Glendalough Upper Lake, photo by Declan

Glendalough. Gleann Dá Loch, pronounced, Glen-Da-Lock, meaning “Glen of two Lakes”. Nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful Glendalough Valley in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, this early Christian monastic settlement ruin, is the most spiritual space I have ever entered. Founded by Saint Kevin in the 6th century, Glendalough is the place I think of when I want to feel at peace and it is a place I never tire of visiting when I am in Ireland.

St. Kevin is believed to have been a member of one of the ruling families of Leinster who was sent as a child to study with three holy men, Eoghan, Lochan and Eanna. As a young man he ventured to Glendalough, where he lived as a hermit for seven years. He eventually returned to civilization but it was not long before he realized that it was his calling to establish a monastery and therefore returned with a few followers to the place he had lived as a hermit, to do just that. From this humble beginning in the 6th century, the Glendalough Monastery grew into a great ecclesiastic mecca which flourished for 500 years before its gradual decline after joining with the Dublin diocese in 1214 and then finally, being destroyed by English invaders in 1398. After this event, it continued on as a local church and became a place of pilgrimage.

A total of seven pilgrimages to Glendalough is said to be equal to one pilgrimage to Rome. I can definitely call myself a pilgrim of Glendalough because I have easily made those seven visits! I have walked the ruins and the mountain paths of this mystical place in all kinds of weather; on warm, sunny summer days when tour buses clogged the car park and tourists played Frisbee on the lawn outside the monastic site and on cold winter days when the biting wind ripped the hood of my winter coat off my head and forced me to take cover behind the stone walls of ancient churches and dwellings that once housed monks. My most memorable sojourn was made on a mild, yet grey day in late November when the threat of rain, which never came, kept the tourists away. During our quiet, peaceful walk that day through the monastic ruins and along paths that led to waterfalls and scattered ancient sites, I felt surrounded by the palpable presence of spiritual energy. Ever since that particular visit, no matter where I am, if I am worried or just in need of a peaceful break, all I have to do is imagine that I am standing with my back to St. Kevin’s Cross gazing out at the Round Tower – and I am again in that place surrounded by peace, all worries forgotten for the moment.

Reefert Church in Glendalough, photo by Declan

Among the many treasures of Glendalough is St. Kevin’s Cross, which is a 12th century plain, high cross made of a single granite stone of local origin. Legend has it that any person able to wrap their arms around this cross so that their fingertips touch… will get their wish. Since I am unable to reach around fully, I can only conclude that the majority of women do not have the arm span for it!

Declan making his wish!

I won’t give a grocery list of the myths and legends associated with St. Kevin and this mystical place, which are innumerable, considering he is believed to have lived until the ripe old age of 120! However, I will share the one legend I have read repeatedly in several sources, about the blackbird’s nest. At the age of seven, Kevin is said to have been in the wilderness, kneeling in prayer with his arms outstretched. A blackbird took this opportunity to build a nest in his open palm and then lay its eggs in the nest. Kevin is said to have remained completely still, arms outstretched, nest in hand, throughout Lent until the baby birds were hatched and flew away. During this ordeal, legend has it that he was fed fruit and nuts by the blackbird parents as they also attended to their young. I can appreciate both the wonder and the absurdity of this story since I presently live with a seven year old boy!

Our family has its own little story of wonder that took place during one of our many visits to Glendalough. Upon venturing along the path directly behind the main monastic site, my son Eoin found a “cool rock” that was flat on one side, as though it had broken off a larger rock. He showed his new treasure to Declan and me before stuffing it into his pocket for the long walk ahead. We strolled along the path for quite some time until we noticed dusk was quickly approaching, so we turned and walked back the way we came. Finally, approaching the place where we had begun our walk, Declan happened to look down to see what he thought was Eoin’s rock, lying on the ground. Declan called out, “Eoin, look what I found! You must have dropped your rock.” But Eoin pulled the rock out of his pocket where it had remained safe and secure throughout our hike. Upon holding the two rocks in his hands and seeing they fit together like two nearly perfect halves of one rock, Declan realized he had found the other, missing half, of the rock Eoin had found earlier! We now call it our ‘magic rock’ and it sits on a shelf in our home, reminding us of the mystical nature of Glendalough.

Most Christian sites in Ireland sit upon locations once considered to be powerful and sacred by the Pagans who came before. Often this is what led the Christians to these spots in the first place… and it is probably what led Kevin to Glendalough. So, I like to believe that the spiritual energy I have felt there on numerous occasions, comes from both, the early Christian monks, as well as their Druid predecessors. This spiritual energy, along with the magnificent beauty of Glendalough, calls me back time and again.

The Round Tower of Glendalough - with Declan's son in the foreground