The St Kevin’s bus from downtown Dublin to Glendalough is one of the last great travel deals. 20 euro for a round trip, cash only. I settled into my seat, adjusted my FFP2 mask, and watched the city turn gradually into country. The Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin remind me a lot of the Appalachians, the kind of mountains you get in Quebec or Vermont. Within a half-hour we were in sheep and stone fence country. I’d sat on the wrong side for the low winter sun, which winked across my face through the window as the bus twisted and turned on the narrow roads. I felt slightly sick.
A few more turns and we were at the Glendalough Visitor Centre. The other passengers got off and quickly spread out over the trails. I wanted to get my bearings. But I didn’t have a clear idea of where I was in relation to everything else, especially the trail. I chatted through the barrier with the masked information person. She asked if I wanted to pay admission and see the display. “Sure,” I replied. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” she went on, seeming embarrassed. “But are you over 60? A senior ticket is a mite cheaper.” I was the only person in the entire place. I watched a short film about the monastic city and the lakes, and wandered a while looking at old stone crosses. Eventually, I started out on the paths toward the monastic site and the lakes.
Glendalough is gorgeous. It’s pastoral and pretty. In mid-February the river was running fast and deep, and the trees had no foliage. But there was still lots of green, in the vibrant moss that covered everything, and the grass and bush everywhere around. I walked past the round tower, perhaps inspired by medieval minarets, and past the lower lake until I stood on the shore of the upper lake. There was a stiff and cold February breeze from the west (which I was happy to find out later would be at my back). The lake was choppy. I peered at the far end. Was that where I was going to walk? The man at the national park office, again at the barred entrance with a pandemic mask, sold me an Ordnance Survey map of the route from Valleymount. “You’ll need this,” he said.
I was booked to stay at the Glendalough Hermitage Centre. They were giving me a cottage part-way up the mountain, nestled just beneath St Kevin’s Catholic church. St Kevin’s is a beautiful mid-nineteenth century granite famine church overlooking a complex including the Hermitage, and several schools. It’s a twenty minute walk back to St Kevin’s from the monastic site, a trudge along the highway that I got used to over my short stay. Sister Peggy met me at the door. “You must be Matthew, then” she said. She showed me my cottage. I dropped my bag and went out again for supper, which meant another ten minute walk down and up hill. It gets dark early in the mountains in February. I eventually settled back in, with a fire in the wood stove. Inky cold blackness all around, and the stars so bright you felt you could touch them.
The next morning I was up early and sitting outside the petrol station, eating half of my bacon butty (a sandwich) and having morning tea. The taxi showed up to take me to Valleymount, where I began my walk. “Oh, by the way,” the driver said as we entered the village on the Pollaphuca reservoir, “the path you’re taking turns left there.” He pointed. The best bit of advice – in fact, the ONLY advice – I got on the walk. But absolutely essential.
Valleymount is a collection of houses on a spit of land between two bodies of water. The taxi driver told me they’d flooded the valleys on either side. If it’s really dry and the water drops, he said, you can sometimes see the tops of the chimneys come up from under the surface.
The older route for the walk begins in the village of Hollywood, not Valleymount. However, the guidebook “Pilgrim Paths in Ireland” by John G. O’Dwyer recommended the Valleymount start for being on less trafficked ways. It certainly was less traffic. I only saw one other pilgrim on this lovely pastoral lane. A German, coming the other direction, whistling and making it look easy.
Things got a bit more interesting after I stopped for a quick bite at Ballinagee Bridge. The trail began to follow forest paths near the King’s River, and once or twice I got that anxious feeling peering ahead for a marker to confirm I’d gone the right way
After coming across “St Kevin’s Pool” (not on my Ordnance Survey map), it was a fairly short ascent to Wicklow Gap, where you can look back for miles over the valley. There was a VERY strong west wind. I was happy for my new trekking gear. It was cold. “May the wind be always at your back” took on a new meaning.
The terrain became more rugged and less treed. The wind really never let up from that point until near the end of the Trail.
On the Glendalough side of the Gap, the Trail intersected increasing numbers of old broken-down stone homes, or perhaps mine buildings. There were some fenced black pools that I believe were flooded mineshafts. I came across a sign that said that a Canadian mining company called St Kevin’s reopened the local lead mines in the late 1950s.
Here the St Kevin’s Trail overlapped the Miner’s Way, a route that retraced the daily walking commute of lead-miners over the centuries
Finally the Trail dropped down into the valley. Unfortunately, for about a kilometre I had to hop over or around mud pits, some deep enough to suck off boots or sink a walker to mid-calf, which slowed the walk.
In the valley I came across a stone ruin called, I believe, the “Fiddlers’ Loft.” Inside were trees that had grown up over the years. One was a “rag tree,” an unofficial pilgrimage site where people had hung pandemic masks, bits of cloth, and even a dress, as a sort of prayer or offering.
Finally (about 20 km from the start) the monastic site came into view. The ancient gates are still there, and still welcoming
On arrival I drank a whole pot of tea. I must have been dehydrated, because at the local petrol station/deli/corner store I also ordered a lemonade and immediately also finished that.
Knowing my bus would be leaving before sunrise the next morning I took some time to look at St Kevin’s Church uphill from my hermitage cottage
I bumped into Sister Peggy and paid for my stay. There was a notice on the board that said retreatants were invited to participate in evening prayers in the chapel. “Maybe I’ll come to the prayers tonight,” I said. “It’s centring prayer on Thursdays,” Sister Peggy responded. I thought she was issuing an invitation, but it may have been a warning.
“Oh yeah,” I answered. “Sounds good.” I may not have been listening fully. So at 7:30 I sat down in the little chapel, keeping a social distance with the two others. There were candles, and silence, and darkness. After five and a half hours of walking up and over the Wicklow pass, a soft chair and darkness. And quiet. For 40 minutes the only sound was breathing and the radiators clicking. I managed to stay awake, but barely. Not sure if that counts as centring, but there were some prayers said!
There is a wonderful piece by the famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney about the legend that St Kevin was praying in his very narrow monastic cell, arms outstretched through the cell window, when a blackbird landed on his palm. He was so still, she laid her eggs there. Rather than disturb the bird, Kevin stayed still for two weeks until the baby birds had flown. Throughout the hermitage there are art pieces about this legend. You can hear the author read his poem by clicking here.
St Kevin is always pictured with his blackbird, so it was only fitting that the next morning, as I waited in the darkness by the visitor centre, all around me were unseen blackbirds singing in the dawn. There was just enough light so that when the bus finally showed up, I saw a blackbird flit away from close by my feet. I was the only person waiting, and the first on the bus. Then, as so often happens in new situations, we drove back the kilometre and a half I had just walked. There was a bus stop just beside where I had set out that morning 40 minutes earlier. I could have saved myself a long walk in the dark. But then I wouldn’t have had my time with St Kevin’s blackbirds.