Irish High Crosses


Monastic Site

Glendalough, from the Irish “Gleann da locha", meaning the Glen of two Lakes, is one of my favorite places. It combines extensive monastic ruins with a stunning natural setting in the Wicklow Mountains. The beauty and tranquility of the lakes and glacial-carved valley no doubt appealed to St Kevin, a hermit monk, who founded the monastic site near the Lower Lake in the 6th Century.

Most of the buildings that survive today date from the 10th through 12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings over the years, Glendalough thrived as one of Irelands great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214 and the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united. The settlement was destroyed by English forces in 1398. A reconstruction program was started in 1878 and today the valley boasts a visitor centre, wooded trails, walkways and rock climbing. The monastic ruins include a round tower, seven churches, a gateway into the settlement with a Sanctuary Stone, two High Crosses, the priest’s house, a graveyard, Reeferts Church, St. Kevin’s Bed (Cave) and St. Kevin’s Cell (hermitage hut).

High Crosses

Market Cross

Located in the visitor centre is the wonderfully ornate Market Cross. The granite cross stands at two metres high and dates to the twelfth century. The cross bears figure sculpture on one side. At the head is a crucified Christ in high relief and beneath him on the shaft, is a carving of a bishop, probably representing St Kevin. There are a further two figures on the base of the cross. The other side is decorated with ornate carving.

St Kevin's Cross

St. Kevin's Cross is a fine example of a plain cross remarkably carved from a single granite stone. The arms of the cross are over a metre in length. The imperforate cross stands about 2.5m tall. It may have marked the boundary of the cemetery in which stands the priests' house.

A local legend surrounding St. Kevin’s Cross says that anyone who can wrap their arms around the entire width of the cross body and close the circle by touching fingertips will have their wishes granted.


Glendalough, also known as the city of the seven churches, was enclosed within a circular wall. There is a delightful feeling of discovery as you walk through the arches and along the pathway towards the settlement. The very picturesque Gateway has the distinction of being Ireland’s only surviving example of a medieval gateway to an early monastic city. This structure was originally two-storied with two fine granite arches. The gatekeeper would have lived on the second floor. The projecting walls at each end indicate it had a timber roof. Inside the gateway, in the west wall, is a cross-inscribed sanctuary stone (shown below). Very little remains of the enclosure walls.

Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul

The Cathedral is the largest of the seven churches. It was built in several phases from the 10th through the early 13th century. Large mica schist stones, which form the foundation up to the height of the west doorway, were re-used from an earlier smaller church. The earliest part is the nave with antae for supporting the wooden roof. The chancel, sacristy, and north door were added in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The chancel arch and east window were once decoratively carved, but many of the stones are now missing. The north doorway to the nave also dates from this period. Inside there is a wall cupboard, a stone font, many grave slabs, and the remains of a decorated arch.

St Kevin's Church

St Kevin's Kitchen

St. Kevin's Church is unusual in that it has a round tower or belfry with conical cap integrated with the church. Perhaps because of its small size, or the tower resembling a chimney, it is frequently called "St. Kevin's kitchen." The tower is three stories high. Some sources suggest that it was part of the original structure, others claim it originally had a nave only with an entrance at the west end. The upper part of the gable window can be seen above what became the chancel arch, when the chancel (now missing) and the sacristy were added later. The steep roof has corbelled stones, similar to that at St.Doolagh’s Church in Dublin and St. Columb’s House in Kells. It is supported internally by a semi-circular vault. The church had a wooden upper floor and access to the roof chamber was through an opening at the western end of the vault.

Reefert Church

Reefert Church, whose name derives from Righ Fearta, “burial place of the kings", is a simple nave-and-chancel church. The enchanting approach up the stone-lined pathway gives you the feeling of walking in the footsteps of your ancestors to this humble structure on a small green knoll. The granite doorway has sloping jambs and flat lintel; projecting corbels at the gables once supported verge timbers for the wooden roof. In the ancient graveyard are several fine crosses and many graveslabs. There was probably a church on this site during the time of Kevin, although its remains are no longer visible. This church dates from the tenth century and is the burial place of the O'Toole family, seven of whose princes are buried on the grounds.

Reefert church and cross

The Priest's House ( Tomb Shrine )

The Priests’ House has been almost entirely reconstructed from the original stones based on a 1779 sketch of the original building made by Gabriel Beranger. It is a small Romanesque building with a decorative arch at each end. It is probably a tomb shrine and may have housed the relics of St. Kevin. Its name comes from the practice of burying priests there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two priests of the 18th century were said to have remarkable healing powers, and this site has been a popular place for pilgrims to visit. Pilgrims took clay from the graves and applied it to sores and wounds while chanting prayers.

The Round Tower

The round tower of Glendalough is considered by many to be the most finely constructed and beautiful tower in Ireland. Situated in a thickly forested valley, the 30 meter tall tower is built of mica schist with a granite doorway. The conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using stones found inside. The tower is divided internally into seven stories by timber floors, connected by ladders. The four stories above entrance level are each lit by a small window; while the top story has four windows facing the cardinal compass points. In medieval Ireland, round towers served as beacon/landmarks to guide pilgrims from afar, bell towers, storehouses, lookouts, and places of refuge in times of attack. The door is about 3.5 meters from the ground, which is commonly believed to be a defensive practice with refuge seekers raising the ladder from within. It is still in near perfect condition even though it is almost 1,000 years old.

The caher (stone fort), located between the two lakes, is probably the oldest of the structures. The walls are 3m thick in dry masonry, while the outer diameter is just over 20m. The walls were for protection, just as the stone wall around the monastic city. This area between the two lakes contains the highest concentration of upright inscribed stone slabs and crosses at Glendalough. The crosses may have marked the boundaries of monastic lands or stations on the pilgrims' route. Another interesting stone is the Sanctuary Stone which stands to the right just inside the gateway to the monastic site. This slab has an unusual cross inscribed on it. Once anyone seeking sanctuary passed this marker they were given refuge within the monastic site.

Situated: From Dublin there are various roads to Glendalough but probably the most direct route is to head South on the N11 to Ashford, then take a right turn sign posted for Glendalough passing through Annamoe and Laragh.

.Heritage card accepted.

Discovery Map 56: T 123 968. Last visit Oct 2018.

Google Map.

Photos: Jim Dempsey

Nearest High Crosses featured on this website

Kilgobbin: 29 Kilometres NNE.

Old Kilcullen: 31 Kilometres WNW.

Moone: 34 Kilometres West.

Castledermot: 36 Kilometres WSW.



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