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Glendalough

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Glendalough is a medieval monastery complex in County Wicklow in Ireland, 40 km south of Dublin. It's set in a deep scenic valley which is within the Wicklow Mountains National Park and has been protected from development. Most visitor facilities are therefore in nearby Laragh.

Understand

Glendalough is a U-shaped glaciated valley, with steep sides and a flat lake bed. A single lake backed up behind glacial debris, but the Poulanass River cascading down the south slope brought silt which divided this into two "ribbon lakes", the large Upper Lake and the small Lower Lake. And thus arose the place name Gleann Dá Locha, "valley of two lakes".

During the 6th century, St Kevin came here as a hermit. Next to nothing is reliably known of his life - the hagiographies were written much later - but he's thought to stem from one of the ruling families of Leinster. In Glendalough he acquired a following and founded a monastery, which grew into a township of religious and secular buildings. Sites around the Upper Lake may have been part of the 6th C hermitage, while their contemporaries around the Lower Lake became built over during the 10th to 12th centuries. Most of what you see (such as the iconic Round Tower) is from this later era, when a notable abbot was St Laurence O'Toole (1128-1180). Glendalough was attacked by the Vikings on at least four occasions; in 1214 it came under the ecclesiastical thumb of Dublin. It was utterly wrecked by English forces in 1398 but continued as a local church and place of pilgrimage.

The main "monastic city" is by the Lower Lake, reached from Laragh on R756, which continues over the mountains to Hollywood and County Kildare. A dead-end lane branches off to Upper Lake, which has better scenery. Glendalough itself has the Visitor Centre and one hotel but few other amenities, as development is rightly restricted. For eating places and accommodation there's more choice in Laragh 3 km down the valley.

As a scenic and historically important area close to Dublin, Glendalough is very much on the tourist circuit, and is mobbed on summer weekends. It might then be difficult to picture it as a place of solitude and hermitage, but visitors then are following a 300 year-old tradition. St Kevin reputedly died on 3 June 618, so that is his "pattern" (patron-saint) day, which was marked in riotous fashion in the 18th and 19th century. For a quieter experience come on the pattern day of St Laurence, 14 Nov, with the cold rain slashing down on crags and forests that in his day harboured wolves.

Get in

By car

From Dublin the most direct route is to follow M11 / N11 past Bray, then at Kilmacanogue follow R755 through Roundwood and Annamoe. It's well signposted and all the traffic is heading the same way. Good luck finding a parking space if you come on a summer weekend.

There are lots of scenic alternatives, eg by the "Scalp" road and Powerscourt, or by the old military road. These will be congested on fine weekends.

By bus

If you don't have your own wheels, best bet is a bus excursion. These depart daily from Dublin, and one reliable operator is the national company Bus Éireann.

St Kevin's Bus has plied between Dublin and Glendalough for a mere century, but not for 1400 years, and there's no historical evidence that yer man ever rode the bus. It runs daily from St Stephen's Green in Dublin at 11:30, taking 90 min via Cabinteely, Bray (for DART trains), Kilmacanogue, Roundwood and Annamoe, and sets off back around 17:00. There are two runs daily in summer, and July-Aug a third between Bray station and Glendalough. Although it's designed for day trips (with four hours to explore Glendalough), you can take it as a point-to-point bus. Adult single €13, return €20.

Bus 183 runs M-F four or five times, Sa Su thrice, from Wicklow town via AshfordRathnew, Roundwood and Annamoe to Laragh and Glendalough, 45 min. At Wicklow the bus is held for trains from Dublin Connolly.

Get around

Walk or cycle. Local accommodation may offer lifts to and from the monastic complex.

See

The monastic sites are accessible free, 24 hours. You pay for parking, the car parks are closed overnight.

Lower Lake

  • 1 Glendalough Visitor Centre, ☏ +353 404 45352, +353 404 45325. Daily Apr-Oct 09:30-18:00, Nov-Mar 09:00-17:00. Start here for orientation and background on the ruins. There's an interesting exhibition and an audio-visual show. Guided tours of the Monastic City are available in multiple languages all year round by advance booking. The Centre also holds free summer lectures on Irish heritage and history. Parking €4 per car. (updated Aug 2020)
  • Trinity Church is the shell of a simple 11th / 12th C church 200 m east of the Visitor Centre. It's outside the main complex, and most visitors run out of time seeing the main sites and don't bother coming here.
  • The Gateway just west of the centre is a double doorway, originally a two-storey gatehouse. The cross inscribed on the west wall between the doorways marks the boundary of the sanctuary - if you made it across the line, you were home safe, in theory. Alas many attackers decided otherwise. The graveyard just beyond is still in use.
  • 2 The Round Tower. This is one of the finest examples in Ireland of a round tower: it's about 1000 years old yet in excellent condition, just over 30 m high. It originally had six wooden floors connected by ladders. The four stories above the entrance are beautifully lit by a tiny window, while the top story has four windows. The conical roof was redone in 1876 using the same stone. Like other such towers it was a bell tower, and not defensive - the reason the entrance is 3.5 m above ground level was simply to avoid weakening the base. (updated Aug 2020)
  • St Peter and St Pauls' Cathedral was built in several phases, with the nave dating to the 10th century and the chancel, sacristry and north door to the 12th / 13th. It replaced an earlier church: the west door is recycled stone from this. Note the piscina, the basin for washing holy vessels. In 1214 the diocese was absorbed by Dublin so St Peter and St Paul's ceased to be a cathedral, and Glendalough lost much of its importance. It could still be a cosy sinecure, eg for Viscount Loftus, the Elizabethan noble whose family practised nepotism on a grand scale.
  • St Kevin's Cross is a few metres south of the cathedral. This huge 12th C High Cross is carved from a single piece of granite. Unusually, the centre is not pierced.
  • The Priests' House southwest side of the cathedral was reconstructed from original stone, using a 1779 drawing of the previous Romanesque building. Its earlier function is unknown, perhaps it housed relics of St Kevin. The present name is because priests were interred here in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the "penal laws" era when there were no RC churches to bury them.
  • 3 St Kevin's Church 100 m south is a bijou affair, from 11th C but heavily reconstructed. It's often called "St Kevin's Kitchen" because the little round tower belfry looks like a cookhouse chimney. Actually it looks even more like an old steam laundry, odd that the latter nickname never caught on.
  • St Ciarán's next to St Kevin's is just a few scraps of masonry. It's probably named for the fellow who founded Clonmacnoise.
  • St Mary's 150 m west is another little gem of a church from 10th C. It probably stood outside the monastic compound and was used by nuns.
  • The Deer Stone 50 m south of St Kevin's is a bullaun - a stone with a basin hollowed in its top, naturally or by being used as a grindstone. Rain water collected in the basin and was supposed to have curative powers, so bullaun stones were places of pilgrimage. There was ancient metal-working in Glendalough and the Deer Stone may originally have been used to grind ores.
  • 4 St Saviour's Priory (Glenlorcan or Regles), Knockfin (1 km down the valley from Glendalough). This was built in Romanesque style circa 1150, later than the main complex. It was Augustinian, though it may initially have affiliated to the Arrouaisian Order, briefly in vogue in the 1130s. The interior is intricately carved: look for the lion, serpent, and two birds holding a human head between their beaks. In medieval times other buildings were added to the church - it partly collapsed in the 19th C and was clumsily rebuilt, with the original stones incorrectly placed. (updated Aug 2020)

Upper Lake

This is one km west of the Lower Lake; it has fewer buildings but is the more scenic. There's a large car park, run separately from the Visitor Centre car park so your ticket isn't transferable. If you've successfully elbowed your car into a parking space down there, best leave it and walk to and from the Upper Lake.
  • The Caher near the car park at the east end of Upper Lake is a stone-walled enclosure, 20 m in diameter, of unknown date. A cahir is a prehistoric fortress but this may just be a sheep fold.
  • Reefert Church is the first building along the lake south shore, in a grove. Righ Fearta means "royal burial place", ie for the O'Toole dynasty, but it's a simple church from 1100 with modern additions. There are two fine crosses nearby, then the scraps of another church.
  • Poulanass waterfall is viewed from 100 m south. This is the river that divided the lake into two.
  • St Kevin's Cell is the foundation stones of a beehive hut, on a rocky spur overlooking the lake.
  • 5 St Kevin's Bed. This can be reached by a scramble down the hillside but it's perhaps enough to view it from the opposite shore. It's a cave in the rockface 8 m above the lake and 2 m deep, partly natural and partly man-made. It's reputed to have been a place of solitude and prayer for St Kevin and later St Laurence O’Toole, and may have been a Bronze Age tomb. It's barely a metre high, so about all you could do in there is sleep or decompose. (updated Aug 2020)
  • Temple-na-Skellig is 40 m west of the "Bed", a 12th C ruined church on the site of St Kevin's first settlement. It's on a little shelf above the lake, with a hazardous scramble down the rock face to reach it. So realistically it can only be accessed by boat, but there are no regular trips.
  • The southside path continues along the ridge, eventually looping round the head of the lake to the mining village.
  • 6 Glendalough Mines were worked from 1825 to 1925 then from 1948 to 1957. They yielded galena, an ore of lead, and also some silver and zinc. Tunnels drilled right through the mountain to link with mines in Glendasan to the north. The area is littered with old machinery and the remains of miners' cottages. It's reached by a hike along the Upper Lake north shore, which eventually circles round onto the ridge above south shore.

Elsewhere

  • Laragh (An Láithreach, "the ruins") is the service village below Glendalough with limited sights of its own, but spare a glance for St Kevin's RC church and St John's C of I church. 200 m south of the village, Jackson's Falls are scenic and a test of kayakers' nerve.
  • 7 Glenmaclure is a scenic valley south then west from Laragh. There's accommodation in the glen village. Easy hikes from here are Dwyer's or Cullen Rock, Fraughan Rock Glen and Carriglinneen. Stiffer hikes are Mullacor, Cloghernagh, Corrigasleggaun and Lugnaquilla, and beware that parts of the upper glen are closed as army training ranges. The road climbs over into Glen Imaal then descends towards Baltinglass.

Do

  • Walking: signposted trails go round the lakes and main sights. Long distance trails are the Wicklow Way, 132 km from south Dublin to County Carlow, and St Kevin’s Way 26-30 km from Hollywood west of the mountains.
  • Wicklow Walking Festival is in October, with guided walks starting from Brockagh Centre midway between Laragh and Glendalough. The next event is 23-25 Oct 2020.
  • Cycling is permitted on any hard-surface road including the forest tracks, and the green, purple and orange walking routes around the lakes. Off-road or mountain biking is not permitted. Glendalough Bike Rental near the visitor centre hires bikes and accessories.
  • Rock climbing is on the granite crags above the north-western head of Glendalough valley, from single pitch to 4-pitch routes. No bolting is allowed.
  • Angling is permitted on both lakes from 15 March to 30 Sept using artificial lures only. The commonest catch is brown trout. Those under 20.5 cm (8 inch) must be returned unharmed - and they probably will be, as they have little to feed on in the lakes.
  • Not permitted: no swimming in the lakes, off-road vehicles, or hunting or shooting.
  • Scenic drives: the Wicklow Gap road ascends from here, see County Wicklow.
  • Tonelagee at 817 metres (2680 ft) can be climbed from the west, straight up the shoulder from R756, but the more scenic usual route is from Glenmacnass waterfall car park on R115 above Laragh. Its name Tóin le Gaoith means "backside to the wind", so it's best not to dwell on its status as a Marilyn.
  • Mullaghcleevaun at 849 m (2785 ft) is climbed from the southeast, from Oasis car park on R115 north of Laragh, 11 km, 3 hr. Skirt Carrigshouk and ascend to Mullaghcleevaun East Top, where the way becomes indistinct and boggy, then on west to the summit. You can also continue along the ridge from East Top to Duff Hill (720 m), Gravale (718 m) and Carrigvore (682 m) then descend into Sally Gap.
  • Detach, unwind and be still at Tearmann Spirituality Centre, 200 m east of the visitor centre car park. It's a residential space for group retreat or individual pilgrimage and contemplation. Tis.
  • 1 Clara Lara Funpark, Vale of Clara, Rathdrum (6 km south of Laragh on R755 to Rathdrum), ☏ +353 404 46161. May Sa Su 10:30-18:00, Jun-Aug daily 10:30-18:00. A 30 acres outdoor children's adventure park. Tree houses, Tarzan swings, rope bridges, rowing boats, water slides, rafts, canoes, junior go-carts, mini golf, picnic areas and a restaurant. Adult €10, child €22. (updated Aug 2020)

Buy

  • There are no ATMs or banks in Glendalough or Laragh. The Bank of Ireland in Rathdrum has an external ATM. North along R755, there's an ATM within the Centra in Churchmount village, but it's only accessible in shop hours (daily 07:00-20:30) and may charge for withdrawals.
  • Glendalough Woollen Mills is a knitwear outlet south edge of Laragh, open daily 10:00-18:00.

Eat

  • Glendalough Hotel (and see Sleep) has Casey's Bistro with infamously slow, chaotic service. Problem is, it's the only eating place right next to the sights, and gets mobbed. Come at a quiet time or look elsewhere or bring your own.
  • Laragh 3 km down the valley has much more choice. Small cafes here are Glendalough Green (daily, deli and licensed), The Conservatory (Sa Su 10:00-18:00) and Ann's Coffee Shop.
  • 1 Lynhams of LaraghLaragh, ☏ +353 404 45345. Hotel with bar, traditional restaurant and lounge. Good food, drink and ambiance, choice of Jake's Bar, Bridge Restaurant or Brockagh Lounge. B&B double €140. (updated Aug 2020)
  • Wicklow Heather, Glendalough Rd, Laragh, ☏ +353 404 45157. Daily 08:30-21:30. Traditional Irish restaurant with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Also has rooms for B&B, and they run Trooperstown Lodge self-catering 1 km east. Dinner mains €15-20. (updated Aug 2020)

Drink

  • There isn't a free-standing pub, so head for one of the hotel bars.

Sleep

  • Most B&Bs are in Laragh, 3 km east before you turn up the valley to Glendalough. Camping is not permitted within the valley.
  • 1 Glendalough Glamping, Old Military Rd, Laragh East A98 C6X5, ☏ +353 83 374 6261, ✉ info@glendaloughglamping.ie. Comfy glamping pods, adults only, open April-Oct. Double pod €100. (updated Aug 2020)
  • 2 Glendalough Hotel, Derrybawn, Glendalough (village centre), ☏ +353 404 45135, fax: +353 404 45142. Mid-range to upscale hotel in great location, clean and comfy. Bar food served. There is live music most Saturday nights. B&B double €120. (updated Aug 2020)
  • 3 Glendalough International Hostel, The Lodge, Derrybawn, Glendalough (on the road to Upper Lake), ☏ +353 404 45342, fax: +353 404 45690. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. Simple well-run hostel, normally open all year but closed through summer 2020. Great location in valley, within walking range of sights, hiking trails and village amenities. (updated Aug 2020)
  • 4 Riversdale House B&B, Wicklow Gap Road, Glendasson Valley, ☏ +353 404 45858. Friendly comfy B&B a km up the valley road. B&B double €90. (updated Aug 2020)

Connect

As of Aug 2020, there is a mobile signal from all Irish carriers in Glendalough and Laragh. You might manage 4G with Vodafone but not with Eir or Three. 5G has not reached this area.

Go next

  • Enniskerry has the gardens of Powerscourt Estate and an impressive waterfall.
  • Wicklow Town has two impressive botanic gardens, less mobbed than Powerscourt.
  • Blessington across the mountains via Wicklow Gap has Russborough House, with a huge art collection.


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