In my early teens, our extended family vacationed in Ireland. The second day there, we visited Glendalough National Park in County Wicklow. We were tired from the flight and I didn’t understand why it was so important to go there. Little did I know that it would be one of the best days of my life.
It was a 45-minute drive through the West Wicklow Mountains, rising to the Wicklow Gap at elevation 1,500 feet, before dropping into the Glendalough Valley. My father is accustomed to speeding over New York highways and was challenged by driving on the left-hand side of the mountain roads, which were narrow, winding and lined by stone walls. Every time someone shouted, “Look!” in response to the spectacular scenery, we had to quickly add, “But not you, Dad!” And whenever he had to turn, the whole car had to agree on which lane he should turn into and where he had to look for oncoming traffic. Getting there really is half the fun!
Welcome to Glendalough
When we arrived in the Glendalough National Park, my father lay down to recover from the drive and we went into the Visitor Centre to figure out why we’d bothered to go to the park. We learned that the name Glendalough means “Glen of Two Lakes,” and that glaciers carved out the spectacularly beautiful glen.
Source: Wicklow Mountains National Park
From the Welcome Center, it was an easy walk to the Monastic City, which houses a series of churches, monastic settlements and cemeteries, originally founded by St. Kevin in the late sixth century. The oldest collection of buildings is clustered around St. Kevin’s Church and the 100-foot tall Round Tower. They are in extraordinary condition for stone buildings constructed more than a thousand years ago. We also saw St. Kevin’s Cross, which confers luck on anyone who can fit his or her arms around it. We had fun trying. It was fascinating to read tombstones from the 1700s.
Right after the Monastic City is the Lower Lake. According to an amazing history and virtual tour of Glendalough by Dr. Deborah Vess of Georgia College & State University, the Lower Lake is where the monks, most famously St. Kevin, spent a lot of time in self-examination. Biographers talk about St. Kevin fighting a “monster” here; Dr. Vess thinks that this was a metaphor for his inner self.
Upper Lake and Trails
From there, the trek up to the Upper Lake is manageable for most people. The trails continue higher into the mountains, and the long hike is worth it for the incredible views toward the top. My cousins and I encouraged the rest of our family by yelling, “Top or bust!” A few members of my family decided to try one of the harder trails; we didn’t know until afterward that we had actually gone off the trail. When we found the path again, and met up with our family, we saw a beautiful waterfall and a sign that warned about “dangerous cliffs ahead” and told us that we needed boots, a compass and a map to go any further. This encouraged us to turn back, but we’ll be prepared for next time! After my entire family completed the breathtaking walk, we now have a new motto: “Wicklow, baby, that’s how we roll!”