Ireland’s most famous monastery town Glendalough lies in a deep valley in the Wicklow Mountains. Saint Kevin founded it in the 6th century on the upper of the two lakes of the valley. References to the original monk’s settlement are stone crosses standing freely in the field and the foundation of a ring fort. After the monastery expanded rapidly, the saint retired to a hill above Upper Lake and led the life of a hermit. From St. Kevins’s Cell, the name of the place where Kevin settled, one has a fantastic view of the lake. A little below, directly on the shore and only accessible from the lake, lies Teampall na Skellig, a church from the 7th century and the rock cave St. Kevin’s Bed.
From the shore of Upper Lake it takes about 20 minutes on foot via the so-called Green Road to the actual monastery town east of Lower Lake. First you pass the Reefert Church, whose Irish name Righ Fearta means “Tomb of the Kings”. With its location away from the path and surrounded by trees, this church ruin together with the surrounding gravestones has a very special charm. The Green Road, an old pilgrim path, continues through forests that here and there offer a view of Lower Lake and the beautiful valley. And then suddenly the striking round tower rises up in the middle of the forest – if you like, the landmark of Glendalough.
Over a small bridge you enter the monastery town and go straight towards St. Kevin’s Church. The compact church tower was often mistakenly interpreted as a chimney, which earned the church the nickname St. Kevin’s Kitchen. If you walk up a few steps from the valley to the left, you will reach Priest’s House. It is believed that the relics of Saint Kevin were kept in this small building. The largest church building on the site is St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, construction of which began in the 10th century. Not far from there is the medieval entrance portal. It was originally supposed to have had two floors and was covered by a roof. Nowadays only the granite arches are preserved. Most visitors to Glendalough enter the monastery town through this portal, which can be reached directly from the Visitor Center.
The almost 30-metre-high round tower sits enthroned in the northern part of the complex. It is still in original condition, only the roof had to be repaired in 1876 with still existing original stones. The round tower served as a refuge for the fellow believers when the settlement was attacked.
And this happened quite often! During its heyday, the monastery town is said to have been attacked twenty times by Vikings, Normans and Irish troops. When Glendalough was the most important centre of faith in Ireland after Clonmacnoise, several thousand fellow believers lived in this valley in the Wicklow Mountains. Glendalough only gradually lost its importance when it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1214. After a devastating fire in 1398, the monastery was destroyed.