Nestled like an Irish Brigadoon in the Wicklow Mountains twenty miles south of Dublin, Glendalough preserves the remains of a settlement established by St. Kevin in the sixth century.
Its buildings include a round tower, church, priest’s house, several high crosses, and a beehive-shaped hut, all dating from the eighth to twelfth centuries.
Perhaps no other Celtic site gives as much of a sense for what the early monastic communities were like as Glendalough.
Throughout this period, monasteries filled the role that parish churches would later claim, serving as the primary focus for worship, community, and religious instruction.
These settlements often contained both men and women, lay and ordained. While they provided places of retreat from the bustle of the world, they were also intimately involved in the lives of local people in the community, filling the roles of hospital, school, guest house, and center for the arts as well as a place for worship and prayer.
Like Iona in Scotland, Glendalough attracts growing numbers of pilgrims. Several retreat centers offer guided programs and rooms for solitary pilgrimages. A network of trails winds throughout the serene mountain valley, providing many places for prayer and contemplation.
The spirit of St. Kevin is the guiding light at Glendalough. Kevin has been called a Celtic St. Francis, a holy man known for his love of the birds and beasts.
A favorite legend says that a bird once built a nest in his hand as his arms were outstretched in prayer. Loathe to disturb her, Kevin kept his arms in place until the little birds had hatched. Among the sites associated with Kevin in the Glendalough valley are a small cave known as St. Kevin’s Bed, a place where he retreated for prayer, and St. Kevin’s Cell, a small building that is said to have been his home.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.