Once upon a time, in the dim mists of history there lived a monk named Kevin.
Back in the late 500’s, Kevin, looking for a bit of peace and quiet to contemplate his spirituality, found it in a remote valley in an area now called Glendalough. Kevin looked for a quiet existence, but word of a holy man in the wilds spread, and soon acolytes and fellow seekers came to join him.
So much for being a religious hermit.
A monastery was built, and over the years a series of churches and supporting buildings were added. And at the entrance to the grounds, a gate.
Back in the day, folks who had run afoul of the law would seek sanctuary in churches and monasteries. Once they reached the gates of Glendalough the monks gave them an offer: they could have sanctuary for a year, but after that, they either must leave or take up the brotherhood. After that year many of the outlaws, enjoying the peace and stability of maintaining the monastery, decided it was a better life than the one they ran away from. And so the compound grew.
1500 years later, a different sort of pilgrims descended on that same valley. Turning on our time machine, we looked for vestiges of Kevin and his followers.
The tower is a rather pronounced vestige. Nearly 100 feet high, you’d need to be quite tall just to enter the door; it’s 10 feet off the ground. The tower originally had six timber floors, connected by ladders. The four stories above the entrance level are each lit by a small window. The top story has four windows facing the cardinal compass points. Towers such as this were landmarks for approaching visitors or served as bell towers, but also were used as store-houses and as places of refuge in times of attack.
Despite several attacks by Vikings between 775 and 1071 the monastery flourished for its first 600 years or so, and along with Clonmacnoise became one of the two leading monasteries in Ireland. Most of the buildings that can be seen today were built in the 1000-1200 era. At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Glendalough was designated one of two dioceses of the province of North Leinster, and Kevin’s legacy grew.
Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214. After the attack the dioceses of Glendalough was moved to Dublin, and the cultural and religious status of Glendalough declined as the status of the Dublin dioceses expanded. The settlement was destroyed again by English forces in 1398, but even as a ruin it continued to be a local place of worship and a pilgrimage destination.
For 500 years, Glendalough remained in decline. Then, in the late 1800’s a reconstruction project began.
In addition to the ruins of churches, the grounds have become a cemetery. The local high and mighty apparently considered it a final resting place of high repute, equivalent to being buried at the Vatican. While most of the headstones are from hundreds of years past, a few modern ones poke up here and there, short-circuiting our time machine and returning us to the present.
And as for his choice of landscape, the route leading to Glendalough is no longer wild, and the Wicklow mountains and valleys provide a place of scenic beauty.