The most famous landmark of Glendalough is surely its tall and impressive round tower. The 30 metre high tower is said to have been built between the 10th and 12th centuries and is built of slate and granite. The conical roof of the tower underwent full rebuilding in 1876, but was done so using the original stones of the tower which had been severely damaged over the centuries, most significantly by English forces in 1398. The tower originally had six floors which could be accessed using ladders leading from each floor to the next. Like most of Ireland’s early Christian round towers, the doorway is placed well above head level (3.5 metres in this case). This prevented intruders from gaining easy access to the tower. Once inside, the monks could pull up the entrance ladder to make it difficult for attackers to enter the tower. Round Towers in general had several functions, namely as storehouses, bell towers, look out points, places of refuse during attack and prominent guidance landmarks for pilgrims and visitors.
The gateway into the monastic city of Glendalough is the only surviving example of its kind in Ireland. You can easily imagine the full scale of the gateway into the compound not only from the impressive remains but from surviving evidence indicating the full extent of the gateways architecture and structure. The graceful stone arches of the gateway is flanked on both sides by what would have originally been a set of two-storeyed gate houses/towers. Inside the gateway is an inscribed stone which indicated the boundary of the monastic site and the beginning of Glendalough place of refuge and spirituality. A paved pathway leads up from the gateway towards the Cathedral and Round Tower.
The Cathedral is the largest building in the monastic city of Glendalough. The Cathedral was built in several stages with the earliest part being the existing nave and antae. The chancel and sacristy were added later between the 12th and 13th centuries. The main doorway also dates from this time. Under the window to the south is a stone basin used for washing sacred vessels and there is also a small aumbry in the wall.
The stones used in the building of the nave were from an earlier church.
One of Ireland’s most unusual and largest high crosses can be seen at Glendalough. The huge cross is carved from one single piece of granite. The cross is unusual in that it is not pierced through the ring like most Irish High Crosses. (In other words there is no opening through the ring of stone intersecting the haft and arms of the cross. This is certainly the only high cross I have seen in Ireland that is unpierced like this. The arms of the cross are over a metre in length.
A local legend surrounding the St. Kevin’s Cross at Glendalough says that anyone who can wrap their arms around the entire width of the cross body will have their wishes granted.
Another interesting and well restored and preserved building at the Glendalough monastic site is the Priest’s House. The original purpose of this building is not known for sure but it may have housed relics of St. Kevin. The building got its name from its function as a place for burying priests here during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Romanesque building has a fine decorative Romanesque march and there are several old gravestones and tombs inside the building itself.
The building has been heavily restored but originality has been ensured by studying and imitating the details shown in many fine sketches made by Beranger in 1779.
St. Kevin’s Church (also known strangely as St. Kevin’s Kitchen) is one of Glendalough’s most impressive buildings. It is quite an unusual church when compared to other early Christian Ireland churches mainly due to its strange looking round bell tower.
Originally the building only had a small nave with one door and one small window but the church was later expanded to include a chancel (which no longer exists) and a sacristy. The steep stone roof holds a croft which had a wooden floor and was accessed through an opening in the eastern part of the floor. The small ‘mini round tower’ belfry rises from the western end of the building and many believe this small tower is what gave the church its nickname of ‘St. Kevin’s Kitchen’ because approaching visitors supposedly mistook the tower for a chimney and presumed the building must therefore be a cook house!
Just before St. Kevin’s Church are the remains of St. Kieran’s Church. These remains were only discovered in 1875. The church is probably dedicated to St. Kieran who is more famed for founding the wonderful monastic site at Clonmacnoise in Co. Offaly. Clonmacnoise had strong connections to Glendalough during the 10th century.
St. Kevin’s Cell sits on a rocky outcrop on a ledge above the upper lake near Poulanass Waterfall. Only small traces of the stone ‘bee-hive’ hut remain at the site but there was once a fine early Christian monastic hut with corbelled roof and was reputedly the place where St. Kevin used to sleep when he first arrived to Glendalough and later when he wanted solitude and peace. All that remains of the 3.6 metre in diameter hut are the foundation stones. For a better impression of what the hut would have originally looked like, you can see examples of stone bee-hive huts on the Aran Islands, the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry and on Skellig Mhicil aff the Kerry Coast.
St. Mary’s Church, also known as Our Lady’s Church, is one of the earliest buildings at Glendalough. The remains of the church has some examples of Romanesque moulding and carving while the massive lintel of the west doorway was an unusual saltire cross carving. The church lies to the east of the main monastic city.
Reefert Church is located in a small wooded area near the western bank of the Upper Lake. The nave and chancel of the church dates from around the year 1100 but most of the surrounding walls and trenches are more modern. The church displays evidence of projecting corbels which indicate that the church once had a wooden roof but none of this survives today. There are several ancient crosses around the church, some of which display some fine examples of Celtic interlacing. The name of the church derives from ‘Righ Fearta’ which translates as burial place of the Kings which indicates that the church may mark the site of an important burial ground.
Located between the two lakes is the ‘Caher’ which is a large stone walled circular enclosure. The exact date of its construction is unknown. The Caher would have been used as a fort and meeting point and place of prayer for pilgrims. Nearby are several stone crosses which mark stations on the pilgrims route.
Poulanass Waterfall is located a short walk from the UpperLake. The falls are located up a wooded hill on well signposted trail through the woods. The tall but narrow falls are set in a beautiful woodland area and cut through the rock to fall in several steps and form a series of plunge pools along the falls. The name Poulanass derives from the Irish words 'Poll an Eas' which means 'hole of the waterfall'.
The Upper and Lower Lakes of Glendalough add significantly to the spectacular setting of the Valley of Glendalough and the area alongside and around the lakes is a popular place for walkers and hikers as well as picnicking day trippers from Dublin City. Around the lakes are several important monastic sites including Reefert Church, The Caher, St. Kevin’s Cell, St. Kevin’s Bed and Temple-na-Skellig. On the far side of the Lake the Wicklow Mountains rise steeply up from the shores of the Upper Lake.
While most visitors come to Glendalough tosee the fantastic monastic treasures on display, Glendalough is also a National Park and Nature Reserve and the park is a walker’s paradise. There are nine marked walking trails in the valley of Glendalough. The walks vary from a short half hour stroll to a long four hour hillwalk. Large maps of the walks are displayed at the Visitor Centre beside the Monastic City and on the Notice Board at the Upper Lake car park. All the walks start at the National Park Information Office near the Upper Lake. Each trail is signposted with colour-coded arrows. Staff at the Information Office can help you choose a suitable route.
A map of the Walking Trails is on sale at the Information Office at the Upper Lake and from the Visitor Centre at the Monastic City. A copy of the map and descriptions of the walks are posted on the notice boards at the Upper Lake car park and at the Monastic City Visitor Centre.
This small church can only be accessed by boat due to its situation on a awkwardly placed piece of land on the southern shore of the Upper Lake. You can however catch a glimpse of the church as you walk along the northern shore and look back across the lake to the southern shore. The church was partly rebuilt during the 12th century but the original church is much older. Around the church are several ancient stone crosses and grave slabs.