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The stunning landscape of historic Glendalough.

Glendalough Monastic City: Center for a Spiritual Retreat and Scholastic Betterment…Except During Viking Raids

Glendalough is a Medieval site located in County Wicklow, in the eastern Irish province of Leinster. It is renowned for its early Christian monastic settlement, which developed over the centuries into an extensive, wealthy monastic complex and a Dark Age beacon of learning and scholarship. Even after it fell into decline in the 13th century, pilgrims continued to visit this holy site, helping to conserve the ruins till today.

Glen of Two Lakes

Glendalough is the Anglicized version of ‘Gleann Dá Loch’, which is Irish for ‘Glen / Valley of Two Lakes’. As its name suggests, there are two lakes in this valley, the Upper and Lower Lakes, with the monastic complex situated in the land between them. It has been speculated that the human settlement of the valley goes as far back as the Neolithic period. Nevertheless, Glendalough only became a prominent site around the 6th century AD.

The monastic city sits in a picturesque landscape with a river flowing through the valley, two lakes, and is surrounded by mountains. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The monastic city sits in a picturesque landscape with a river flowing through the valley, two lakes, and is surrounded by mountains. (Ioannis Syrigos)

St. Kevin and the Church’s Landownership of Glendalough

During the latter half of that century, the Irish saint St. Kevin arrived in Glendalough and founded a monastic settlement, which served as a remote hermitage for those who wished to retreat from the affairs of the world.

The saint is recorded to have died in around 618 AD, and the monastic community he had founded continued to thrive after his death. By the end of the 8th century AD, up to a thousand laypeople were employed by the monastery to grow crops and tend livestock. In other words, the monastery was an important landowner during that period of time.

The monastic city can be seen in the distance. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The monastic city can be seen in the distance. (Ioannis Syrigos)

Vikings Attack Glendalough Monastic City

The great wealth of the Glendalough Monastic City did not go unnoticed, and the site was plundered by Vikings on numerous occasions over the centuries. Although the raiders caused much destruction, the monastery was rebuilt each time.

The site’s final destruction, however, occurred in 1398 at the hands of the English. Nevertheless, the monastic city had already lost its importance by that time. In 1215, Glendalough was subsumed into the diocese of Dublin, and therefore lost its status as the most important church in Leinster. Moreover, the lands owned by the monastic community were also taken and redistributed.

Inside the remains of a church in the monastic city. (Ioannis Syrigos)

Inside the remains of a church in the monastic city. (Ioannis Syrigos)

Remembering the City’s Heyday

Although Glendalough Monastic City no longer wielded the political and economic power it once enjoyed, it retained its role as a site of spiritual significance, and has attracted pilgrims throughout the ages. Pilgrims continue to visit Glendalough, though there are also many tourists who visit it to have a look at its historical monuments. Most of the structures that visitors can see at the site were built between the 10th and the 12th centuries AD, during Glendalough’s heyday.

A well-preserved building in the monastic city. (Ioannis Syrigos)

A well-preserved building in the monastic city. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The ruins at Glendalough Monastic City include a gateway, a round tower, seven churches, two high crosses, as well as a graveyard.

In the past, the monastic city was enclosed by a wall, though little of it has remained. Fortunately, its gateway still stands – it is said to be the only surviving example in Ireland of a gateway into an early monastic city. Just inside the gateway is a sanctuary stone with a cross inscribed on it. Anyone who passes the stone could claim refuge within the monastery’s walls.

A Celtic cross in the Glendalough graveyard. (Ioannis Syrigos)

A Celtic cross in the Glendalough graveyard. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The historic graveyard at Glendalough. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The historic graveyard at Glendalough. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The Round Tower

The most noticeable monument at the site, however, is the round tower, which rises to a height of 33 meters (108 feet). The round tower was probably used primarily as a bell tower, hence its other name, ‘cloigtheach’ (meaning ‘bell tower’). Nevertheless, this structure was used for other purposes as well, for instance, as a lookout post, or as a place of refuge when the monastery was attacked.

The round tower at Glendalough. (Ioannis Syrigos)

The round tower at Glendalough. (Ioannis Syrigos)

Top image: The stunning landscape of historic Glendalough. Source: Ioannis Syrigos

All images courtesy of Ioannis Syrigos.

By Wu Mingren

References

Glendalough Hermitage Centre, 2011. The Monastic Site. [Online]
Available at: http://www.glendaloughhermitage.ie/glendalough/the-monastic-site/

Dempsey, J., 2018. Glendalough Monastic Site. [Online]
Available at: http://www.megalithicireland.com/Glendalough%20Monastic.html

Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs, 2017. The Monastic Sites of Glendalough. [Online]
Available at: http://www.wicklowmountainsnationalpark.ie/history/monastic-sites/

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, 2018. Monastic City. [Online]
Available at: http://www.glendalough.ie/heritage/monastic-city/

Lonely Planet, 2018. Glendalough Monastic Site. [Online]
Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/ireland/attractions/glendalough-monastic-site/a/poi-sig/1353630/359794

The Discovery Programme, 2014. Glendalough. [Online]
Available at: http://monastic.ie/history/glendalough/

Visit Wicklow, 2017. Glendalough Monastic City – Ireland's Ancient East. [Online]
Available at: http://visitwicklow.ie/item/glendalough-monastic-city/

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