(active 6th century in Ireland)

General view

Monastery, Glendalough, County Wicklow

Glendalough is the site of an early Christian monastery in County Wicklow, Ireland. Set in a steep valley on the eastern edge of the Wicklow Mountains, the monastery owed its origin to St Kevin (d. 618), who chose this wild, lonely spot as the site of a hermitage. A century later it had become a flourishing monastery, teeming with pilgrims and students; it retained its vitality until the end of the 12th century despite the sequence of fires, plunderings, and other disasters mentioned in the annals. The chief relics of the ancient monastery are an impressive round tower and the ruins of at least nine Romanesque or pre-Romanesque churches scattered for about 2 km along the valley. The intractable archaeological and chronological problems associated with the monuments are compounded by the restorations and rebuildings carried out by the Board of Works in 1875–9.

It is generally agreed that St Kevin's original hermitage lay to the west, beside the upper lake; some interesting structures on the cliff side include the foundations of a clochán (beehive hut) like those in many eremitic sites in the west of Ireland, as well as the ruins of two small churches, Temple-na-Skellig and Reefert (both of which, however, post-date St Kevin's life by several centuries).

The main monastery was situated some distance away, below the lower lake and at the confluence of two streams. The enclosure is entered through a double-arched gateway of almost Roman pretensions, a unique reminder of how impressive the approach to an early Irish monastery could be. The heart of the precinct is now submerged beneath an accumulation of relatively modern graves, which has effectively halted archaeological investigation.

The largest church is the cathedral, originally a single-cell structure (14.63 x 9.15 m internally) with antae, to which a Romanesque chancel was added c. 1200. Changes in masonry in the nave and the re-use of old material suggest a complex history. A date in the 10th or 11th century is now accepted by most scholars for the existing fabric. This is also the favoured date for the round tower (30.48 m high), one of the most elegant in the country, with an especially subtle batter of 1:77. Other churches in the enclosure include St Kevin's 'Kitchen', so named because of its pepper-pot tower, and the Priests' House, a tiny Romanesque chapel rebuilt either in the 18th or 19th century.

Beyond the main precinct are three more churches: Trinity to the east, St Mary's to the west, and the small Augustinian priory of St Saviour (founded 1162) about 800 m along the river to the east. Trinity originally had a round tower attached to the west end of the nave (it fell in 1818), and St Saviour's has interesting Romanesque decoration.

Structurally the most interesting building is St Kevin's Kitchen (c. 1050–1130), which was covered by a barrel vault and surmounted by a corbelled roof of stone, a distinctively Irish form of construction. The chancel at St Saviour's priory may have been similar, but otherwise the churches were not vaulted. Although the early dates once accorded to the monuments at Glendalough can no longer be sustained, and there is no trace of what must have been several centuries of timber building, the site occupies a crucial position in the study of early church architecture in Ireland.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.