Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Glendalough cathedral

Glendalough cathedral probably dates in its present form to c.1000, but incorporated in the walls are the remains of a smaller, but impressive church, including the west doorway, which has, however, been heightened to fit the newer, larger building.

It is the analysis of the masonry which allows a dating for the church. It will be noticed that the bottom few courses of stone are of large cyclopean masonry, but above that, lower quality rubble masonry is used, incorporating, however, some stones with joggled joints, which despite their careful cutting out, do not in their present position fit together. From this, it can be suggested that the cyclopean masonry represents the masonry remains of an earlier church. Very unusually, however, the antae (or side walls, continued past the west façade) of the current cathedral are not the same width as the side walls themselves, except just beneath the eaves – from this we may collect that they are the reused antae of the previous church, and that their thickness indicates that of the walls of the earlier structure. However, the fact that the masons took the trouble to widen them at the top indicates that they still served a structural purpose at the time of the current buildings construction, hence allowing us to arrive at the date of c.1000.

Comparisons with other churches can be made: the chamfered antae are also found on a church at Longford Pass, while a number of D-shaped stones built into the masonry which puzzled Leask for some time, as he took them to be stones from an earlier chancel arch, are probably instead D-shaped tympana, used over the windows of the earlier church, as may still be seen at Confey, Co. Kildare.

The cathedral was expanded in the late 12th or early 13th century, with a new chancel arch, sacristy, new north doorway. A lot of Dundry stone from a quarry near Bristol, is used, which helps date it to c.1200, when Glendalough was under threat of amalgamation with Dublin, which did happen in 1215. Building of chancel may have been to strengthen their case.

Priest’s House

The Priest’s House is a small church which seems to have reliquary associations. A lintel over the doorway could originally have been a tympanum. The church has suffered a good deal of alterations, and the east end was reconstructed in 1870, after a drawing by Beranger, the 18th century antiquary. It has been suggested that the unusual niche could have formed part of pilgrims’ devotional practices, perhaps allowing them to sanctify pieces of cloth as ‘brandea’, or associative relics, through contact with the saint’s body through a small hole in the wall.

St Kevin’s ‘Kitchen’

This small church can only be dated by its architecture: it has a steeply pitched stone roof over a vault, which probably dates to c.1100, when the introduction of mortared stone roofs with vault beneath first occurs. Like the Cathedral, the doorway also has a tympanum, and stonework is recycled. The chancel (no longer extant) and small sacristy were added later, as the chancel arch cuts through the original east window – very soon after the church itself is built, but it is a secondary feature.

St Saviour’s Priory

St Saviour’s Priory is one of the few medieval buildings at Glendalough which can be dated by historical events as well as stylistic features. The priory belonged to canons of the order of St Augustine, and their priory at Glendalough was founded during the abbacy of St Lorcán Ua Tuathaill (or Lawrence O’Toole), afterwards archbishop of Dublin. He became abbot in 1153, and left to take up his archiepiscopal office in 1162, hence the church can be dated to this period. The style might indicate that it falls within the earlier part of this time span.

The church as it is partially rebuilt, as the chancel arch had fallen by the end of the nineteenth century, and was re-erected by the Office of Public Works, re-utilising the fallen voussoirs. However, many of the stones are in fact missing, and one voussoir with a striking key-pattern clearly does not belong with the others in the chancel arch. It may have come from the one of the two south doorways, one of which, it is recorded, had a porch.

The sculptural details on both the capitals and bases of the chancel arch, but especially on the surround of the east window are particularly fine. These low-relief works include a panel with two birds, possibly standing on clouds, holding between their beaks a human head. Three bosses within the panel may possibly represent the Trinity, but the iconography is unclear. Interestingly, the theme of a human head between two birds is also found on the keystone of the arch at Killeshin church. Both these sites may have a connection with Diarmait Mac Murchada – his patronage is recorded on the Killeshin doorway, but he may also have been involved here, as Lorcán Ua Tuathaill was in fact his brother in law.

Further Reading

Manning, C., 'A puzzle in stone: the cathedral at Glendalough', Archaeology Ireland Summer 2002, Vol.16, pp.18-21.