Vikings' Meadow : The Vikings Left Their Mark on Ireland's County Wicklow, and Today Its Beautiful Gardens and Greenery Conquer All Who Visit

By o'reilly, marie whitla | The World and I, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Vikings' Meadow : The Vikings Left Their Mark on Ireland's County Wicklow, and Today Its Beautiful Gardens and Greenery Conquer All Who Visit


o'reilly, marie whitla, The World and I


Emerald waters purling golden strands, heathered mountains, verdant valleys laced with silver streams--Ireland's legendary landscape lured the invidious Vikings ashore. Eventually these pirates abandoned their plundering ways and their rugged Nordic homeland. Those who settled in County Wicklow named their find wykinglo, or Vikings' Meadow.

To explore the county's myriad attractions, I turned first to Glendalough, the venerable monastic settlement founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century. The Vikings came here, too, in the ninth century, eyeing the monastery's riches rather than the brooding beauty of the wild mountain glen.

Starting as a young man, Saint Kevin lived here in solitude with God and studied sacred texts. He made his bed in a cave above the lake; its access, even today, would daunt intrepid climbers. According to legend, the hermit unwittingly attracted the attentions of a beautiful woman--in Irish, his name, Coemghen, means "fair-begotten"--and it's believed he overcame temptation by flinging himself into a patch of nettles and then throwing a fistful of the stinging weeds at the unfortunate Kathleen. "The fire without extinguished the fire within," the saint's biographer suggested.

Disciples came from far and wide to Glendalough, transforming it from a humble hermitage to a bustling monastery known as the "City of the Seven Churches." In time, a school of learning developed there: The monks copied and illustrated the Gospels in magnificent vellum manuscripts like the Book of Kells. For protection against marauding Vikings, they built a round tower, 110 feet high, and retreated there in times of danger, taking manuscripts and treasures aloft and hoisting the ladders after them through the high doorway.

The medieval entrance to the monastic city still survives. A unique double archway, it once housed the gatekeeper's quarters in a tower; a cross granting protection to fugitives was carved on its inner wall. The enclosure consists of the ruins of several churches; Saint Kevin's Kitchen, a private oratory with a sleeping chamber in an upper room; and the great cathedral, its broken Hiberno-Romanesque arch still etched with chevrons and the saint's un-pierced Celtic cross keeping vigil over the ancient grave slabs. Soaring over all, the mystical round tower testifies to a time when Ireland was renowned as the "Island of Saints and Scholars."

After the fall of Rome, monasteries such as Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, and the storm-lashed Great Skellig Rock shone as beacons of enlightenment during the Dark Ages. It's no exaggeration to say that these devout monks saved civilization when barbarians overran most of Europe, leaving ignorance and destruction in their wake. For hundreds of years, Glendalough flourished as a seat of learning until the Normans conquered Ireland. In time, monasticism declined, as Rome imposed a diocesan system on the Irish church. Yet the serenity of a golden age still inspires, enshrined in the sacred stones.

A country house

For centuries pilgrims found their way over the Wicklow Gap to do penance at Glendalough. I, however, got lost crossing the same mountain pass in search of creature comforts at Rathsallagh Country House. Awed by the stark mountain scenery, I missed the turnoff to Dunlavin and took the road to Blessington instead. But the extra miles rewarded with the scenic waters of Poulaphuca, lit by slanting sunlight where a lone fisherman waded in the reeds.

It was late when I pulled into Rathsallagh, an oasis for visitors in the less-traveled northwest corner of the county. Following the long, dark avenue through the golf course, I might have encountered the resident ghost--affectionately known as "Uncle Charlie"--who is said to have owned the house in the early 1800s. A gambler with an eye for the ladies, his reputation was such that he was refused burial in the local cemetery and was interred instead in the larch woods, near the sixteenth green. …

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