Glendalough, County Wicklow

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 29, March 22, 1862

THE valley of Glendalough, commonly called the Seven Churches, is situated in the barony of Ballinacor, twenty-two Irish miles from Dublin. It is very spacious, being between one and two thousand yards in breadth, and about two miles and a half in extent, having lofty and precipitous mountains hanging over it upon every side, except on that by which it is entered between Derrybawn on the south, and Broccagh mountain on the north.

The visiter passes up the valley, through which a stream winds, for about half a mile, and ascending an eminence in the road, sees before him, at a quarter of a mile distance, the site of the Bishopric and Abbey of Glendalough. Nothing can be more grand and interesting than this view--interesting from the association of ideas connected with these ruins--interesting from the wild and sublime character of the scenery around. The principal ruins stand on a green eminence that slopes down gradually from the breast of a mountain ridge, separating two deep glens, and terminating in a rich verdant swell just above the churches; the vale to the left is that of Glendalough, that is, the glen of the two lakes; that to the right neither so extensive nor so deep, nor surrounded with such precipitous mountains, contains some rich lead mines, which are now in full work; at the foot of the eminence on which the ruins stand, the streams, flowing from the glens to the left and right, unite and form the river, which running down by Lara, falls into the Ovoca.

The ruins of Glendalough are more interesting from their grouping and position than from any grandeur in their separate parts. Here is a lofty and perfect round tower, and also one of the old stone-roofed buildings, similar to that on the Rock of Cashel and at St. Doulough's, near Dublin, which is called Kevin's kitchen. From the round tower there is a full view up the two glens and down the valley towards Lara. The churchyard surrounding those buildings was entered by an old ivied Saxon arch, which now only kept from falling by the ivy that surrounds it. The extraordinary position of those buildings, in the midst of the lonely mountains, placed at the entrance of a glen singularly deep and secluded, with its two dark lakes winding far in gloom and solitariness, and over which deep vale hang mountains of the most abrupt forms, in whose every fissure, linn, and gorge, there is a wild and romantic clothing of oak, and birch, and holly, is peculiarly interesting. On the southern side of the vale are the hills of Derrybawn and Lugduff, in the latter of which is St. Kevin's bed, a natural excavation in front of a perpendicular rock, thirty feet above the surface of the lake.

The late Rev. Caesar Otway thus describes his visit to it; and as more than one of the names which he mentions as having been recorded upon its sides have, since his time, been obliterated, we give the author's own words: "By this time we had rowed under St. Kevin's Bed, and landing adjoining to it, ascended an inland stratum of rock to a sort of ledge or resting-place, from whence I and some others prepared to enter the Bed. Here the guides make much ado about proposing their assistance; but to any one who has common sense and enterprise, there is no serious difficulty; for by the aid of certain holes in the rock, and points which you can easily grasp, you can turn into this little artificial cave, which, in fact, is not bigger than a small baker's oven. I, and two young men who followed me, found it a very tight fit when crouched together in it. At the further end there is a sort of pillow and peculiar excavation made for the saint's head, and the whole of the interior is tattooed with the initials of such as have ventured to come in. Amongst many I could observe those of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Combermere, etc., and we were shewn the engravings of certain blue-stocking dames--as, for instance, Lady Morgan, who had made it her temporary 'boudoir.' The names of Thomas Moore, Maria Edgeworth, and of Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, also occur. We were informed that not long ago an adventurous Scotch earl chose to spend the night in this singular bed with his son, a young child, and that his lordship did not get a wink of sleep, being kept awake not by the interference of any visitor from the other world, not by the hardness of his couch, nor the breaking of the waves immediately below, but by the snoring of his over-tired companion."

The city, proper, of Glendalough was anciently surrounded by an immense wall or cashel, the chief gateway of which, until lately, remained perfect. It consisted of an outer and inner archway, truly Roman in character, and which in any other country would have been carefully preserved. The great archway for many years was in a tottering condition, and it was easy to see it must come down.

St Kevin's Kitchen is now the most perfect of the Seven Churches. It is roofed with stone, and has a steeple at one end, a perfect miniature of the round towers. It was lighted by one window, the architrave of which was of freestone richly sculptured, but want of good feeling and of good taste permitted this enriched moulding to be carried away and triturated into powder for domestic purposes. The interior measures twenty two feet nine inches in length by fifteen in breath; its height is twenty feet, and the thickness of the walls three feet six inches. At the eastern end an arch, the chord of which measures five feet three inches, opens a communication with a smaller chapel, ten feet six inches in length by nine feet three inches in width, having also a small eastern window.

The several lower courses of the walls are of a coarse mountain granite; their thickness is three feet, and height about twelve; the door is six feet eight inches high, two feet four inches at the top, and four inches wider at the bottom, the stones running the entire thickness of the wall.

The belfry, which rises from the west end of the church, is a round tower, about fifty feet in height; it is accessible by a small aperture in the ceiling, over which, between the cove and the roof is a large dark void; it was lighted by a small loop-hole near the summit. The roof of the church, which is still perfect, and very curious is comprised of thin stones or flags, neatly laid, and with a very high pitch; the ridge of the roof is thirty feet, while that of the double building at the east end is only twenty.

Beneath the dark, frowning cliff of Lugduff, on a little patch of arable land, almost inaccessible, except by water, are the ruins of a church called Teampull na Skellig--i. e. the Temple of the Desert or Rock; it is also called the Priory of the Rock and St Kevin's cell. Here the saint used to seclude himself, and spend his time in penitence and prayer.

The most eastern church, perhaps the most important, and which is nearest to the entrance to the vale, is generally called the Abbey, and was dedicated, like the cathedral, to St Peter and St Paul. St Kevin's well lies near the pathway leading from the Rhefeart church to the Abbey. The Abbey appears to have been the most masterly specimen of architecture amongst this extensive collection of ecclesiastical remains. It originally consisted of two buildings parallel to each other, and of curious and beautiful workmanship; the eastern window was ornamented with rich sculpture. Several of the carved stones were removed and used as key-stones for the arches of the bridge at Derrybawn, but some very curious devices are still to be seen; on one is an engraved wolf, with his tail in his mouth, the whole figure within a triangle.

The wolf was an old inhabitant of Glendalough, and not totally extirpated until 1710; the triangle may have some reference to the Trinity. On another stone two ravens are represented peeking at a skull, a mere emblem of mortahty. Runic knots may be discovered on several stones; on one is seen a wolf, the tail of which is entwined in the hair of a man's head; and on others wolves, or rather wild beasts in general, are represented devouring human heads, all simple emblems of mortality.These specimens are quite unique in Ireland.