Glendalough – the valley of the two lakes – draws thousands of visitors each year to experience its spectacular scenery and rich archaeological heritage. This guide allows both of these elements to be enjoyed by incorporating visits to the main historical sites into a high-level hiking circuit around the valley. For ease of navigation, the route the guide follows makes use of a number of the waymarked walking and hiking trails that have been developed around the valley by the Wicklow Mountains National Park.
The steep-sided U-shape of the Glendalough valley was carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age. The two ribbon lakes that give the valley its name formed as the ice receded 20,000 years ago. The lakes are fed by the Glenealo river, which joins the Glendasan river near the site of the Monastic City, which in turn feeds into the Avonmore river near Laragh which in turn joins the Avoca river at the Meeting of the Waters and flows into the Irish Sea at Arklow. Lugduff mountain rises to the south of the valley and Camaderry to the north. The geology is a mixture of granite and mica-schist and the western end of the valley was a centre for lead and silver mining during the 19th century. Discarded spoil heaps and the remains of abandoned mine buildings lie dotted around the upper reaches of the valley.
The monastic settlement at Glendalough was founded by St Kevin (in Irish: Cóemgen) in the 6th century. Kevin was the son of a high ranking member of the Dal Messin Corb tribe and studied scripture at Kilnamanagh in South Dublin. Desiring solitude, he was, according to legend, guided over the mountains by an angel to Glendalough. There he lived the life of a hermit, sleeping in the hollow of a tree and eating only herbs and drinking water. Influenced by the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, hermits were common in the early Celtic church. The area around the Upper Lake where Kevin established his hermitage is known as the Disert Cóemgen (Kevin’s Desert). As news of his exploits spread, he began to attract followers and eventually founded the monastery near the Lower Lake where the Glenealo and Glendasan rivers meet. After the monastery was established, he once again retreated into seclusion, living in a simple hut near the Upper Lake. After seven years of living as a hermit, an angel brought Kevin to the place where he would be resurrected and commanded that he build a church there. This is believed to be where Reefert Church is now located. He lived out the rest of his life in the Monastic City.
The monastery continued to thrive after Kevin’s death in 617, expanding into a diocese of over 50,000 acres, covering most of Wicklow and parts of Dublin and Kildare. As well as the monastic component, it also had a role in providing pastoral care to the wider community as well as scholarship. The history of the monastery after Kevin’s death is sketchy but records show it was ransacked by Vikings on a number of occasions in the 9th and 10th centuries. St Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin, was abbot of the monastery between 1153 and 1162 and is credited with overseeing the renovation and building of many of the churches that survive to the present day. The arrival of the Normans in 1169 heralded the decline of Glendalough and in 1214 King John united the see with the diocese of Dublin. As the English influence declined, the Pope re-established the diocese in 1450 but in the wake of the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century, the monastery fell into decay. Despite this, Glendalough continued to attract pilgrims on the saint’s feast day and St Kevin’s Church served as the local parish church in the first half of the 19th century.
The explosion in interest in the ancient world and the emergence of tourism from the early 19th century onwards led to renewed interest in the history and heritage of Glendalough. The site became one of the first to be vested as a National Monument by the Commissioners for Public Works and extensive renovation and restoration works were carried out in the 1870s and 1911-12. Today the Glendalough valley is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country.
As always be prepared for the Irish weather. Although a lot of visitors walk the trails all year round, the upper parts of the valley remain very remote, even at the height of the tourist season. It is no place to get caught without the right weatherproof clothing in the event the mist and rain come down. Hiking boots are useful but any sturdy flat footwear should suffice. Good grip is essential as the wooden boardwalk on the Spinc, above the Upper Lake, can be quite slippery, especially after wet weather, and accidents are not uncommon.
Options for refreshments are limited to the Glendalough Hotel (between the Visitor Centre and the Monastic City) and the stalls situated in front of The Gateway and at the Upper Lake car park. Further options are available in the nearby village of Laragh. There are a number of picnic tables near the Visitor Centre and near the shores of the Upper Lake. A good place to stop for a breather and a bite to eat on this hike, at least in good weather, is at the footbridge at the top of the valley.
Free car parking is available at the Lower Lake car park near the visitor centre. There is also a pay car park adjacent to the Upper Lake. St Kevin's Bus runs from Dublin city centre to Glendalough and back (via Bray, Kilmacanogue and Roundwood) twice per day. Unfortunately, the bus does not really allow sufficient time to complete this hike and get back in time for the bus home - it's theoretically possible if you set a fast walking pace but you will have to push yourself hard, probably at the expense of any enjoyment of the sights, especially if it's your first visit.
For further reading on Glendlough, please see:
Barrow, Lennox (1974). "Glendalough and St Kevin". Dublin Historical Record (Old Dublin Society) 27 (2): 49–64
Doherty, Charles; Doran, Linda; Kelly, Mary, eds. (2011). Glendalough: City of God. Dublin: Four Courts Press. ISBN 978-1-84682-170-7.
Environmental Protection Agency/Geological Survey of Ireland (2009). Historic Mine Sites – Inventory and Risk Classification. Dublin: Environmental Protection Agency. ISBN 1-84095-318-3.
Hannigan, Ken; Nolan, William, eds. (1994). Wicklow: History & Society. Dublin: Geography Publications. pp. 139–150. ISBN 0-906602-30-O.
Heritage Council (2007). Exploring the Mining Heritage of County Wicklow. Dublin: Heritage Council.
Leask, Harold G. (n.d.). Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. Official Historical & Descriptive Guide. Dublin: The Stationery Office.
Leask, Harold G. (1977). Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings. Vol. 1: Early Phase and the Romanesque (2nd ed.). Dundalk: Dundalgan Press.
Manning, Con (2002). "A Puzzle in Stone: The Cathedral at Glendalough". Archaeology Ireland (Dublin: Wordwell) 16 (2): 18–21.
Rodgers, Michael; Losack, Marcus (1996). Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage. Dublin: The Columba Press. ISBN 1-85607-173-1.
Simonds, Michael (2011). Glendalough: A Guide. Dublin: The Exchange Bookshop. ISBN 978-1-905487-46-2.