A Brief History
Glendalough, or the Glen of two Lakes, is one of the
most important sites of monastic ruins in Ireland.
It is also known as the city of the seven Churches.
Fourteen centuries have passed since the death of
its founder, St. Kevin, when the valley was part of
Ireland's Golden Age.
The two lakes, which gave the valley its name, came
into existence thousands of years ago, after the Ice
Age, when great deposits of earth and stone were
strewn across the valley in the area where the Round
Tower now exists. The mountain streams eventually
formed a large lake.
The Pollanass river spread
alluvial deposits across the centre of the lake and
created a divide to form the Upper and Lower Lakes. The Glenealo river flows in from the West into the
Upper lake which is the larger and deepest of the
Before the arrival of St. Kevin this valley (glen)
would have been desolate and remote. It must have
been ideal for St Kevin as a retreat and area to be
'away from it all'. Kevin died in 617 A.D. at the
age of 120 years and his name and life's work is
forever entwine with the ruins and the Glendalough
The recorded history of the wooded valley dates from
the 6th century - the dawn of Christianity in
Ireland. For 500 years it was one of Irelands great
ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning.
The establishment was attacked, burned and plundered
by the Danes, who were based in the stronghold of
Dublin, a shortish distance away, and making it an
Glendalough, despite extensive fire damage in 1163
A.D. prospered until the early 13th century. In
1163, Laurence O'Toole, Abbot of Glendalough, who
later became Irelands first canonised saint, was
appointed Archbishop of Dublin.
The arrival of the Normans in Ireland sealed the
fate of Glendalough, as in 1214 the monastery was
destroyed by the invaders and the Diocese of
Glendalough was united with the Sea of Dublin. After
that, Glendalough declined as a monastic
establishment and gradually it became deserted.
The buildings fell into decay and more than 6
hundred years elapsed before a reconstruction
program was started in 1878. Further work was
carried out in the 20th century Today the valley of
Glendalough is extensively wooded and a
comprehensive network of walk ways have been
completed and continually improved, which provides
good access for the visitor and researcher to wonder
Legends associated with St. Kevin and the years he
spent in the desolate valley of Glendalough are
numerous. They have survived in some form through
the centuries, and have probably lost some of their
origins along the way.
Acta Sanctorum – which is based on an ancient
manuscript contains a number of legends. The author
of a commentary on this manuscript, Fr. Francis
Baert, S.J., explains, “that although many of the
legends given to this work are of doubtful veracity;
it was decided to let them stand in favour of the
antiquity of the document which is placed as having
being written during or before the 12th century”.
St Kevin’s birth and early years figure prominently
in traditional legends. An angel is said to have
appeared as Kevin was about to be baptised and told
his parents that the child should be called Kevin.
The priest named Cronan who performed the ceremony
said, “This was surely an angel of the Lord and as
he named the child so shall he be called”. So Kevin
received the name which in Latin means
pulcher-genitus or the fair-begotten.
When an infant a mysterious white cow came to his
parents house every morning and evening and supplied
the milk for the baby. When Kevin was old enough he
was put tending sheep. One day some men came to him
and begged him to give them some sheep. He was
touched by their poverty and gave them four sheep.
When evening came, however, and Kevin’s sheep were
counted the correct number were still there.
Another time one autumn day Kevin was in the
kitchen. Meals were being prepared for harvesters
who were busy gathering crops in the fields when a
number of pilgrims called and asked for food. Kevin,
filled with compassion, gave them the harvesters
He was rebuked by his superiors for his action. He
then told the attendants to fill all the ale jars
with water and gather together all the bare meat
bones. Then he prayed alone and, it is said, the
water turned to ale and the bones were covered with
A cure is reported to have occurred when Kevin was
at Luggala (on the road to Sallygap). A workman was
injured when a chip of stone struck him in one eye
and caused his to lose the sight of the eye. Kevin
came to the injured man, blessed the eye and the man
recovered his sight immediately.
Perhaps the most famous legend is the one about
Kathleen of the “eyes of most unholy blue”. She is
said to have pursued the handsome Kevin in a bid to
captivate him, ignoring the fact that he was bound
by holy vows. He became annoyed and repulsed her by
beating her with a bunch of nettles. She later
sought his forgiveness and is said to have become a
very holy woman, noted for her grate sanctity.
Gerald Griffin and Thomas Moore have dramatised this
legend in poems.. But the two poems, colourful
though they are, appear to be totally imaginative
and to have little bearing on the incident. A person
of Kevin’s kind nature would hardly be likely to
“Hurl the maiden from the rock into the black lake
shrieking” as Griffin’s poem suggests. It is equally
improbable that Kevin “Hurled her from the beetling
rock” into the lake, as indicated in Moore’s verse.
It is said that the lark never sings above the dark
waters of Glendaloch. Folklorists say that when the
cathedral was being built the labourers and masons
agreed to work as long a day as possible and to
“rise with the lark and lie with the lamb”.
These long hours soon had the men exhausted and when
Kevin investigated he found that the local larks
started their day extremely early. He prayed for an
answer to the problem and from that day, according
to tradition, the skylark ceased singing in