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Glendalough: a celtic pilgrimage

30 November, 2008

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack provide a detailed guide to the ancient pilgrimage site of Glendalough, revealing its rich traditions, legends and stories.

134 pp, Columba Press, 2001. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.


Foreword by Esther Waal
1. Introduction: From Hollywood to Glendalough
2. The story and legends of St Kevin
3. Trinity church
4. The monastic city
5. The Green road
6. St Kevin’s desert
7. St Kevin’s well
8. St Saviour’s church
9. St Laurence O’Toole
10. Conclusion


Visitors and pilgrims have been coming to Glendalough since early Celtic times, and today it is one of the most-visited ancient sites in Ireland. This detailed guidebook brings out the timeless mystery of this ancient and sacred place, and reveals the treasures of the rich traditions of the area, the legends and stories of its patron, St Kevin, and the lives, lifestyles and beliefs of its inhabitants since earliest times.

Uniquely, this guidebook is also a book on Celtic spirituality, based on a pilgrimage journey through Glendalough where both visitor and pilgrim are helped to make connections between Celtic spirituality of St Kevin and his followers and a spirituality relevant for their own lives today.

Michael Rodgers is a Catholic priest who lives in Glendalough, working with individuals and groups who seek to explore the mystery of this holy place in a prayerful pilgrimage through it.

Marcus Losack is an Anglican priest who has worked in Ireland, the UK, Jerusalem and Libya, where he led pilgrimages to the sites of the early desert fathers. He is now director of Céile Dé, an ecumenical organisation near Glendalough which specialises in developing study-pilgrimages in Celtic spirituality.

CHAPTER: The story and legends of St. Kevin

‘A soldier of Christ into the land of Ireland
A high name over land and sea
Coemgen, the holy fair warrior
In the valley of the two broad lakes’
(Feilire of Oengus c. 800)


The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. (Einstein)

We will be telling parts of Kevin’s story elsewhere in this book, as we travel through the valley on our pilgrim way. There are many, many stories handed down to us; just a few examples are given here to complete a picture of this remarkable person. It is important to remember that the stories about St Kevin’s life were handed on firstly by oral tradition, only to be written down five hundred years after his death, so should not be taken too historically or interpreted in a literal way. At the same time, they may well hold nuggets of historical information which can provide insights into his life and experience. Stories, myths and legends survive primarily because they express deeper truths that the heart understands. It is in this spirit we explore some of the stories and legends here, and try to understand what meaning St Kevin may still hold for us today.

Kevin was at heart a hermit and a Christian mystic. He was a determined ascetic whose great strength and endurance sprang from his extraordinary faith and commitment to monastic celibacy and the teachings of the Desert Spiritual Tradition. As well as being a hermit and founder of monasteries, he wrote poetry and prose, including a Rule for monks in Irish verse. We will see he was also a gentle, loving and kind person, with an extraordinary and unusual affinity to nature, especially the animals and birds. He was someone deeply attracted to the poetic experience of the hermit life; courageous in his desire to draw out to the edge to test his strength and endurance. He chose hardship quite deliberately; his cell was on the dark side of the lake which remained in shadow for six months of the year. Why was this so? Perhaps it was a desire to feel very exposed; to test himself to the limit, and through that test find his own deepest strength, but perhaps most of all it was through an ascetic way of life that he found the poetry of his own soul.

The sources for Kevin’s story are found in six books. Three of these are in Latin and three in Irish. The earliest source of the Latin Lives is in the Codex Kilkenniensis in Marsh’s Library in Dublin. This was probably written in the eleventh century, five to six hundred years after Kevin’s death. The Irish Lives were transcribed by Michael O’Clery in 1629, from the old books that relied heavily on oral traditions and pilgrim’s tales. (1)

The year of Kevin’s birth is generally given as 498 CE but there are good reasons to doubt this. The Annals of Ulster record the date of his death as 618 CE. If correct this means he would have lived one hundred and twenty years – very unlikely in the cold and damp conditions which prevail in Glendalough. It is more likely that he was born somewhere in the middle of the sixth century.

St Kevin came from a royal line of the tribe of Dal-Mesincorb. His father was named Coemlug and his mother was called Coemella. Even before he was born there was promise of great things to come. An angel appeared to Coemella and informed her that she was to have a boy and should call him Coemgen, who would be ‘dear to both God and man… and the father over many monks’. When Kevin was being brought to the priest Cronan, for baptism, legend says that ‘a person appeared and breathed on the child, blessing him and calling him Coemgen’. Cronan believed this was an angel and said, ‘So he shall always be called Coemgen (which means the fair-begotten or beautiful born) for he will be most beautifu1!’ (2) Cronan saw his bright future and committed himself and all he had to St Kevin’s service as his first monk. The lives of the saints always began with miraculous events such as these.

Like so many of the Celtic saints, Kevin had a close relationship with nature and a great love of animals. From a very early age he gained a reputation for doing extraordinary things. One story describes how, when he was a child, a white cow came to his parents’ house every morning and evening with milk for him. We are left wondering what meaning or significance was attached to these original stories. In Irish mythology, the cow was considered sacred. An old Irish proverb says, ‘the cow is one of the pleasant trees of paradise’. There was an otherworld, mystical significance attached especially to the white cow, which was associated with brightness and wisdom. In Irish folk tradition, milk was regarded as one of the sources of poetry. Perhaps animal stories were used to explain the qualities of Kevin’s character, and especially the gifts of wisdom, poetry and brightness associated with his name.

Kevin gained an early reputation for performing miracles. His parents knew that he was an extraordinarily gifted and unusual child and at the early age of twelve they sent him to three holy men, Eogan, Lochan and Enna, for religious instruction and spiritual formation. Their monastery was probably at Kilnamanagh in Tallaght, County Dublin, although there is another opinion that it was at Glenealy, in County Wicklow.

Kevin seems to have been propelled into religious life by his parents, perhaps following the prophecies at the time of his birth. However, he had his own dream to follow and, leaving the monastery at an early age, he ran away and hid in the Wicklow Mountains. Eventually, he came to Glendalough for the first time and made his way to the Upper Lake, to a place he thought was ideal for solitude and prayer. He lived a very simple and austere life in the hollow of a tree, eating only herbs and drinking water. Legend tells us that he stayed there for many days, undisturbed by anyone, until one day a cow which had been brought to graze in the area came to him and began to lick his garments. She continued to do this every day until her owner began to be suspicious that something unusual was happening when she began to produce great quantities of milk. The owner asked his herdsmen to watch the cow closely, which led to the discovery of Kevin’s retreat. Word of its location reached his three teachers, Eogan, Lochan and Enna who came and took him back to the monastery.

What was the dream and spirit inside St Kevin, that drew him to Glendalough? He was born into a time and a land that was alive with conversion to Christianity. Holy wells and places such as Loch Derg and Croagh Patrick were already vibrant places of pilgrimage for Christians. We can imagine the excitement and debate amongst the young in such an environment. Kevin also came from a privileged background, and may well have discovered the Bronze Age tomb on the side of the cliff at Glendalough during a hunting expedition over the mountains, taken with other young nobles.

The virtues of celibacy and virginity were new Christian values, introduced into Ireland by St Patrick. In pre-Christian Ireland, as with other nature religions, fertility was not only valued, it was considered sacred and vital for survival. There is plenty of evidence that this was true of the Celts. The presence of ‘Sheela na Gig’ images in many old churches would indicate that human sexuality was certainly not offensive. Yet the call to the celibate and ascetic life attracted many, and somewhere in the depths of his being, this vigorous, handsome and healthy son of a chieftain felt the call to deny himself, take up his cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. That call led him to the dark and sombre side of the valley at Glendalough.

After his return to the monastery at Kilnamanagh, Kevin continued to work miracles which greatly impressed those around him. He continued his studies, eventually going to stay with Bishop Lugid who ordained him to the ministry of the priesthood. Lugid directed him with some friends to found a new monastery at Cluainduach. The location of this monastery is unknown, but it is said that he collected there many companions for Christ. It is apparent that he must have been a charismatic and effective leader, even though we are told he spent most of his time in his cell, praying and continuing to work miracles. His heart was restless, however, and after establishing this monastery, accompanied by some monks he set out towards the place where he had found solitude when he was young. The lure of Glendalough had obviously never left him. He once again began to follow the dream of his own calling and inspired others to join him.

Whilst Kevin’s life was driven by the desire for solitude and asceticism, his story does not evade some disturbing moments which he experienced in his personal and spiritual development. Stories of Kevin’s gentlessness and kindness to animals have to be reconciled with other more painful accounts of his struggle with celibacy and conflicts he experienced, especially in his relationships with women.

One story, linked to the time of his training in the monastery at Kilnamanagh, for example, describes how a young girl saw him in the fields with his brethren and fell passionately in love with him. She pursued him in many ways, but Kevin resisted all her advances. One day she came upon him alone, embraced him fondly and asked him tenderly to lie with her. At this Kevin rushed away, and finding a bed of stinging nettles he stripped off his clothes and rolled in them naked. The girl still pursued him, and quickly dressing, he took a bunch of nettles and began to beat her with them around her face, hands and feet. She quickly realised the hopelessness of her pursuit and fell on her knees, begging forgiveness from Kevin and from God. She also promised that she would dedicate her life to God, and became a nun. (3)

The story emphasises Kevin’s extreme religious fervour and also his struggle to remain celibate. Kevin’s commitment to celibacy is pictured against the natural instincts and passions of a young couple mutually attracted and longing to express their love and affection. It is also a very sad story; the poignant tale of the pushing away of human love for something perceived as greater. Perhaps it illustrates the struggles of celibacy, appreciating the sacredness and wonder of the gift of love and human sexuality, but even this is put aside to serve God. We can appreciate the depth and beauty of the story with all its passion and longing, whilst recoiling from its violence. It shows that at the heart of Kevin’s experience and his quest for holiness there was real struggle.

A popular version of this story, which probably evolved out of the original story given above, describes an incident which is said to have taken place in Glendalough, and names the woman as Kathleen. It continues the theme of seduction but presents Kathleen even more strongly as temptress. She attempts to seduce Kevin in his cave and he expels her, pushing her into the lake where she drowns. This story may have been used by guides in the nineteenth century to entertain visitors but it is unhistorical and offensive to many.

There is another story concerning a woman who entered St Kevin’s life; he was an old man by this time. She may have been a sister from St Mary’s Church; her name was Cassayr. The story tells of St Kevin praying for the soul of a murdered person. While he prayed, he levitated, which is how Cassayr found him. She was shocked by his appearance and ragged clothing and begged him to receive better garments from her. He rejected this offer, through fear of temptation, which saddened Cassayr. However, she still placed herself and all her religious congregation under his Rule. Legend says that an angel of the Lord removed his old, rough garments and clothed him in the garments offered by Cassayr. (4) Perhaps this story hints that Kevin’s attitude towards women softened as he aged, and he was able to accept a spontaneous and generous gesture of love and concern without feeling compromised.

As a young man, Kevin gained a great reputation for performing miracles. Another story describes how, one day, he went into the woods with an older monk also called Coemgen. The younger Coemgen was supposed to bring fire but forgot it completely. The older Coemgen said, ‘Brother, run quickly for the fire and bring it with you’. St. Kevin asked how he would carry it and was told, somewhat angrily by his teacher, ‘In your’ bosom!’ Kevin then went and collected the fire, but miraculously neither his flesh nor his clothes were burned. The teacher immediately said, ‘O holy youth, I see that you are full of the Holy Ghost and that thou oughtest to rule over our community’. (5)

These stories can hold different levels of meaning for us today. We can imagine the young trainee-hermit going into the woods for guidance and instruction. Perhaps his teacher was an older hermit, guiding Kevin in the path of contemplation and prayer. The story is intriguing. Was the old monk really talking about fire in the literal sense, strengthening the young monks growing reputation for miracles? Was Kevin so motivated, he simply did not feel the pain of burning fire? Like all good stories, we are left pondering the meaning and mystery of the story which has endured through the ages. If we remember these tales were handed on for hundreds of years by oral tradition we can see how many different threads may have become woven through them and how misunderstandings and misinterpretations may have arisen.

We are told that Kevin did not like the fame which his miracles brought him and decided to leave the monastery and go away to a remote place where he could be alone to practise a more austere and contemplative lifestyle. Thus the pattern of his life emerges; times of community and responsibility for others; times of solitude and isolation. The writer of the Latin Life mentions that in the lower valley, where two clear rivers flow together, St Kevin founded a great monastery. Many flocked to him from the surrounding countryside and became monks in this place. It is said that many other cells and monasteries were founded from Glendalough in the Province of Leinster. For Kevin, however, when the monastery was established, he once again heard the call of the hermitage.

He left others in charge and set out alone to the upper part of the valley about a mile distant, where he built a small cell for himself in a narrow place between the mountain and the lake. It is generally accepted that this is the place known today as Templenaskellig. He ordered his monks to send him no food and not to approach him except on urgent business. He lived there in complete solitude for at least four years, praying and fasting without a fire or roof over his head. It was not known how he survived but his diet would probably have included plants and berries from the forest, herbs and nuts and perhaps even some fish, with a constant supply of heavenly food.

The experience of prayer and austerity, instead of hardening Kevin, enabled him to express his gentleness and become more at one with himself, with creation and with God. He lived in a place beneath the cliffs on the shores of the Upper Lake, which remains in shadow for at least six months of the year. The reality of this must be woven through our understanding of Kevin’s life at this time. It is also a very beautiful place, where even today there is a great atmosphere of peace and seclusion. It was here that Kevin’s desire for solitude was realised, and he developed close relationships with even the wildest animals. It is said, for example, that the wild beasts from the woods and the mountains came and tamely drank water from his hands:

Where Kevin was the eagle came
Down from the highest mountain tame,
And sat amongst the lesser birds
To hear the wisdom of his words.

The speckled trout would swiftly glide
To the reedy water’s side,
And there the mountain deer would stand
To eat the green moss from his hand.

The snarling wolf and savage boar
Lay down together at his door
And so defied all natural laws
About the cave where Kevin was. (6)

Another story involved a huntsman and a wild boar. A huntsman entered the valley on a certain day, following his dogs which were engaged in the pursuit of a wild boar. The boar ran into St Kevin’s oratory but the dogs, not daring to follow, lay down before the door. St Kevin remained praying beneath a tree, while many birds were seen perched upon his head and shoulders. They flew around him and ‘warbled sweet hymns in honour of God’s servant’. Surprised at what he saw, the hunter called away his dogs. He left the boar at liberty there because of the reverence he felt towards the holy anchorite. (7)

Kevin is also said to have prayed for one hour every night in the cold waters of the lake where a monster used to try to distract and annoy him by curling itself around his body, biting and stinging him. In another story he banished a monster from the Lower Lake to the Upper Lake. As Kevin lived alone at the Upper Lake, in effect, he took the monster to himself. It was said that the fervour of his prayer, his patience and the fire of God’s love in him, rendered the monster harmless. The imagery used is so erotic and intimate, however, that it leaves us wondering what and who the monster was that Kevin experienced in his life, at first so painfully?

Kevin’s story also suggests that, well into old age, he was still assailed by doubts, fears, and various longings which made his heart restless. On one occasion, for example, Kevin was thinking of making a pilgrimage. Another hermit called Garbhan became aware of this and suggested that it was better for Kevin to remain in one spot, serving the Lord, than to go about from place to place in his old age, saying that ‘no bird on the wing can hatch its eggs’. Accepting this advice, Kevin decided not to make the pilgrimage. (8) After a time of prayer and fasting, legend also says, that Kevin was nearly persuaded by satan, who appeared to him in the bright form of an angel, to quit the valley and travel abroad. St Munna of Taghmon discovered in a vision that this was a deception, and sent messengers to Glendalough with a word of warning. As a result, Kevin decided to remain in his cell. This experience may have convinced Kevin that the time had now come for him to stay in this one place in the service of Christ.

Towards the end of his life, an angel appeared to Kevin once again and, after some discourse and a great deal of bargaining, led him to the place of his resurrection. It was during this discourse with the angel that a great prophecy was made about Glendalough.

The angel initially encouraged Kevin to go ‘eastwards from the lesser lake’. When he hesitated, the angel insisted; ‘If you go to the place indicated, many sons of light will always be in it and after your time the monks shall have a sufficiency of earthly possessions and many thousands of happy souls will arise with you from that place, to the kingdom of heaven’. (9) Then the angel promised Kevin that fifty monks would remain there after his death; Kevin demurred so the angel promised more; ‘many thousands shall dwell there’. The angel also promised that after his resurrection, Kevin would still guide, influence and protect this community. Glendalough would remain sacred and venerable; ‘kings and the powerful ones of Ireland shall honour it with a religious veneration on thy account. A great city shall spring up, and the ministry of thy monks shall be so perfect that none of them buried under the soil shall endure the pains of hell’.

The angel continued to make extravagant promises to Kevin, determined to encourage him to stay and spend the rest of his life in the valley. She even promised to ‘make the mountains level’ which Kevin refused, because of his concern for the animals that lived there. Eventually, legend insists, the angel and Kevin walked together upon the waters of the lake to the chosen place. Kevin seems to have questioned the wisdom of such a site, because it was rugged and in his opinion unsuitable for burials, but the angel insisted that the stones which had been immovable there since creation would now be movable. He finally said, ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, arise with thy monks and go to that place, which the Lord hath ordained for thy resurrection’. After these words, the angel departed.

We are told that from his childhood to his declining years, Kevin always kept God’s commandments, in holiness and justice. He was now approaching the final days of his life and he asked twelve of his monks to pray for a special intention. When their prayer was answered, he told them it was that he might be allowed to die. They felt sorrowful but he consoled them, saying that he had already been in God’s kingdom on earth. He encouraged them to keep his Rule and all God’s commandments. After this he raised his hands and blessed them and the place, and departed from them.

The legacy of St Kevin continues to weave through the lives and experiences, not only of those who visit Glendalough, but in a very real way through the stories and memories held by local people who live in this area. Kathleen Bolger (born 1909) who now lives in Laragh, is a surviving link of an old Glendalough family closely associated with the days when people went by boat to St Kevin’s Bed. Her father, Edward, was born in the village at the upper end of the valley in 1874, where his father had worked before him in the mines. Her two brothers, her father and grandfather all made a part-time living on the lake, with two open rowing boats, taking people over to St Kevin’s Bed and Templenaskellig. Her father and grandfather also provided the service of helping pilgrims to get into St Kevin’s Bed, a dangerous and sometimes hazardous occupation. They were helped by Paddy Barrett and his son Paddy, who worked at St Kevin’s Bed for forty seven years. However, it was Larry Bolger who rowed the last boat to St Kevin’s Bed in 1965.

Kathleen lived all her life in the house on the lakeshore at the beginning of the Miner’s Road. She remembers the crowds of people going to St Kevin’s Bed, especially on Sundays and all through the summer. She recalls how it was very popular for newly married couples to go there on their wedding day. Many weddings were held at that time in the nearby Lake Hotel (now demolished). Kathleen herself only went to the Bed once in her lifetime, and says that was enough for her! She remembers that people first went to St Kevin’s Bed where the tradition was to make three wishes having entered the cave. Afterwards they went to Templenaskellig, where they prayed in the old church. On returning to the far shore of the lake at the end of their journey, they could enjoy a cup of tea, scones and fresh-baked brown bread in Kathleen’s house, for two shillings or ten new pence.

The stories and myths surrounding St Kevin can still fascinate and inspire us today, all these centuries later. They are soul-full, curious and magical; full of dark and light, mists and moments of great clarity; tangible and yet intangible. They are archetypal stories. We all fight the ‘monsters of the deep’; we all struggle with conflicts and contradictory longings that pull us at times in different directions. There is still so much in Kevin’s story that remains unexplored. Perhaps as we touch into his experience and walk in his footsteps, Kevin’s story may help us to understand more of our own story, his struggles illuminate our own struggles, the peace he found become our peace. May his dream give us hope and courage to follow our own dreams, as we make our pilgrimage through the valley.

1. See Lennox Barrow, Glendalough and St Kevin, Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1992, pp 3-4.
2. John O’Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol 6, James Duffy and Sons, Dublin, 1891, p 33.
3. John O’Donovan, Letters containing information relative to the Antiquities of the County Wicklow, collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1838, Vol 1, Dublin, 1838, pp 166-167. (Typed original copies in the National Library, Dublin).
4. O’Hanlon, p 63.
5. O’Hanlon, p 38.
6. John Irvine, Treasury of Irish Saints, Brogeen Books, Dolmen Press, Portlaoise, 1964, p 30.
7. O’Hanlon, p 49.
8. O’Hanlon, p 56.
9. O’Hanlon, p 53 ff.


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