The valley of Glendalough lies in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. It received a lot of publicity recently with the visit there by the Michelle Obama and her two daughters, as part of their stay in Ireland. The valley has been drawing people to it for thousands of years. It is a world renowned Monastic site, and it is probably the most important one in Ireland.
Fourteen centuries have passed since the site was founded by Saint Kevin. Before his arrival the area would have been totally desolate, thus allowing him the peace and tranquility he was searching for to build his monastic ‘city’. For over 500 years it was a place of worship and ecclesiastical learning. It was plundered and attacked many times by the Danes, and eventually it ceased to be used as a monastery. The buildings fell into disarray and the area was deserted. It was 600 years before reconstruction work began in 1878, and then more work was carried out in the 20th century.
Today Glendalough is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ireland. It is less than an an hour’s drive from the center of Dublin city. Apart from being visited by thousands of tourists yearly it is also used on a daily basis by locals walking their dogs through the many woodland trails, or just as a place to escape the pressures of daily life.
When my children were younger, Glendalough was a firm favorite for a day trip. It offers everything you need for a family day out. Woodland walks, tearooms, restaurant, sports activities on the lakes, and picnic areas. There is also a heritage center offering an audio visual show, guided tours available in multiple languages, and an information center. For those who wish to stay over night and explore the surrounding countryside there is The Glendalough Hotel just outside the site, and many other hotels, guest houses, restaurants and pubs in the local villages close by.
On a more recent visit with my grown up children, after at least a ten year lapse, I saw Glendalough in a whole new light. All those years ago with young children in toe, I was usually tuned into them and their activities and needs, this time I was tuned into myself and my surroundings. There is something magical and alluring about the Valley of Glendalough. The dramatic valley was carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age, thus forming two lakes as the ice melted, known as the upper and lower lakes. There is a tranquility and peace about he place, and a feeling of being somewhere special. If you do your homework and check out the history of the place you will be rewarded by a better understanding of the various remains of the monastic site as you you come upon them.
The most impressive of the remains is the Round Tower, standing 30m high. It is the iconic symbol of Glendalough, and can be seen from all over the site. There are also two churches, St. Mary’s and St Kevin’s, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, and a cathedral, the largest church on the site. There is a large granite cross dating back to the sixth or seventh century, and a cavity in the cliff known as St. Kevin’s bed or hermitage, and an extensive burial ground.
As we walked around, we read some of the inscriptions on the ancient gravestones, we listened in on the tour guides imparting their knowledge to groups of tourists from all over the world, and we strolled through idyllic woodland paths. We sat at the lakes and were lost in the beauty of the valley all around us, and intrigued by a line of trees standing like sentinels on top of the mountain looking down onto the valley below.
The day I visited recently was wet and dull, and as the day advanced, the mist set in, enveloping the lakes and all around them in an eerie kind of way. For me, this added to the mystique of the place and an understanding of the sense of isolation that would have been felt here by those early monks many centuries ago.