By W. F. Wakeman
[From Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vol. III, No. 17, November 1861]
Some twenty years ago we paid our first visit to the "Valley of the Seven Churches"- "that inexpressibly singular scene of Irish antiquities," as described by Sir Walter Scott. Wishing to renew our impressions of what may justly be considered the most interesting and picturesque district in Ireland, we, in company with a friend, started one fine morning last May on a two days' tour in Wicklow, having arranged to make the Glen of the Two Lakes our resting-place for the night. We discarded the railway- a mode of conveyance more suited, we believe, to the requirements of mere business men, or lovers, parted, than to those of the leisurely tourist, whose object is to see God's work in its uncultured loveliness-
"To hold Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unrolled."
or, perhaps, to gain health and recreation amid the bright scenes and bracing air of the ever-beautiful country. Our bargain with the jarvy was soon completed, and in half an hour or so we had left old Dublin some miles behind us. St. Patrick's steeple was still visible, but the tower seemed to melt into a stratum of smoke, which even at that early hour (about nine o'clock a.m.) had gathered like a cloud over the lower parts of the city. After passing Dundrum we considered ourselves fairly in the country. Immediately on our right rose the Three Rock Mountain, the Slieve Rud, or Red Mountain of the Annalist, over which Red Hugh O'Donnell, after breaking prison in Dublin Castle, is recorded to have fled, on his way to the fastness of Glenmalure. To the northward, at a distance of between sixty and seventy miles, the sublime range of the Mourne Mountains, in the county Down, could be distinctly seen, as also Slieve Gullion, in the county Armagh. The greater and lesser Sugar Loaf rose to the south. How those lofty and pointed mountains acquired so unromantic a name has not as yet been traced by antiquaries, but the name is certainly anything but appropriate, and contrasts very unfavourably with that by which these mountains, from their form and colour, were known to our ancestors some centuries ago, viz.- the "Silver Spears." As we advanced, the scenery became more and more interesting. Sea and mountain, wood, rock, and meadow, in fact, every variety, was there, and above us, an intensely blue, summer heaven, varied with drifting, mist-like clouds, which seemed to hang about the mountain tops, every now and then melting into a bright, laughing shower. At Kilternan, six miles from Dublin, we stopped to visit what we believe to be the largest cromlech in Ireland. The covering stone, which remains in its original position, measures twenty-three feet by eighteen, and is about six feet thick. How the old Pagan builders of this ''giant's grave" could have lifted such a mass of rock upon its supporters, is a nice question for antiquaries. The cromlechs, we may say, had long been looked upon as altars erected by the Druids for the purpose of human sacrifices. They are now proved to be simply graves of a prehistoric period.
Leaving Kilternan, we soon arrived at the Scalp, a well-known pass, which seems to have been formed by the rending asunder of the mountain. The very bowels of the earth seem here exposed, huge masses of granite in some places actually overhanging the road. Some are detached from the parent rock, and have rolled down the precipice on either side of the road. Ireland, in several districts, is stony enough. In Clare, and in many parts of Galway, the surface of the earth is literally overspread with loose stones, which look, as an American gentleman quietly remarked, "like the riddlings of creation;" but here the mountain has evidently been parted by some great convulsion of Nature, and you see the living rock on either side, while many thousands, perhaps millions, of tons of stones have been cast widespread into the valley.
Enniskerry, in English, Sheep Island, is soon reached, a pretty village which seems to have grown up and flourished under the fostering care of the Powerscourt family. The Castle of Powerscourt stands hard by, and may be looked upon as one of the finest residences in Ireland. The present building represents an ancient fortalice of the Cavanaghs, who, in Feagh MacHugh's time, together with a few confederate chieftains, held a large portion of the county of Wicklow against all the forces of England that even Queen Elizabeth could send against them.
Powerscourt castle, whether through surprise or treachery, was at length taken by Marshal Wingfield, the direct ancestor of the present lord, and about eighty of the Cavenaghs, who chiefly constituted the garrison, were brought to Dublin, and hanged some few days after the capture. An original portrait of the Marshal, in fine preservation, is still to be seen at the castle.
Leaving Enniskerry, a short drive brought us to "the long hill," a very long and steep ascent over a portion of the Sugar Loaf mountain. Here it was that our carman first began to show his conversational talents. We had been requested to "ease the beast" by walking up the hill, a distance of about one mile and a quarter, and, of course, we obeyed, carmen, like nursetenders, having a completely despotic and untempered sway when on special duty.
"Faith, then, gentlemen, you're a merrier company than I saw here the last time."
"How is that ?" said my friend, while our Jehu was endeavouring to light a lucifer, beneath the shelter of the car. Puff, puff, and a grunt of satisfaction at the sight of the thread of blue smoke which swelled from the dhudeen, was the only reply. At length, the ignition being thoroughly accomplished, our friend could find his tongue, and as the mare tacked up the big hill, just as a ship will progress, in zig-zag against the wind, he informed us of a mishap which had befallen some visitors from England upon that very mountain some years before.
The tourists, it appeared, had determined on making the ascent of the Great Sugar Loaf, and had with them a hamper well stored with creature comforts; so well stored, indeed, that the weight of it was to the short-winded Saxons a subject much more pleasant to contemplate than to experience.
They, nevertheless, attempted the ascent, carrying the precious freight as best they could, but the day was intensely hot, and they were making but little way, growing more and more troubled every minute, when a fine specimen of a native, who sometimes acted as a local guide, appeared upon the scene. A bargain was soon made, that for the sum of two and sixpence the newcomer should shoulder the source of their present trouble, and, as they fondly imagined, future enjoyment, and convey it to the very summit of the mountain. The simple peasant guide seemed greatly to pity the inexperience, as mountaineers, of his now rather jaded employers, and with admirable consideration directed them by a route which, though somewhat longer, was less abruptly steep than that by which he himself should go. Few of our readers, we are sure, have not sometime or other experienced the effect of keen mountain air on their appetites, particularly after a long dusty summer day's drive, and not a little pedestrian exercise.
We may imagine, then, the visions of edibles and potables which floated upon the imaginations of the climbers, for had they not clubbed for the contents of the precious basket, and did they not each and all know to an ounce what was to be expected. On and on they went, getting every moment more desperate at the length of the journey and the steepness of the hill; but it was pleasant to see the guide doing his duty manfully, though even he seemed to suffer somewhat under the weight of his burden. He was not always visible, however, but then he would reappear from behind some rock, steadily working skyward, as if "excelsior" had been his motto.
At length, having reached to within about twenty yards of the summit, he rests the basket on the rock, and throws himself beside it with the air of one completely exhausted. The tourists presently gather round, and the poor fellow, in piteous accents, begs that their honours will convey his late burden the few yards farther it has to go themselves, as "he feels it coming on him, and he must hasten home, where he will have Judy to mind him."
"What's coming on ?-what's the matter?" they exclaimed.
"Why, then, your honours, it's the falling-sickness, that sometimes attacks me after I do be hard worked on a hot day like this, God bless it, and I feel just as if the fit was coming on now, and surely, gentlemen, twould only be a Christian act of kindness to let me go home, and to take the basket the few yards yourselves."
"All right," says one of the Englishmen; "here is your money, my man, and you had better get along home as quickly as possible: we shall be hard set, I dare say, to carry ourselves down over these cursed rocks, which roll about so under one, without having also to carry a man in a fit."
"Long life to your honour. I'll not lose a minute," said the fellow, slowly disappearing.
Ten minutes or so brought our hungry, thirsty, puffing, but delighted party to the long-wished-for spot on the very highest peak of the mountain, and a drink was instantaneously proposed by each individual. A few cords are cut, the lid opens, the cloth is removed, and, O heavens! judge of their feelings to find that the basket they had so painfully carried contained nothing but stones-granite stones!
The guide's story about his sickness was, of course, all sham, and he had taken the opportunity, when cut off from view of his party by some rock, of making the exchange. This is a true story, and we may add that the man was afterwards sent to Wicklow gaol for this very robbery. From the Long Hill to Roundwood the country is dreary in the extreme, owing to the absence of wood, which has been felled for centuries.
At Roundwood, where we wished to delay for some refreshment, our horse was unyoked and stabled by a man totally blind, and who was quite unassisted. This singular character is said never to forget the voice of any person he has spoken with. The writer of this article asked the man whether he knew him? The reply was: "Yes, sir, you were here this time last year, with Mr. O'Reilly, on your way to Loch Dan," and so we had been. For the benefit of such of our readers as may love the gentle sport of fly-fishing, we may here inform them that though the trout of Loch Dan, a beautiful sheet of water, situate about two miles from Roundwood, are usually considerably under herring size, yet they are very numerous, and rise freely. On one occasion we captured twelve dozen to our own rod. There is a little cottage by the side of the lake, kept by a man named Manwaring, where tourists can find a bed, but they generally bring their own provisions with them. From Roundwood to Glendalough the road has little to interest the lover of Nature, but fortunately the drive is a short one, and our jarvy made it appear still shorter by his stories of the famous outlaw, General O'Dwyer, who held out for a considerable time after the rebellion of 1798 had been generally suppressed, and ultimately made honourable terms for himself and followers, which the government subsequently violated. We shall have a word to say of the General presently.
We now approach the celebrated Glen, or the "Seven Churches, as the place is usually styled." The scene suddenly changes, and we find ourselves, as it were, shut out from the rest of the world by huge gloomy mountains, the sides of which, in many places, actually overhang the ancient city of St. Kevin.
An American writer states, "that the almost deathly quiet, the oppressive loneliness, the strange, deep, unearthly gloom of this mouldering city of the dead, are things to be felt in all their melancholy and wierd-like power, but which could scarce be pictured by the sternest and most vivid word-painting. Here it was that, some thirteen hundred years ago, Saint Kevin founded an ecclesiastical establishment, round which subsequently one of the most famous cities in Ireland rose, flourished, and decayed, so that, as stated in a letter of the Archbishop of Tuam and his suffragans, written about a.d. 1213, it had been so waste and desolate for nearly forty years previously, that instead of a church it had become a den of thieves and robbers. A ruin so long ago as the beginning of the thirteenth century!
That the number of churches here so singularly grouped together was more than seven, there can be no question, as though several which existed during the close of the last century have disappeared, at present eight churches, more or less preserved, can be pointed out. Of the ancient habitations no traces exist. In Ireland, and, indeed, in the British Islands generally, at the time when Glendalough flourished, structures of earth or timber usually prevailed, except in districts of the south and west, where wood was scarce, and stone abundant. With the exception of a portion of the cashel or wall, by which the city was originally enclosed, the Round Tower, and some traces of St. Kevin's cloughawn or circular stone dwelling-house, and, we may add, the building called St. Kevin's Kitchen, all the edifices which remain are simply churches of various dates, some of them pronounced by Petrie, our greatest authority on Irish antiquarian subjects, to be the very buildings erected in the lifetime of the saint. From the "Life of Saint Kevin," published by the Bollandists in the "Acta Sanctorum," at the third of June, Dr. Petrie gathers that in the earlier years of the saint's ecclesiastical life, having dwelt in solitude for four years, in various places in the upper part of the valley, between the mountain and the lake, his monks erected for him a beautiful church, called Desert-Cavghin, on the upper side of the lake, and between it and the mountain, and drawing him from his retirement, prevailed upon him to live with them at that church," which, as the writer states, "continued to be a celebrated monastic church even to his own time; and," he adds, "that here St. Kevin wished to remain and die. After remaining here for a few years, he was induced by an angel to remove his monastery to the east of the smaller lake, and it was round this establishment that the city gradually arose. Here St. Kevin died in 618, and was interred." A considerable portion of the walls of the Desert-Cavghin church still remain, but all features of interest to the antiquary, such as doorways, windows, or arches, have been destroyed. Another building, usually associated with the name of St. Kevin, is the celebrated "Kitchen," a building which derives its singular name, no doubt, from the chimney-like appearance of a small round-tower belfry, rising from its western gable.
That this is a house of very early date, converted into a chapel in the twelfth century, there can be little question. The original building was a small oblong room, to which a chancel, lately destroyed, and a vestry which still remains, were added probably about the close of the twelfth century, as is indicated by the style of the window remaining in the vestry. The vaulted stone roof and round-tower belfry are probably of this date also. What clearly proves the alteration, is the roundheaded chancel arch which is cut through the wall, and not formed on the principle of an arch. Here, then, is a building, which was no doubt old, and added to in the twelfth century, a period when many writers try to persuade us, that building in lime and stone was first practised in Ireland. Mr. Parker writes, "that there is strong reason to believe that the vault and stone roof are part of the alteration in the twelfth century; and that the ledge at the springing construction of the arch, may arise from the greater thickness of the earlier walls, which had originally a floor and roof of wood. The construction of the base of the round tower in the west able, shews that the vault and roof were built with it, and added upon the walls of Cyclopean masonry. All the upper part is of small stones. There is a space between the top of the vault and the ridge of the roof, but hardly of sufficient space to have been used for any purpose, and there was apparently no access to it."
The Lady church between the cathedral and the lake, as the place of Saint Kevin's grave, must be considered as one of the most interesting ruins in the glen.
We would respectfully suggest to such of our readers as may be the proprietors, and therefore the natural guardians of a time-hallowed structure, that very frequently the most interesting portions of such an edifice are so thickly enveloped with ivy as to be of little use to the architectural student, many of whom we hope to number amongst our readers. It is a very mistaken notion now generally dying out, that to envelope an ancient church or tower with ivy, adds in any way to its picturesqueness, or that the building is less likely to suffer from the effects of the weather when thus covered. It is a fact that the greater number of our most interesting monuments of antiquity, are rendered useless to the architect or a student, in proportion to the luxuriance of the green in which they are hidden; and so far from being a protection to old walls, ivy is known to be their chief destroyer, as its tendency is to grow through as well as over the masonry. Once entered, it acts like a wedge, displacing the stones and admitting water, and ultimately bursting a wall which, but for its insidious advances, would probably have stood to tell its story for centuries to come. The Lady Church should be carefully examined. Its doorway presents one of the very finest specimens of early Christian architecture in the kingdom. It particularly attracted the attention of Sir Walter Scott, even at a time when Irish ecclesiastical remains were scarcely understood or appreciated even in Ireland.
It is much to be regretted that this doorway is the only remaining feature of what may perhaps be considered the most interesting church of the group, whether we consider its architectural excellence or the associations which connect it with the history of the original foundation. Twenty years ago it stood nearly perfect, but the ivy has been, and is doing the sapper's work; and unless some steps be taken to arrest its advances, we may soon lose the most remarkable of the early Christian doorways remaining in the island.
Another building, the "Ree-Feart" church, or the Burial-place of the kings, is unquestionably one of the oldest churches in Ireland. The eastern gable and chancel have disappeared, and most of the side walls, but the greater portion of the western end remains, containing a splendid specimen of the early Irish doorway, which is second only to that of the Lady Church already noticed. The cemetery here, as its name implies, was the burial-place of the princes of the district formerly ruled by the O'Byrnes, O'Tooles and Cavanaghs. After ages of desecration, ruin and neglect, a single inscribed monumental flag-stone, sacred to the memory of the illustrious dead, does not now remain, at least above ground. The last visible monument of antiquity which remained here was popularly believed to have been the tombstone of an Irish king, and was usually shown as such by the so-called "guides" of Glendalough, who, ultimately to gratify the craving of Cockney or at least of English curiosity-seekers (as also to gain sundry shillings,) broke up the stone of which Dr. Petrie has fortunately secured an accurate drawing, and sold it in fragments of about the size of a half-crown, as specimens of the tomb of a real "Hirish" king! The stone rendered simply an inscription in the Irish language, imploring a prayer for the repose of one of the great family of O' Toole; and who from the character of the inscription and accompanying incised cross, had been probably bishop of Glendalough; one of those prelates whose names have been lost during the burnings of the middle ages, or the equally deplorable destruction of later times. Indeed, since the period of our first visit, many objects of high interest had disappeared from the cemetery and other localities of the glen, amongst the rest, a venerable yew tree of immense size, and which there is reason to believe was coeval with the original foundation, if it had not been planted by the hands of Saint Kevin himself. This hoary relic of antiquity, equally interesting to the antiquary and to the naturalist, was literally hewn to pieces by the "guides," who sold the fragments to tourists in the rough state, or manufactured into paper folders, card cases, or snuff boxes. The very roots were grabbed up; and when the supply of the genuine article failed, as we have been informed, other timber was substituted, and the traffic still goes on.
Of the remaining churches, the Cathedral, situated in the middle of the great cemetery, is the largest and most important. The lower portion of its walls, like the lower portion of Saint Kevin's kitchen, is composed of Cyclopean masonry, and dates probably from the sixth century. In the decorations which remain, an Irish style of ornamentation of about the twelfth century is exhibited.
To the south-west of the cathedral at a short distance stands one of the very finest of the celebrated Round Towers. Buildings of this class had long excited the attention of antiquaries. Succeeding writers had severally assumed that these mysterious structures were Celestial Indexes, Buddhist Temples, Hero monuments, Anchorite Retreats, and so forth; and indeed until lately the opinions held and published concerning them were nearly as numerous as the towers themselves.
It remained for Dr. Petrie to set the long-disputed question for ever at rest, by proving, as we believe beyond question, that while the savants of this and other countries were at sixes and sevens with one another as to the origin and uses of the towers, the simple peasant who styled them by their name in Irish "Cloig-teach" or bell-house, had no opinion on the subject but the right one; and the learned Doctor by reference to passages in the annals and other documents of authority, and by a careful examination of the architectural peculiarities of the towers themselves, has collected a mass of evidence which proves that the period within which it was customary to erect those buildings, was not earlier than the fifth and little later than the twelfth centuries.
Indeed it is difficult to believe many of the towers to be older than the twelfth century. As to their adaptation for belfries there can be no question, and that they had been sometimes used as places of safety, numerous references to them in the annals would prove.
No unprejudiced person, upon examining the Round Tower, and the belfry turret resting upon the western gable of St. Kevin's Kitchen, can fail to perceive that both are exactly on the same construction. The tower is 110 feet in height, and is partly composed of truly Cyclopean masonry. The head of its doorway is semicircular, and is cut out of a single stone, like the doorway of very many of the round towers of Ireland. On the interior there are rests for six floors, each storey, except the uppermost, being lighted by a single aperture with inclined sides. The top storey has openings, four in number, facing the cardinal points. In the eastern portion of the glen, at a distance of about one mile from the cathedral, the ecclesiologist will find the ruin of what must have been the most beautiful of the churches at Glendalough. Unfortunately this interesting relic has become a complete ruin. The columns of the chancel arch still remain, and in their capitals and bases afford admirable specimens of ante-Norman decoration. The stones which formed the arch seem not to have been removed, and if collected and re-arranged upon the columns, which are perfectly uninjured, one of the most beautiful choir arches in Ireland might be preserved to posterity. No visitor should leave the glen without examining the "ivy church," which stands closely by the road side, near the modern village. It consists of nave and chancel, and was fitted with a semi-detached round tower belfry, which, however, no longer exists. The semi-circular choir arch is an admirable specimen of undecorated work of the earliest age of church architecture in Ireland. Its doorway and remaining windows are of a semicircular or triangular form, and arc valuable studies. Of the other churches, little may be said. For the most part, they are shapeless masses of ruin, and speak eloquently of the shameful neglect with which the authorities, be who they may, have treated the most interesting group of natural antiquities to be found in the kingdom.
The celebrated "Bed" of St. Kevin, is a low, narrow cell, capable of holding about two persons, hewn out of the rock, at a distance of about thirty feet above the water of the upper lake. This dreary mountain eyry is explored by the greater number of the tourists who, chiefly in the summer time, visit the celebrities of Glendalough, and to climb the perpendicular cliff in which it is situate, is considered by many no ordinary feat.
The legend of "Cathleen and St. Kevin," so generally known through the beautiful versification of our national poet, seems to rest on no historical foundation whatever; but certain it is that the "Bed" had been at one time used as a place of retreat for the purpose of prayer and contemplation by the so-called "cruel-hearted saint." The late Rev. Caesar Otway thus describes his visit; 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.
One pound or thirty shillings would have covered the expense of its perfect preservation. Indeed, it was melancholy to contemplate the wanton ruin which had fallen upon the venerable city since the period of our first visit. Several very early and quaintly carved crosses, which had marked the last resting-place of chieftain, bishop, priest, or anchorite, have disappeared altogether, and it is only to be hoped that they have been buried in some modern grave, and may yet be recovered. Several large stone crosses of a peculiarly Irish character still remain, but they are very early in character, and are undecorated and uninscribed. The chief monument of this class stands in the great cemetery a little to the south of the cathedral;- it is a fine specimen, formed of one enormous block of granite, and no doubt, was erected to the memory of one, great in his time; but of whom no record exists by which his monument may be identified.
Of the history of Glendalough for many centuries after its foundation less is known than might be expected from the ancient importance of the place, as a seat of religion, literature, and ecclesiastical government. -We know that like Clonmacnoise, Monasterboice, Slane, and other kindred foundations, it suffered many burnings and plundering, at the hands of the Scandinavian pirates, who, for about three centuries, were the scourge of these islands.
A clamorous crowd of men, and also one or two women, invariably beset a visitor to the Seven Churches, and frequently do battle amongst themselves in their anxiety for an engagement as guide. They cram the stranger who will listen to them with so-called "legends" of St. Kevin, Cathleen, Fin MacCoul, and the royal O'Tooles; but be it known to our readers, their stories are all modern inventions, made chiefly to tickle the fancy of tourists from the sister isle.
"Here you are, your honour !" a fellow will roar, "sure 'twas I that had Sir Walter Scott." Another puts in for an engagement by assuring us that " 'twas he discovered all the curiosities for Dr. Petrie." On one occasion, when that learned antiquary was visiting the Churches in company with a friend or two, the party was met as usual by an anxious guide, who accosted the doctor, asseverating that he was the very man that the great Dr. Petrie always took with him.
"Indeed," said one of the visitors, "is he anything like that gentleman ?" at the same time pointing to Petrie.
"Oh Lord, no," was the reply of the guide, who seemed not a little astonished at the burst of laughter which followed.
After having viewed the striking and varied effect which a sunset at Glendalongh always presents, we retired to the hostel, where some tourists from England were holding conversation on the events of their day's ramble.
"It's all very well," said one, "to be trudging amongst the stones and wet grass for half a day, looking at old walls, and listening to yarns about people who lived before our time; but I should just now like to know whether they have got skittles in this here place!"