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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Glorious: See Glendalough in all its autumnal technicolour

This week, Neil Jackman captures the Wicklow site at a point when its beauty is matched only by its archaeological significance.

IN A SLIGHTLY different format for the last of this year’s fortnightly Hidden Heritage articles, archaeologist Neil Jackman shares some pictures of Glendalough in all its autumnal glory.

Glendalough is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations, and with its perfect blend of breathtaking scenery and historical significance it’s not hard to see why. I visited Glendalough last Sunday to test out my new camera, and although the day was pretty grey and overcast the colours of the trees and landscape was just incredible.

It really is well worth the trip this weekend to catch the last of the autumn colours. This is a whistle-
stop tour of some of the highlights of this wonderful site.

When you cross the small wooden bridge next to the visitor centre you are treated to your first view of the site, from here you can see St Kevin’s Kitchen and the Round Tower while the stream slowly slides by.

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The name Glendalough comes from the Irish Gleann Da Loch which translates as Valley of the Two Lakes. The monastery was founded by St Kevin some time in the later part of the sixth century. St Kevin or Cóemhghein meaning ‘fair begotten’ or ‘gentle one’ is believed to have been the descendant of one of the ruling families in Leinster the Dál Messin Corb.

He wanted to worship God by living the harsh life of an ascetic hermit, and legend has it on one occasion he prayed for so long while standing in the freezing waters of the Upper Lake at Glendalough that birds built nests and laid eggs in his outstretched hands.

Although the site Kevin chose to found his community at Glendalough appears wild and solitary, it is actually close to major trading route through the hills and mountains known as The Wicklow Gap. This gave the growing Christian community a good balance between monastic isolation and easy access to the pilgrims who would have increased the wealth and significance of the site.

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The original churches and monastic buildings would have been constructed of timber so nothing survives of those above ground today. Most of the structures you see now at Glendalough date to around the tenth to twelfth centuries. The most famous of the buildings here are clustered near to the Lower Lake, handily only a very short stroll from the carpark.

St Kevin’s Church, (also known as St Kevin’s Kitchen as the belfry on the stone roof has the appearance of a chimney on an old-fashioned stove), is one of the most recognisable of Glendalough’s buildings. It probably dates to the middle part of the twelfth century, just before the Norman invasion. It is one of a very few stone vaulted and roofed churches in Ireland.

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Also in this area you can see the stone foundations of St Ciarán’s Church and the large Cathedral. The Cathedral was constructed in several phases from the tenth to the thirteenth century. When you enter through the doorway take a look at the remains of the chancel arch – where you can see decoration of chevrons and zig-zags.

This is typical of Romanesque architecture that was popular in Irish churches of the twelfth century, another great example of Romanesque decoration is the small chapel known as the Priest’s House, just to the south of the Cathedral.

Passing through the graveyard towards the round tower you can see a number of gravestones dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, a beautifully scenic final resting place.

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The round tower itself is one of the finest examples in Ireland. It stands over 30m tall, and it is believed to have been constructed in around AD 950, possibly making it one of the earliest examples in the country.

There has been a lot of debate over the centuries about the purpose of these uniquely Irish monuments, but it is generally accepted today that Round Towers were constructed as bell towers. They are known as ‘cloigh teach’ in Irish which translates to ‘bell house’. They would have also been visible from miles around, and as such they would have acted like a signpost to weary pilgrims on the route to Glendalough.

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The conical cap forming the roof of the round tower was rebuilt in 1879 by a team including William Wilde, father of the famous Oscar Wilde. William Wilde was a noted antiquarian, and he was responsible for much of the renovations and restorations of Glendalough and a number of other ancient Irish sites.

Nearby you can find the original medieval gateway to the site. Originally the monastic site was surrounding by an enclosing wall. The gateway at Glendalough was first constructed as a two-storey structure.

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If you take a close look at one of the stones just inside the gateway you can see it is incised with a large cross. This marked the boundary of sanctuary. Sanctuary meant immunity from prosecution, by passing or touching the stone in the gatehouse any criminal or hunted person could gain a welcome respite from his pursuers, (unless of course the pursuers were Vikings who didn’t follow such niceties).

From here I recommend walking back the way you came, past the round tower, St Kevin’s Kitchen and back over the wooden bridge and onto the Green Road. Follow this along taking in the beautiful scenery and be sure to stop for a moment at the Lower Lake. The Lower Lake and Upper Lake were once one very large body of water that was fed by the Lugduff Brook. Over time sediments brought down by the Lugduff Brook from the surrounding hills built up and separated the two lakes.

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The Upper Lake is the deepest – with its deepest point is 30 metres, so if the round tower was constructed at the base of the lake only the very top of the conical roof would be visible above the waters.

Continue on and take a small diversion by climbing up the path to see Poulnass Waterfall which is a beautiful spot to take in all the wonderful autumnal colours.

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Continuing along the Green Road you will come to a small grove of trees where you will encounter another small stone church known as Reefert Church. This is my favourite spot in Glendalough as it is such a serene and peaceful place. The church dates to around 1100 AD and the name comes from the Irish Rig Fearta which translates as ‘The Burial Place of Kings’.

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The chiefs of the O’Toole and O’Byrne clans were probably interred in the burial ground here. You can see many ancient gravestones here, and a weathered Celtic cross, so it is clear that the church lives up to its name as an important burial ground.

It is said that earth was taken from Holy Rome itself and mixed with the soil at this site, making it an important place for pilgrims. At the time it was believed that seven trips to Glendalough equalled one trip to Rome, so why not take a pilgrimage yourself this weekend to see one of Ireland’s most spectacular heritage sites?

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  • If you plan on visiting Glendalough download our audioguide that is packed with information, facts, stories and legends of Glendalough and includes information about all the various buildings and the key figures like Saint Kevin and Laurence O’Toole who was abbot during Glendalough’s heyday. The guide recounts how the site survived Viking raids before being ruthlessly raided in the fourteenth century in a punitive mission by the Anglo-Norman forces. Our guide is available for just €1.99 - click here.

As the winter is well and truly upon us this is the last of the fortnightly series of Hidden Heritage articles for 2013, I hope to be back with more great suggestions for places to visit around Ireland next year. Thank you to all the readers for your kind support and encouragement over the year!

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides onFacebook TwitterInstagram or Google+.

If you’d like to support Neil please consider downloading an audioguide fromabartaaudioguides.com: they are packed with great facts, information, stories and legends from Ireland’s iconic sites. They are designed to be fun and informative whether you are visiting the sites or from the comfort of your own home, so if you are looking to escape to the Court of Brian Boru the next time you are doing household chores, download one of our guides and let Abarta whisk you off to ancient Ireland!

All images © Neil Jackman/Abarta Audio Guides.

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