01 November 2009

Glendalough, a monastic city around the lakes

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Although Glendalough is only a 40 or 45 minute drive from where I live, it must be 25 or 30 years since I had been last there. So, instead of a walk on the beach this weekend, I headed off on Saturday afternoon for the Wicklow Mountains and the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes.”

Saint Kevin, a member of one of the royal families of Leinster, first visited Glendalough when he was a monastic student. He returned later, with a small group of monks to set up a monastery here, and as his reputation as a holy man spread, he attracted more and more followers.

He died ca 618, but his monastic community continued to flourish for another six centuries. At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Glendalough was named as one of the two dioceses for North Leinster.

At its height, the monastery included workshops, scriptoriums where manuscripts were written and copied, guest houses, an infirmary and farm buildings. A large number of monks lived here, but Glendalough also had a large lay population between the 10th and 12th centuries, so that some sources call it a city. The surviving buildings in Glendalough do not allow the visitor to gauge the size of Glendalough at that time.

The best-known Abbot of Glendalough was probably Saint Lurence O’Toole (1128-1180), who was known for his sanctity and hospitality. He became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, but continued to return to Glendalough for solitude.

In 1214, Glendalough was united with the Diocese of Dublin, the large Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, ceased to function as a cathedral, and Glendalough began to lose its importance as an ecclesiastical and cultural centre.

The settlement was badly destroyed in 1398, but Saint Kevin’s feast day continued to be celebrated on 3 June, and in the 18th and 19th centuries there were regular reports of “riotous assembly” in Glendalough on Saint Kevin’s Day.

We entered the site at the southern side, crossing a little wooden bridge to the remains of Saint Kieran’s Church. The site of this nave-and-chancel church were uncovered in 1875, and it probably commemorates Saint Kieran of Clonmacnoise.

Saint Kevin’s Church ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Saint Kevin’s Church is a stone-roofed, single-nave church a west door and a small round-headed east window. A chancel and sacristy were added later. The steep roof is supported internally by a semi-circular vault.

The Priests’ House was almost totally rebuilt using the original stones and following sketch made by in 1779 by Béranger. This small Romanesque building, with a decorative arch at the east end, is called the Priests’ House because an 18th and 19th century practice of burying priests there. Its original purpose is not known, although some writers have speculated that it once housed the relics of Saint Kevin.

The Cathedral ... The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough is the Cathedral, which was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The nave is part of the earliest phase of building.

The west doorway comes from an earlier, smaller church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The square-headed west doorway was re-used from an earlier, smaller church, while the chancel and sacristy date from the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. The chancel arch and east window were finely decorated, through many of the stones are now missing.

The ambry in the south chancel has an early mediaeval piscina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Under the south window of the chancel you can see an ambry or wall cupboard and a piscina – a basin used for washing the sacred vessels, similar to the one I saw in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, last week.

The Round Tower at Glendalough ... the conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

North-west of the cathedral, the 30-metre Round Tower is built of mica-slate and granite. Its conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones.

The double, arched gateway was the original entrance to the monastic city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

We left the site through the double gateway that was the entrance to the monastic city. This one of the most important and unique monuments at Glendalough. Originally it was two-storied, with two granite arches, and the projecting walls at each end suggest it had a timber roof. A stone in the west well inside the west gate is inscribed with a cross as a symbol of sanctuary and marking this out as the boundary of the area of refuge, the boundary between the secular and the sacred.

We never managed to see the other churches close to the lower lake, including Saint Mary’s Church, Trinity Church and Saint Saviour’s Church. As I came out the double gates, a lone piper dressed in Viking costume was busking for the benefit of the few straggling tourists who were still around.

Dusk was closing in, and there was little time to do more than take a look at the Upper Lake, where the monastic sites include the Reefert Church, which was the burial place of the kings, Saint Kevin’s Cell, the “Caher,” Temple-na-Skellig and Saint Kevin’s Bed.

Perhaps I ought to have allowed myself a little more time. But earlier in the afternoon I had taken a detour and visited Rathdrum. I preached in Saint Saviour’s Parish Church some years ago, when the Revd Olive Henderson was the priest-in-charge of the parish. But I wanted to see Rathdrum again for family reasons: two members of the Rathdrum branch of the Comerford family, Alex and Roger, have been in touch in recent weeks, and I wanted once again to see the Comerford house and mill.

Ardavon House, once home to generations of Comerfords, is now a lonely figure at the north end of the Main Street in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Ardavon House, which had been the home of the Rathdrum Comerfords for generations, stands at the north end of the Main Street, while Saint Saviour’s stands at the southern end. The Main Street is enclosed by both, and it appears James Comerford (1799-1867) was making a statement when he chose this as the site for his family home.

James Charles Comerford (1842-1907) was a close friend and strong political ally of his neighbour, Charles Stewart Parnell of Avondale House, throughout his political career in the 19th century.

Later generations of the family included the Republican journalist and pioneering feminist, Maire Comerford (1893-1982), and the Dublin film-maker Joe Comerford.

Ardavon House looks down on Rathdrum Mill, in Rathdrum’s Lowtown, which provided the Comerfords with their wealth and prosperity in the 19th century. The mill finally closed in 1937, and the buildings are now owned by Glanbia.

Meanwhile, Ardavon now stands as a lonely shell at the edge of the town, looking down on the valley below. A fire destroyed part of the house a few decades ago. Since then, Ardavon House has been bricked up, the windows and doors filled in with concrete, and the portico and façade are now covered with graffiti and dangerous building notices. The old sun-room, with its iron framework, is crumbling away sadly, and the front of the house is being used as a bottle bank and car park.

Behind the house, it is still possible to trace the wonderful walks into the woods that must have been enjoyed by generations of Comerfords who lived here. I imagined happier days when there were tennis parties on the lawns around the house, or evenings when, perhaps Charles Stewart Parnell was at dinner here.

There are plans to restore this wonderful house, but they seem to be getting nowhere. And as winter closes in, another connection with Ireland’s history and story appears to be in danger of crumbling away because no-one cares.

Heading back to Glendalough, I passed through the charming village of Laragh, where the Comerfords also owned a mill. This mill was leased from the Barton family, which included Archbishop …., and who were closely related to Erskine Childers.

A replica high cross beneath the Round Tower of Glendalough marks the grave of Peig O Tighearnaigh (née Comerford) from Rathdrum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In Glendalough, I was not surprised to find a few graves for Comerfords from Rathdrum, including one with a replica Celtic High Cross commemorating Peig O Tighearnaigh from Mount Merrion, who was originally a Comerford from Rathdrum.

On the way back from Glendalough, I passed through pretty Roundwood, which claims to be Ireland’s highest village.

I stopped for dinner in Fern House, the restaurant attached to the Avoca shop at Kilmacanogue. With its high ceilings and its vast expanse of glass on three sides, this restaurant has ambience, atmosphere, and one of the most splendid settings within easy reach of Dublin. Outside, the terraces were lit softly and an almost full moon was shining down.

On the way back home, the night skies were aglow with Hallowe’en fireworks. And I thought back to Ardavon House, and mused that someone is playing trick rather than treat on an important part of our legacy and our heritage.

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