The Seven Churches of Glendalough

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IV (6) | Start of Chapter

"You must see the Seven Churches, before you leave the county of Wicklow," said my good friends. This visit to the Seven Churches is a memorable one, not only on account of the marvels which we saw and heard, but the pleasant and painful associations with which it is connected. The young husband of the daughter of my hostess offered to accompany me to the place, seventeen miles distant, with his wife and another lady. It was in the midst of haymaking, and he left his business, hired a horse and car, and we started at an early hour on a beautiful sunny morning.

We stopped a few moments at the Copper Mines, which were then in operation, and had been for twenty years. They had at that time explored a mile in depth into a mountain of rocks, and found sufficient encouragement to proceed. Eight shillings a week was the laborer's compensation for this arduous toil. Our ride was pleasant, and the country rich for the first part of the way. Within a few miles of the Churches, the mountains become higher, and are covered with heath, giving them a barren and dry appearance. The entrance to this celebrated spot is not through lawns or pleasure grounds, but between a wall of strong mountains on the right and left; and the few cultivated spots looked to the stranger to be scarcely a sufficiency for the poor peasantry, who soon gathered in thick array around us when we arrived, to show us the wonders, or to ask a penny. Old men and maidens, young men and children were on the spot, each with the utmost servility ready to "sarve" us in the best and "chapest" manner. We were obliged to shake them all off except one, who was engaged, and handed over to me, as I was a stranger, and my party had visited it before. The sensible reader shall be troubled with only a very little of the consummate nonsense with which my ears were stuffed during the long six hours we passed among these ruins.

The first object of interest was a round tower, standing alone, one hundred and seven feet in height, and about six and a half in diameter, with windows at some distance from the top, and no door nor entrance whatever except the windows. For what purpose these incomprehensible towers were built everybody attempts to tell us, and nobody satisfies the inquirer, even if he satisfy himself. Even my guide told no legend in connexion with it. The burying-ground in which we were standing was the next wonder. Its age is traced by the peasantry back to the first peopling of this "land of saints;" some asserting that St. Patrick was the founder, others going further back; but among the rude, defaced, and dilapidated stones, I did not read one inscription of more than a hundred and fifty years ago; however I did not read all, and many were written in such hieroglyphics, that the Jesuits who wrote them might best decipher them. The graves were pointed out to us where five priests were deposited; and there were deep holes in these graves, whence the consecrated clay had been taken, which we were informed would cure all diseases, however obstinate. One of the company now cried out, "See that child hanging from a high grave-stone—she will be killed if she falls." "Oh, never fear," cried a young woman, "she hangs there every day; she's puttin' purgatory over her, ma'am; she tells her mother she wont live the year, and she does it for penance, lady." "Ah! she's a wonderful child, that"—responded my guide, who now told me that the wonders he was about to relate had been told to him by his grandfather, and might be all believed. An enormous stone cross stands here for the benefit of single persons, who, if they can embrace it backwards, will be certain of a partner within a year. The guide told us he had done so to accommodate gentlemen who had visited there, and as often as he had done it, his wife died, till he had lost five, and was fairly tired out. The cathedral is a coarse stone building, now gone to decay, and but a monument of what it once was. It must have been very strong, but small and dismal, and of many hundred years standing.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.