“Exploring Ireland” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, running only for the second time in 2019. Once again, we are offering a kind of diary of the tour, as we did for Crete and the Dodecanese in 2017 and for the Peloponnese and the Cyclades in 2018. We followed those precedents, not describing every day in detail (just check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com), but picking one image we took on each day, accompanying it with some thoughts or insights.
On Day 2 of Exploring Ireland we explored the area immediately south of Dublin, part of the counties of Wicklow and Kildare. Our major visits today were to two very different places, the second of which was Russborough House, a very fine 18th century stately home.
The first, however, was Glendalough, one of the most beautiful places in the vicinity of Dublin city, and our picture shows the view one has approaching the site.
Glendalough (the name means 'the valley of the two lakes') is one of the most important early monastic centres in Ireland. It serves as a perfect introduction to this complex of sites and thus to one of Ireland's 'golden ages', the era of the early 'Celtic' church.
Early Christian Ireland was unlike other parts of Europe. Elsewhere, Christianity was introduced during the latter days of the Roman Empire and thus adopted the organisational structures that were available there, with a focus on bishops based in cities, i.e. major centres of population, economic and politics. Ireland had never been part of the Empire and therefore its early missionaries (according to legend, there was just one, Saint Patrick, who supposedly converted the entire country single-handedly during the fifth century AD) had no cities to work with. Its population was scattered around the countryside, organised on a more or less tribal basis and ruled by numerous competing kings, major and minor. As a result, monasteries, often patronised by such local rulers and set up near their strongholds, became the basic centres of Irish Christianity. They developed as centres not just of the new faith, but of trade, of power, of population (some of them were the nuclei of later towns and cities), of art and architecture.
Glendalough, founded by the semi-legendary Saint Kevin (really Caoimhín) before AD 600, was one of the most important among these centres, thriving for over half a millennium, until the early 13th century. The place, set in a narrow mountain valley and between two streams, is strikingly lovely. The remains of the ancient monastery include various monuments, including a number of chapels, a very simple stone cross and the two major edifices visible in our photograph: a typical Irish Round Tower on the right (we'll talk about those towers in another post soon: they are the key feature of early Irish monasteries and the Glendalough one may date to the 9th century) and a chapel (probably of 12th century date) on the left, using an abbreviated Round Tower as a steeple of belfry.
Tomorrow, we will explore more material witnesses to the era of the early Irish saints...