My Visit to Golden Age Ireland

Tuesday, 1 May 1900 - Dublin, Ireland

St. Kevin's Church
It’s May Day, the modern equivalent of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, the beginning of summer according to the ancient calendar. Beltane was celebrated with a big bonfire back then. I decided to celebrate with my own Temporal Tuesday trip into the distant past--the Golden Age of Ireland.

Just south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains is Glendalough, literally Glen of Two Lakes. It was here that Kevin (Coemgen in Gaelic) started a hermitage in the sixth century. Kevin was a monk at Kilnamanagh, now the neighborhood of Tallaght in Dublin, but then decided to become a hermit.

Glendalough - Glen of the Two Lakes
Kevin is said to have been led to this valley by angels to a cave that was originally a Bronze Age tomb. Here he lived wearing animal skins, eating nettles, praying and having a good time. Then others heard of this holy man and came to him to be taught his wisdom. Unfortunately Irish etiquette dictated Kevin had to honor their request and soon he had a monastery full of monks. Rather difficult to be a hermit so many people underfoot.

Kevin tried sneaking off to be a alone again, but the monks dragged him back, begging him to lead them. He gave up and served as their abbot until his death of extreme old age. Legend says he lived to be 120.

Glendalough continued to grow in influence, becoming one of the major places of pilgrimage. It also had a school teaching aspiring monks and nobility alike. Glendalough was just one of many monasteries with schools throughout Dark Age Ireland. The Emerald Isle became famous throughout Europe for it’s learning. Charlemagne, when trying to establish a new Holy Roman Empire, made sure to invite Irish scholars to his court.

Glendalough however soon became overshadowed by a growing Dublin. In 1398 an English army partially destroyed Glendalough and it became a backwater. In a way that was a blessing, for it put the valley out of the notice of the far more destructive Cromwell and William of Orange.

Round Tower
A surprising amount of the ancient monastery survives. Not sure if any dates back to Kevin, but certainly back more than a thousand years. The 98 foot tower is still intact. All right, the roof was reconstructed in 1876, but they used the original stone. The door is 12 feet off the ground so monks could climb in using a ladder and pull the ladder after themselves to keep out of reach of Viking raiders. A Dark Age panic room.

There are several churches in various degrees of ruin here, but the best preserved and probably oldest is St. Kevin’s “Kitchen.” It’s really a chapel. It was so well built that last century it was “restored” by sweeping out and adding wooden pews for worship.

Further up the valley on the banks of the Upper Lake is St. Kevin’s Bed, the cave he originally lived in. It was worth the hike to see it. The scenery is so lovely the trek was most pleasant in itself. St. Laurence O'Toole (Lorcán Ua Tuathail), the abbot of Glendalough in the 12th century, used to sleep here, too. He was later made Archbishop of Dublin, then a largely Viking town, who approved his appointment, making him the first Irish Bishop of Dublin. It was probably not very respectful of me, but I couldn’t fight the urge to lie down in the spot I assumed the two saints had laid. It filled me with wonder, but mostly with pain from that stone in my back. Not at all comfortable. I do hope the poor chaps at least had some straw.
St. Kevin's Bed Cave
Kevin will not be made an official saint until 1903. Back in 618 when he died, canonizing wasn’t a common practice yet. He will not only be considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, but by the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church as well. Of course he has always been considered a saint here in Ireland even while he was still alive.

I hung about the Glen of the Two Lakes until I was forced to catch the last train back to Dublin. I must say spending your entire life in this beautiful valley would hardly be a hardship. Kevin picked well.

Rick Steves visits Glendalough
(as well as Powerscourt Estate I saw last week)

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