Seven Churches of Glendalough, County Wicklow - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter II: The Garden of Ireland … continued

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In the immediate neighbourhood of the eastern end of the upper lake are the remains of what is now called Refeart or Refeert Church, dating from St. Kevin's time, and exhibiting still a fine specimen of a very ancient doorway. It was here, according to tradition, that King O'Toole was buried.

There is a fine walk along the southern edge of the valley from the upper lake to the main cluster of ancient buildings. These are all enclosed in a cashel or wall, entered through a fine old gateway, which was standing forty years ago, and which, having fallen down since, was restored and securely rebuilt some years ago, the same stones being used and replaced as far as possible in their original order. The structures of note here are St. Kevin's Kitchen, the Lady Chapel, the Cathedral and the Round Tower. Of these the first is, at any rate in part, contemporaneous with the saint. It once consisted of a nave and chancel, with a sacristy at the east end and a belfry at the west. The chancel has disappeared; the other parts remain. Of these the nave only dates from the sixth century. It is called the Kitchen from the absurd notion, once prevalent, that the belfry was a chimney! Divested of the turret and the sacristy, the building resembles somewhat St. Columbkille's house at Kells. It is nearly thirty feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and the walls are three feet seven inches thick. Its side walls are eleven feet high, and the ridge of the roof thirty-one feet above the ground. The belfry and sacristy are later additions when the building was used as a church. Dr. Petrie sees no reason to doubt that 'this building, in its original state, was at once the habitation and the oratory of the eminent ecclesiastic to whom the religious establishment at Glendalough owed its origin; and it is highly probable that it received, shortly after his death, those additions which were necessary to make it a church, fit for the worship of those who would be led thither from reverence to his name.'[2]

The Round Tower is very ancient, dating most probably from about the tenth century. It is well built, but, like several others, has lost its original roof and some of the upper courses. These have been restored in recent years, and a conical roof having been added, the tower presents much the same appearance as it must have done originally. The doorway is now about ten feet from the ground, and was probably originally fifteen feet, there having been in the course of centuries an accumulation of debris around its base. In the engraving on page 49 the tower is depicted as it was prior to the restoration of the roof.

The small church, erroneously called now the Church of Our Lady, is, in the opinion of Dr. Petrie, contemporary with St. Kevin's House. The Cathedral—a somewhat ambitious name for so small a structure—is roofless. The nave is very ancient, and the west door is a fine specimen of one of the earliest types of ecclesiastical architecture. The chancel is somewhat later in style, and therefore in date. Even if we cannot accept the earlier date, although there seems no sufficient reason to doubt it, the storms of nearly a thousand years, and all the mischances and ravages of thirty generations, have failed to destroy these examples of Irish piety and skill.

But with many the interest of their visit to Glendalough depends but slightly upon these architectural treasures. They go for the exhilaration of the tramp or the ride; they delight in the bold hill contours, in the peaceful lakes, in the smiling valley, in the wooded slopes. And these are sufficient reasons. He who can traverse the rich and varied country encircling the valley, or ramble along its pleasant paths without being the better for it, is not to be envied. And yet it must be admitted that some due appreciation of the relative antiquity of the various remains, of the part they have played in religious history, of the testimony they bear to the zeal, industry, faith and skill of past generations—all the more powerful because this can neither flatter nor deceive—greatly heightens the pleasure and increases the benefit of such a visit.

On a bright summer day here, as at Clonmacnois, at Cashel, at Slane, there is the blending of the fresh and lovely present with the dim, yet no less real, past. The air, the sky, the face of nature, the contour of the mountains are much the same to us as they were to St. Kevin; but as we pace the unroofed nave of the cathedral, or stand in the shadow of the lofty tower, or try to decipher the sculptures on an ancient cross; as we think of the successive generations of Celt and Saxon that have passed away whilst these relics of human skill have survived, of the fierce Northmen who again and again ravaged the valley, of the long struggle that raged for the possession of these fair regions, there comes upon us that pleasant emotion, due in part to facts and in part to imagination, the sense of satisfaction that we are able to see, mark, and ponder over the works of other ages, surviving in a natural setting, which is at once ever old and ever new.


[2] The Round Towers of Ireland, p. 435.

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