Through this series, I’ve mentioned how Ireland feels older than anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. It’d be tragic to have gone all that way and not seen some proper old stuff. We too a day and made a pilgrimage to what remains of a monastic complex in Glendalough, an hour’s drive south of Dublin. It’s the name for a glacial valley among the Wicklow Mountains which means “Valley of Two Lakes.”
If you’ve ever seen the Irish animated film The Secret of Kells, you’ll have an idea of the sort of settlement these ruins once were. A round tower dominates the site, with a single door several meters from the ground. It seems strange that it would be designed that way, inaccessible as it seems now, but in fact the design is for keeping invaders out. As long as there were Vikings, they raided Ireland, especially her east coast (Dublin started as a Viking settlement). Plus, Irish Monks were never known for their combat prowess. The site also contains what’s left of a couple stone buildings—one is definitely a church. It’s amazing how long stone structures will last, though only one roof remains (upon the rectangular buildings). A
graveyard now fills the space between these buildings. There’s a visitors’ centre and an adorable inn right nearby—we used the visitors’ center as our GPS waypoint and ate at the inn’s restaurant. The center also services the myriad walking trails that start in the site and cover the low mountains surrounding the valley.
These were really my first ruins that I could walk into, or touch. I love rocks, and minerals, and stone. Glendalough was subject to all sorts of opposition, so if those rocks could talk, they’d quite literally spout a saga. The second longest Viking longship was made with timber harvested from the valley. Celtic Christianity was characterized by a greater emphasis on the spirituality of the religion than other geographic subsets, and the monestary at Glendalough is still a very spiritual place. Nestled among old emerald mountains, it’s peaceful among those weathered headstones and tired structures. Many graveyards are depressing or worse, upsetting. It’s rare to be in one that feels like those laid there are truly resting, but that’s the vibe I left Glendalough with.
Before we left, though, we managed to dip into Wicklow Mountains National Park. At the inn, there was a kind old man giving horse carriage rides along the lakes. For five Euro a head, he and his horse would take you down a narrow lane and past one lake to the shores of the other. While I’m sure he had permission to be running his little business, I don’t think he was employed by the hotel itself. As such, I cannot say whether he’ll be around when you make your way there. If he is, though, by all means take the ride. To say that it’s worth the money is a gross understatement; he could easily charge double.
The lane is quite narrow, quite probably predating motor vehicles. That doesn’t stop them, though, and our carriage got rather cozy with some cars at a couple points. If you’re driving, you can make your own way down; there’s a parking lot. We were only allotted about fifteen minutes at the most beautiful spot in Ireland we visited. It’s the end of the valley: a steep, silty bit of hill partially eclipsed by a bend in the mountains. I’d have sat on that pebbly beach for hours, soaking up the sights and reveling in the breeze, but alas, my ride was leaving. Yet another place I cannot wait to revisit.
There was no structure on this bit of our tour of Ireland. No labeled exhibits, no guides, just a visitors’ centre with brochures. There were no cordons or barricades, either. Simply a calm, quiet graveyard full of tourists wandering about. Next week, we’ll do almost the opposite, taking a guided tour of some of the most famous ruins in Ireland.