Stone-slabbed tombstones and weather-beaten Celtic crosses lean askew like jumbled toothpicks among the ruins of the monastic city. The tumbled walls at Glendalough proclaim the rise and fall of Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. But I have not met anyone who hasn’t felt this place curiously alive today.
Glendalough, located 30 miles southwest of Dublin, means Valley of the Two Lakes in Gaelic. The ruins rest at the end of a narrow, glacially sculpted U-shaped valley flanked by 500-foot tall semi-forested ridges, an oasis of green in the rocky and bog-strewn Wicklow Mountains. Just beyond the edge of the monastic city lie the lake shores of the Upper and Lower Lakes with their clear mountain waters reflecting the sharp slopes of the cliff walls.
St. Kevin, or Coemgen (pronounced Cave-Yin), chose this valley for his monastery in the sixth century. A lover of nature and solitude, Kevin himself frequently retreated to a cave high above the Upper Lake, known today as St. Kevin’s Bed, where he lived as a hermit for long periods before returning to the monastery proper. Still, even in his solitary retreat he welcomed guests and friends, provided they could reach him in his steep, cliff-faced dwelling.
But the monastery he founded was anything but hermetic, and in the centuries following his death Glendalough grew to become a major center of religion and learning, a “monastic city” of monks, lay peasants, and surrounding landed patrons.
Just a few generations removed from St. Patrick’s Christianization of Ireland, monasteries were popping up across the island like mushrooms. Some, like Skellig Michael off the southwest coast, were built on wind-battered rocks where monks subjected themselves to nature’s harshest tunes. Others, like Glendalough, drew their energy from nature’s lavish abundance.
This was Ireland’s Golden Age, from the fifth to the ninth century. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400’s, continental Europe found itself in a state of chaos amid the power vacuum. Since the Romans had never set out to conquer Ireland—having peered at its shores from England and writing it off as Hibernia, the Land of Winter—Ireland didn’t experience Rome’s sudden withdrawal.
From such monasteries came learned men and women of the Golden Age. They were the secretaries and printing presses of the day, writing histories of the pre-Christian Celts and copying Christian holy books with exquisitely scrolled artwork. Over the next few centuries they effectively re-Christianized the continent, re-establishing monasteries, churches, and places of learning where ruins had been left in the wake of the Roman departure.
But changes lurked on the horizon. Vikings sacked the monastic city for gold vessels and other treasure several times between 900 and 1100 A.D.. Glendalough survived these plundering expeditions, but finally met its end at the hands of the Anglo-Normans. The armies of King Richard II destroyed the monastery in 1398, fearing the potential power of an Irish center of learning amid the spreading and thickening Anglo-Norman seats of power.
Then Glendalough entered its long sleep. Locals buried their dead among and within the decaying walls. Today the Round Tower, St. Kevin’s Church, the Gateway, the Cathedral, and several other structures serve as reminders of the Golden Age. Some are mere sections of remaining walls, while others have been reconstructed.
But the forested hills and the clear lakes keep Glendalough alive. An off-shoot of the 80-mile Wicklow Way hillwalking trail traverses the mountainside, and a three-hour ridge trail encircles the lakes on boardwalk spanning rock, bog, and forest. A mountain stream cascades through Poulnass Falls.
One such side-trail in the upper hills leads to St. Kevin’s Cell, another removed but less severely hermetic site than his cave bed. Here the story is told how Kevin cradled a nesting blackbird in the palm of his outstretched hand for weeks until her young hatched and flew away. The apocryphal story no doubt points to his love of nature.
But the poet Seamus Heaney imagines Kevin dissolving into the landscape itself throughout the ordeal: “For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird / And on the river bank forgotten the river’s name.”
Ireland’s medieval monastic Golden Age long ago fell into ruins alongside the weathered stones. But at Glendalough it still feels present and alive. Like St. Kevin nursing his blackbird’s nest, the stone walls of the monastic city dissolve into the lush forest and clear mountain lakes, and go on living.