Glendalough after Saint Kevin

Glendalough after Saint Kevin Upper Lake, Glendalough, Wicklow Photo: Rob Hurson
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 9
Exclusive Excerpt from Glendalough: History, Monuments & Legends by George McClafferty

There is a tradition that following the death of Kevin, the monastery was taken over by his nephew Molibba, who, it is said, became the second abbot and first Bishop of Glendalough. However, there is no historical evidence to support this tradition and it may have been a later fabrication to show the continuation of the Dál Messin Corb, the alleged ancestral lineage of the founder saint.

Little is known of Glendalough during the 7th century and existing records do not clearly indicate to which septs or families the earlier abbots and bishops belonged. Ecclesiastical settlements were often founded on lands donated by ruling families from whose ranks came the abbots and their successors. It is possible that the local sept was the Dál Messin Corb and that they held the abbacy of Glendalough during the 7th century. There are a few references in the Annals to the deaths of ecclesiastics at Glendalough during the late 7th century but little else is known of the settlement.

The abbacy of Glendalough certainly seems to have been controlled by the Uí Máil (from whom the Glen of Imaal takes its name) during the 8th century. The ecclesiastical settlement was destroyed by fire in 775 but it is not clear whether the fire was accidental or the result of a hostile attack. The importance of Glendalough as a place of pilgrimage is evident from the references in the Annals to the deaths of a number of important people there. In the year 790, the bones of St Kevin were disinterred and enshrined at the site.

According to the Latin ‘Life’ of St Kevin, seven visits to Glendalough carried the same benefit as one pilgrimage to Rome.

At around the turn of the 9th century, the dynasty of Uí Dúnlainge became the dominant influence at Glendalough. There are many references in the Annals to the deaths of abbots during this period which indicate that the monastery was very important and wealthy. An entry in the Martyrology of Oengus describes Glendalough as follows:

The fortress of Eamhain Macha has vanished

Except that its stones remain

The monastic city of the western world

Is Glendalough of the assemblies.

The relative peace of the Irish ecclesiastical settlements was shattered with the arrival of the Vikings and Glendalough was plundered by them in 833. They returned and burned a church just two years later. The next fifty years seems to have been fairly peaceful but the Vikings returned in 886 and plundered the site once again.

During the 10th century, the ecclesiastical settlement seems to have been under the control of septs from West Leinster. Most of the stone buildings which survive today date from between this period and the 12th century, as the earlier ecclesiastical structures which were built of perishable materials were gradually replaced by stone edifices. It was during this period that the monastic school was at its height and attracted students from all over Britain, as well as some from other parts of Europe.

Archaeological excavation of contemporary settlements has shown that corn was the main crop while cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were kept. Vegetables and herbs were grown, beehives provided honey and the local rivers and lakes supplied fish. The diet varied from place to place, depending on the wealth and location of the settlement while fasting at certain times was a feature of all ecclesiastical settlements. Both the domestic and farm buildings were built of perishable materials which were easily burnt and needed frequent replacement.

The Uí Muiredaig sept became the dominant influence at Glendalough during the late 10th century and remained there for most of the period up to the middle of the 13th century when record of the abbacy ends. In 1017, 1020 and again in 1061, the settlement was destroyed by fire. These fires were probably accidental but destructive enough to have been recorded in the Annals. In 1043, the site was attacked by a rival sept and sixty inhabitants of the ecclesiastical settlement were slaughtered.

The O’Toole family, a branch of the Uí Muiredaig, succeeded to the abbacy of Glendalough in 1106 when Gilla Comgaill filled the vacant position. At the Synod of Raith Bresail in 1111, the bishopric of Glendalough was reconstituted as a territorial diocese which covered most of modern county Wicklow as well as parts of Kildare and Dublin. Gilla Comgaill’s grandson Laurence (Lorcán), who was born about the year 1128, became the second saint associated with Glendalough. As a child, St Laurence O’Toole, lived as a hostage of Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, at Ferns in county Wexford. As a hostage, he was harshly treated and following protests from his father, he was given into the care of the Bishop of Glendalough. Soon, he became attracted to the monastic way of life and he relinquished all claims to the family inheritance. In 1153, he was chosen as Abbot of Glendalough but we are told that he declined the honour of bishop.

Laurence continued as Abbot for the following nine years and much of the 12th century building at Glendalough is attributed to him. Laurence was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1162 but frequently returned to Glendalough to spend the season of Lent in the cave known as St Kevin’s Bed. As Archbishop of Dublin, Laurence negotiated between Strongbow and the citizens of Dublin during the siege of 1171. He also helped to negotiate the Treaty of Windsor between Rory O’Connor and Henry II of England in 1175. In 1176, Glendalough was plundered by Anglo-Norman adventurers and in the following year an astonishing flood ran through the settlement taking with it a bridge and mills and leaving fish in the midst of the site.

Laurence was apparently popular among all his flock – Irish, Norman and Scandinavian. In 1180, he travelled to Normandy in France to seek a meeting with Henry II but was taken ill and died in the house of the Canons Regular of St Augustine, at Eu, on November 14th. His remains lie buried at Eu but his heart, enclosed in a casket, is supposedly preserved at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Laurence was canonised in 1225.

During the 14th century, the settlement went into decline and lost much of its former glory but it seems to have still been important enough in 1398 for the Annals to record its destruction that summer by the English. The diocese of Glendalough was re-established by the Pope, about 1450, with bishops acceptable to the local inhabitants. The last of these bishops, one Denis White, a Dominican friar, surrendered to the Archbishop of Dublin in 1497. Abbots continued to be appointed up until the general supression of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Glendalough: History, Monuments & Legends by George McClafferty is available from Columba Books.