ESCAPE TO IRELAND #04 – Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough

July 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

May/June 2016


ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #4 – Wicklow to Limrick


Map of our route

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After a good nights sleep in the “Ambassador Suite”, we awoke to another bright sunny morning and another “Irish Breakfast”.  Today we leave the eastern side of Ireland and start making our way westward.  Our first foray to the west has us winding our way over the Wicklow Mountains.  Now, for those of you who understand mountains, you are probably imagining the High Sierra’s in California, or the Rockies that form the continental divide in the US and Canada or the Alps or the Himalayas or Andes.  Well, you’re in the wrong ball park.  Not withstanding that the Wicklow Mountains form the largest continuous upland area in Ireland, they are no where near as grand as those aforementioned mountain ranges. 

The highest point – Lugnaquilla Mtn - is a modest peak at only 3,035 ft (925 m) which is actually pretty small relatively speaking.  In the North American West something 3,000 ft tall would hardly even be noticed and would be considered not much more than a tall hill.  But, when it’s your countries largest mountainous area it’s a big deal.  I should point out that even though it’s the largest continuous high ground - 190 square miles (500 sq Km) all at over 300 ft - it’s tallest peak is only the 13th tallest in Ireland.

However, it is a nice drive and quite picturesque – al though I didn’t take any pictures of it.  There are 3 passes through these (ahem) mountains under 2000 ft (600 m) and we took the southern most one which is R256.  Most of the route is spotted with farms and sheep ranches but unlike the Sierra or Rockies, these mountains are not forested.  The vegetation is mostly scrub bushes of various types, with lots of grass and meadows.  In the valleys there are some small patches of forest but most of these have been planted by hand after the entire country was striped bare of trees to support ship building. 



Our first stop is the little village of Glendalough (valley of the two lakes), in a Wicklow Mountain valley. It is a very well preserved Early Medieval monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century.  Good ol’ Kevin of Coemhghein (which means “fair begotten”) was a descendant of one of the ruling families in Ireland.  When he was young he ventured to this area and is said to have lived in the hollow of a tree.  He later returned with a small band of monks and founded a monastery at the junction of two rivers. As time went on his reputation as a holy man increased and he attracted a large following.  He died in 618 but the community flourished for another 600 years. 

Several notable people spent time in Glendalough including Laurence O’Toole (1128) who became archbishop of Dublin.  In 1214, the Dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were combine (and headquartered in Dublin).  After that the cultural and religious importance of Glendalough diminished.  This all culminated when those pesky English destroyed the settlement in 1398 and left it in ruin.  But the locals continued to use its church and graveyard.  Even after it was destroyed, through the 18th and 19th centuries there are accounts of the place being the site of “riotous assembly” on the Feast of St. Kevin which falls on June 3rd.

The present remains of Glendalough tell only a small part of the story.  At it’s peak, the monastery would have had workshops, rooms for manuscript writing, guest houses, an infirmary, farm buildings, and houses for both the monks and the large lay population of the town.  The remaining buildings stem from the 10th to 12th centuries and consist of a round tower, cathedral, village arch gate and priest’s house.


Being a major village in its heyday, the village was probably fortified but those surrounding walls are long gone.  But the remaining gateway to the monastic city  is one of the most important monuments in Ireland and is  now totally unique in the country.  It was originally a two story stone building with two fine granite arches.  It appears that it had a timber roof.  Inside the passageway through the gate is a cross inscribed stone indicating that this was a sanctuary – the boundary of the area of refuge.  Part of the paving (well just stones laid side by side) is still there through the gates. 


Double arch gateway

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Marker Stone

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Round Towers are found all over Ireland.  There is some debate about their use, but most agree that people did not in general live in them and they were primarily used as a visible landmark to aid approaching visitors.  Many, such as this one, also served as a bell tower, lookout perch, and perhaps for storage.  The entry door is 12 or so feet off the ground so access must have included a wooden ladder.  Due to this some say the tower was used as a refuge during attacks.  However, others say that being like a chimney; it would not be much of refuge if the attackers lit a fire inside and the high door was to prevent water from getting to stored grain if the river flooded.

This particular tower, built over 1,000 years ago by the monks, is the best example of such towers.  I don’t know if it just withstood the ravages of time or was restored, but it is pretty much in the same condition as it would have been in its prime.  In 1876 a lightening strike blew off its stone conical roof, but it was rebuilt using the same materials.   It is 98 ft (30 m) tall.

Glendalough Round Tower

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Glendalough Round Tower

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Like all the other buildings here, the Cathedral too is made of stone, including the roof.  Ok, think about this.  An entire roof made of stones.  We’re not talking about flat slabs of slate, but full sized stones.  I have no idea how much they all weigh but it’s quite an engineering feat to construct and to have them stay put for centuries.  However, it does give one pause when standing under such a massive weight of rocks over your head and remembering that this was all done without the aid of iPhones (or, perhaps, I feel better about the builders not having smart phones to rely on for advice).

Anyway this is the largest building still standing and it too features its own round tower – albeit much smaller than the other one.  As is the case in most ancient buildings, it was built in various stages with remodeling done many times.  In its final state it is two buildings merged together at a corner.  People who study such things also find evidence that part of it was constructed from stones scavenged from a prior church nearby – as if there were a shortage of stones in Ireland.



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The round tower and cathedral are inside a cemetery with headstones dating back many centuries.  The entire village and monastery are a short walk from two very nice lakes.

One of two lakes near Monastery

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Round Tower as seen from near the lake

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Round Tower through remnants of one of the churches

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Ornate grave stone with Irish Cross and Round Tower

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Typical Stonework

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Our 4th day in Ireland was once again Bright Sun, mid 70’s (f), and no rain.  What’s with this wonderful weather?


Next on our agenda – Kilkenny, Rock of Cashel

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  

- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.



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Thanks for reading -- Dan


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