Our Lady's Church at Glendalough, County Wicklow

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter VII-10 | Start of chapter

Our Lady's Church, a small ruinous structure, stands to the west of the cathedral, the architecture of which appears to have been less rude than that of the other churches. There are several recesses in the wall, in which women who desire to become matrons are recommended to turn round three times. The effects of the pirouette, under the influence of the "blessed mother," are said to be truly miraculous. The Rhefeart, or Sepulchre of Kings, is situated between the two lakes, and is celebrated as the burial-place of the O'Tooles, the ancient dynasts of this country. On a tomb in this church is an inscription in the Irish character, defaced by age, which indicated it as the "resting-place" of a prince of that race, who died in the year 810. The Priory of St. Saviour, commonly called the Eastern Church, and the Ivy Church, which has obtained its name from the plant with which its ruins are overgrown, are not of sufficient importance to require more than a passing notice. Teampull na Skellig, or the Temple of the Rock or Desert, situated in a solitary nook beneath the impending mountain of Lugduff, is the last of what are commonly called the "Seven Churches" of this glen. To this small rude fabric, almost inaccessible except by water, St. Kevin was wont to retire during the season of Lent, devoting himself to prayer and devout exercises. Tradition relates that on one occasion, when the holy man was praying at a window in this chapel, with one hand extended in a supplicating attitude, a blackbird descended and deposited her eggs in his open palm. The saint, moved with compassion for the bird, did not withdraw his hand, but remained in the same position until the creature had hatched her eggs. For which reason, in all representations of St. Kevin, he is shown with an outstretched arm, and supporting in his hand a bird's-nest.

The Abbey, though now completely in ruins, is the most extensive and the most interesting of the architectural vestiges of Glendalough. It consisted originally of two buildings, lying parallel to each other, of rare and beautiful workmanship, adorned with curious sculptures; but of these only detached fragments are now visible; the earth rises in wavy hillocks over the fallen enrichments, and matted trees and brambles overgrow the decaying walls. Some of the specimens of ancient sculpture found in the vicinity of the abbey, though rude, are of great interest. On one stone is represented a wolf gnawing a human head; on another, the head of a young man whose long hair is entwined with the tail of the animal. A writer of great antiquarian knowledge observes, that "the hair thus thrown back from the forehead, was the genuine Irish Coleen or Glibb." Wolves were not wholly extirpated until the year 1710, and in attaching the hair of the man to the tail of the animal, the sculptor intended, perhaps, to typify the fondness of the one for the pursuit of the other.

The last object of interest in this wild glen to which we shall direct our reader's attention is the celebrated St. Kevin's Bed, a small cave hollowed in the face of the perpendicular rock, and overhanging, at a considerable height, the dark waters of the lake. The path which conducts to the aerial couch of the solitary recluse is fearfully narrow, and the stranger must be endowed with more than ordinary nerve, who (though assured by the guides that there is not the least danger in the attempt) can muster courage enough to climb the perilous-looking track without an involuntary shudder, or a consciousness of—

——" That sense of danger which sublimes

The breathless moment, when his daring step

Is on the verge of the cliff, and he can hear

The low dash of the wave with startled ear,

Like the death-music of his coming doom."

The romantic tradition attached to this cave, even more than its singular situation, has given it an extraordinary celebrity, and has formed the subject of Moore's Irish Melody, commencing—

"By that lake whose gloomy shore

Skylark never warbles o'er," &c.

It is related that St. Kevin, who in his youth was not less remarkable for his exemplary piety than for his personal beauty, captivated the heart of a beautiful and high-born maiden, named Kathleen; but the warm glances from Kathleen's "eyes of most unholy blue" had no power to melt the young anchorite's frigid heart, and in order to be freed from the interruptions of her visits, he concealed himself in a cave which he had formed in the face of Lugduff mountain. In this sequestered spot he fancied himself secure from the temptations of the sex; but the fond girl had tracked her lover's steps to his rocky couch, and—

"Even now, while calm he sleeps,

Kathleen o'er him leans and weeps."

The catastrophe of the story is more creditable to the saint's purity than his humanity; for awakening from his slumbers, and perceiving a female beside his couch, he, in a moment of sudden anger, hurled her from the cliff into the lake below. No sooner had the gentle Kathleen sunk into the dark waters than the saint reproached himself for his cruel conduct; and though he could not save the life of her who had loved him so tenderly, he put up a prayer to heaven that no other mortal might find a watery grave in that lake,—a prayer that the peasantry in the neighbourhood firmly believe was granted.