I have been to Glendalough many times. Being a Wicklow man, born and bred there, I have heard many people say that the place is a jewel in the crown of Wicklow’s heritage and part of the regions identity. The round tower is a particular symbol of Irishness. It is a place of beauty when the weather is good and absolutely terrible when it’s not. Soaked some days and eaten by flies another, it would be a difficult place for a modern man to live in, while, for the people of the early Medieval Ages (400-1100 AD) this place would have been ideal. Its two large lakes are good sources of fresh water, while the water birds that visit every season would have been a good source of food. The experience of living there, flanked by two high walls, gives a person a feeling of complete isolation and peace. It’s not difficult to understand the reasons for a monastic settlement there as it gives all the sensual meditative qualities needed. This would have been true for religious beliefs of a prehistoric time also. The glen itself is a monument that gives the visitor sensual energies and natural scenic views. Primarily, the site is still a place of pilgrimage.
Growing up I had heard many times about the ancient monuments there. They said it was founded by Kevin, the wandering Christian mystic. The stories were given reality during every visit. The enormous round tower and ruins impressed me greatly. The man-made enclosure as well as the monuments that stood there behind its impressive medieval entrance. At the time I knew that Kevin had lived in the 6th century and all the buildings I associated with this date. Selling Glendalough as one of the oldest monastic sites is a marketing imperative. It gives a sense of wonder, an enchanting energy or as Jung suggested about people and places, that they can be charged with “psychic energy”, that give them a greater impression in the world of projected images.
It wasn’t until much later, as a student in UCD, that I came to know that the buildings surrounding the round tower dated to the 9th-12thC and not earlier. It was said that the older Irish churches were made from wood and that is the reason there are none surviving today. However, there has been no excavation and thus no evidence of a wooden church or monastery at Glendalough. Kevin lived 600 years before any Christian writing about him and the structures near the lower lake. In fact, the older settlement was deeper into the valley on the eastern side ‘the Reefort’ (trans. burial of kings) settlement and on the northwest ,‘Tempul na skellig’, an untouchable side of the lake that might date back as far as the 7thC, But the physical evidence leaves no trace of Kevin himself. The evidence for settlement in the Glen in hampered by the lack of excavation there, but in cases were excavation has taken place the artifacts uncovered where from much older times. The UCD discovery of a shard of Neolithic pottery and of yet another bullaun (a stone with a deep depression carved into it; dating is uncertain but probably pre-Christian).
Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 AD) had a policy of incorporating pagan temples into the Christian church by taking control of their monuments and setting up feast days of Saints for the people to worship instead of their pagan Gods. He wrote a letter to Miletus, an abbot who was about to join Saint Augustine in Canterbury in England, stating:
“Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/greg1-mellitus.txt)
This policy of intended acculturation was practiced at many Irish sites and it is probable that this was happening at Glendalough also. St. Kevin’s feast day was on the 3rd of June and Kevin’s successor, Moling, was on the 17th of June. However, the important feast day may have been the pagan festival on the 25th of June (midsummer’s’ day). The changing of feast days may have been a method of deleting cultural memories of pagan time markers and of cultural memory.
My image of Kevin started to change. I started to question everything about the man I knew to have brought Christianity to my home county. The more I looked into the topic the more I realised there was nothing to support his historicity. What then is the evidence for Kevin’s existence? Well, there are historical documents from the Saints Lives. This manuscript tells us Kevin’s whole story, how he came to be in Glendalough, the miracles associated with him and many other stories. These stories are impossible to take literally and involve a certain amount of stretching of the truth to say the least. Moreover, there is a whole package of symbols. The white cow, the bird, a wolf, an otter and the lake monster are all symbolically connected with Kevin, many of these symbols are redolent of paganism. Kevin is described by other writers such as Marcus Losac, as a monk with many similarities to the Irish druid. Kevin communes with nature and is described as having control over it. This symbolism is very important. Many pagan deities were described in this way and often have close connections with certain animals. Oengus, for example, was connected to the swan, the Morrigan was visualized as a raven, while Kevin was sometimes symbolized by a black bird.
The stories of Kevin have certain elements that could be associated with pagan origins. Firstly, the White Cow: In pagan imagery, the white cow was a symbol of the Goddess Boann (trans. The illuminated Cow) and is found in various stories. These stories are especially associated with fertility and milk. Dairying was an important part of pagan and Christian economy. A white cow is supposed to have visited Kevin and licked his garments. From this the cow was said to produce large quantities of milk. This associates Kevin with abundance and fertility. Kevin was tutored by three wise men, one of which is called “Lug” a very well known pagan figure in the pantheon of old Irish Gods. Kevin is supposed to have rested in different caves as he crossed the Wicklow Mountains. These caves are each called Kevin’s “bed” and might link with the megalithic tradition, which also associates the concept “bed” with their names, for example Leaba na Caillighe (Bed of the witch) and the beds of Diarmait and Grainne.
Glendalough may also have been a Lughnasa site. Lughnasa sites such as Lough Keeran near Bohola were people are said to have swim their horses in the lake, and threw spancels and halters into the lake in order to protect them throughout the year (as recorded by Tomas O’Connor in 1838), Co. Mayo and in Lough Owel and various pools in Westmeath (as recorded by Sir Henry Piers in 1682) are usually connected with the curing of diseases and traditionally cattle were herded into lakes as a ritual purification ritual (Corlett, 2013). The pools were connected with monsters and their diseases or injuries were all left for the monster. Monsters are found in many Christianized pagan sites, such as Croagh Patrick, and so it seems the same symbolism has been used at Glendalough. St. Moling, Kevin’s successor, has also been connected with the pagan god Lugh linguistically, and further emphasizing a pagan undercurrent (Ibid. 2013).
The final piece of evidence comes from Kevin’s name. The name in Irish is Coemgen and translates as beautifully begotten, born, or conceived. It seemed an interesting starting point in the interpretation of myths related to Kevin. His association with fertility is understandable in this case. To make matters more interesting, it is well-known that in the 19thC there was a tradition for pregnant women to climb into Kevin’s bed in Glendalough in order to ensure a good birth. This idea seems ludicrous when you actually see how dangerous it would have been for anyone to climb to the cave that lies 9 metres above Glendalough’s upper lake, but this tradition was vibrant at the time. I wondered whether or not this tradition had a longer duration than we know. Birth has been an important part of Irish rituals for thousands of years and perhaps this tradition was built upon older ones throughout the centuries.
All things considered, it seems that there is very little to suggest there ever was a Kevin and perhaps this saint was invented upon the foundation of an already existing pagan deity of the same name or a manifestation of another pagan god.
Corlett, C. (2013) Was Glendalough a Lughnasa Site? In Chris Corlette’s Blog, http://www.christiaancorlett.com
Available at: <http://www.christiaancorlett.com/#/blog/4564514201/Was-Glendalough-a-Lughnasa-site/4671818> (Accessed: on the 6th of September 2013).
Pope Gregory’s Letter to Miletus, Epistola 76, PL77: 1215-1216. http://www.fordham.edu
Available at: <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/greg1-mellitus.txt> (Accessed on the 6th of September 2013).