another good place to watch deer; birds such as raven, merlin and kestrel can also be spotted. Feral goats are common, and Peregrine Falcons may sometimes be observed soaring high in the sky.
There are several other ecclesiastical /sepulchral / commemorative sites scattered throughout the valley and surrounding hills, including notable works by the C18th folk sculptor Dennis Cullen from Monaseed (Co. Wexford).
The Glendalough Hotel is an attractive Victorian edifice with good facilities, but tends to become crowded.
Derrymore House, a pretty Victorian dwelling with great views, is run by Pat & Penny Kelleher as a pleasant B&B.
Above the junction for Glendalough, views of Mullaghcleevaun, Tonelagee, Camaderry, Lough Ouler and Lough Nahanagan in Glendasan are available from the Wicklow Gap.
Laragh and Glendalough are linked by the R756 through the Wicklow Gap to Granabeg and Hollywood on ByRoute 4.
Glenmacnass is a lovely valley that shares its name with a river noted for its spectacular waterfall. No photograph can capture the gasp of awe inspired by seeing this view for the first time. It is accessible via the old Military Road, and worth a trip in its own right.