The 1400 Year Old Monk

Once upon a time, in the dim mists of history there lived a monk named Kevin.

Seriously.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

_72D5515v1-1200For 500 years, Glendalough remained in decline.  Then, in the late 1800’s a reconstruction project began.

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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.

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Although now located in Dublin, the dioceses of Glendalough survives to this day.  Kevin, in a way, has survived all these many years.

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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.

50 thoughts on “The 1400 Year Old Monk

  1. Every shot is terrific, what a beautiful area. The tower framed in the window is perfect. I can see the care they took in on those walls, carefully fitting together rough fieldstones.
    So the ten-foot-high doors are in case of surprise visits from Vikings?

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    1. I suspect there was many a rock wall fitting specialist back in the day. Especially in the north of Ireland, we saw loads of fields with rock walls, hand fitted where you’d find barbed wire in our own barbarous country. I understand the art of rock fitting (as well as thatching) are dwindling away.
      Yes, I image the ten foot high doors are in case of Vikings, local greedy lairds, passing riff-raff, and possibly the landlord. Probably easier than building a moat and drawbridge.

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  2. Hi Dave!

    This was a great post! I enjoyed reading it very much, and the pictures are beautiful. Makes me want to go there.

    Fun fact: I chose St. Kevin as my patron saint when I was baptized as a young boy. When I was trying to choose a saint and the priest was reeling off a list of them with a one- or two-word description of what they were patron saints of, when he said “patience”, I chose that one, because I had very little of it at the time. Or now.

    In retrospect, I think it was a very good choice for me. The reason for this can best be described from the following passage (stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia): “… following his ordination, he moved on to Glendalough in order to avoid the company of his followers”. I, too, am quite uncomfortable around people.

    I used to dream of being a hermit, but I found out that it didn’t pay very well.

    Also, the story of St. Kevin and the blackbird also makes him quite appealing as a patron saint.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It did! Very much. I would love to go to Ireland and you wrote about it so well.

        I have written a few times in my blog posts that I would love to be a hermit. Albeit a hermit with all of the creature comforts (air conditioning, lots to eat, a comfy chair, etc.). In reality, I would not have made a very good hermit. I’ve got the “don’t care for crowds” thing down pat, but I like creature comforts too much.

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  3. I love this place and the Wicklow mountains. It appears that you listened to the tour guide. Something I have a hard time doing. As a result, I’ve just learned more about the place from you than I did when I was actually on the tour. Kevin does seem to be a strange name for a monk. I’d expect it to at least be spelled “Kevyne” or something. And 1111…what a year. Love the monochrome on the photos.

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    1. I did listen to the guide, but I used Google to refresh the details. About the only item the guide mentioned that didn’t pop up in the searches was the sanctuary choice. It does seem like Kevin would be an odd name for that era, and the fact they’d be speaking gaelic – I suspect the actual name would be spelled differently. I thought I’d give the toned monochrome a whirl, just to see if I could get an old timey feel.

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  4. The way you’ve done the photos really brings back the 500-yo mood! I never really thought about what kinds of people decided to spend their lives in monasteries; I guess I assumed they were all from religious families. Interesting history and beautiful current-day spot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lex, I was hoping the tone would invoke an old timey feel. I suspect there are many reasons for going to a monastery, but I’d guess not being a first born son that inherits land, or looking for the spiritual cachet that might come from being associated with the church might be a couple reasons. The drive up to the ruins was one of the more scenic we did on the trip.

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  5. The first few pictures looked a little eerie, especially the shot of the cemetery. 🙂 The sepia tones blend well your narrative of the place and those stony structures. But, it was the last few shots of the blue sky and green pastures that stole the show for me! 🙂

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    1. Hi Joe, nice to meet you. Sometimes my posts will have an educational aspect, sometimes I’ll go other directions. Photography tends to drive the stories, it’s been a hobby since I was a kid.

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    1. Thanks, Randall. I suspect Kevin would have shunned beer, and probably wine too unless it was for communion. I read he barely ate anything and wore animal skins. Not exactly Friar Tuck.

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  6. It looks a fascinating place, Dave. I never managed to get an opportunity to go there. Out of interest, in reference to Randall’s comment, back in the day monks, in common with the entire population, would have drunk beer as a matter of course. It was safer than water.

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    1. Tis true, back in the day folks would drink beer rather than water as it could be more sanitary – especially in cities. But I suspect in the wilds that Kevin lived in, especially with a couple lakes nearby, that the water was safe. As the centuries piled up and the population increased that may have changed.

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      1. I can’t answer for Ireland, of course, but in most monasteries they brewed their own beer as a matter of course – Cellarer was an important post – but if the water was fresh I’m sure they would have drunk it. And talking of lakes, ain’t that a cue for a fish story?

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  7. I’m currently reading a book (de Hamel’s “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts”) where Irish monasteries are given quite a lot of prominence. I never knew that it was Irish monks who actually sailed to spread the Gospels in England and even Europe. Quite refreshing to find a Kevin (who cannot but be named Kev!) amongst all those Aoife, Bede, Columba and all those incredibly complicated Gaelic names.

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    1. Living in a country that’s only 250 years old or so, it’s kind of mind boggling when you run into this sort of thing. There’s so little we know about that era.
      I figured after the mood of the monochrome shots, something more upbeat would be a nice way to finish. (And I do like beautiful 🙂 )

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  8. It is difficult to be a hermit in Ireland 🙂 Kevin is quite a popular name here – I don’t know if it is thanks to him. May be not. The crowds of tourists visiting Glendalough every day are his doing though 🙂

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      1. No Gaelic, Dave. The youth study it in school, they are good at it. I only know the words that are used in a daily life, like the road or any other signs :). Or like Oireachtas, which is the Parliament 🙂

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