St. Kevin

Saint Kevin born about 498 and died 3 June, 618 was the son of Coemlog and Coemell. His name signifies fair begotten. He was baptized by St. Cronan and educated by St. Petroc, a Briton. From his twelfth year he studied under monks, and eventually embraced the monastic state. Subsequently he founded the famous monastery of Glendalough, the parent of several other monastic foundations.


From his twelfth, after visiting Sts. Columba, Comgall, and Cannich at Usneach (Usny Hill) in Westmeath, he proceeded to Clonmacnoise, where St. Cieran had died three days before in 544. Having firmly established his community, he retired into solitude for four years and only returned to Glendalough at the earnest entreaty of his monks. He belonged to the second order of Irish saints and probably was never a bishop. So numerous were his followers that Glendalough became a veritable city in the desert. His festival is kept throughout Ireland. Glendalough became an Episcopal See, but is now incorporated with Dublin. St. Kevin's house and St. Kevin's bed of rock are still to be seen and the Seven Churches of Glendalough have for centuries been visited by pilgrims.


He loved animals and he was very kind to them, but he didn't like people very much. When he was a young man, he decided that he wanted to do nothing but live alone and think about God. He left his parents' home in Cualu near Dublin and walked over the Wicklow Hills until he came to a beautiful, deserted cul-de-sac glen called Glendalough, which means the Glen of Two Lakes.

Kevin lived contentedly in the stump of a hollow tree at the closed end of the glen next to the larger lake, the Upper Lake, ate the fruits and nuts that grew wild in the glen and dressed in the skins of animals that had died of old age.

He used to stand up to his waist in the lake, which is very deep and cold, and pray with his arms outstretched and the palms of his hands raised to heaven. One day when he was praying like this, a blackbird put a twig into one of his hands, then another and another, until she had built a nest. Kevin loved animals so much that he stood there without moving until the bird had laid her eggs, the eggs had hatched and the baby birds were old enough to fly away. This is why St. Kevin is often pictured with a bird in his hand, as in this drawing from Giraldus Cambrensis' 13th-century history and topography of Ireland.

No one else lived in the glen at that time, but a 100-cow farmer from County Meath was taking his cows on a grazing tour and he grazed them for a while near Glendalough. One day, this farmer noticed that one of his cows gave as much milk as fifty other cows and he sent one of his servants to follow the cow the next morning and find out what she was eating that made her give so much milk.  

The servant followed the cow as she went away from the herd until she came to St. Kevin's hollow tree, and there she spent the whole day doing nothing but licking Kevin's feet. When the servant reported this, the farmer said, "That man must be a saint," and he brought St. Kevin to his house and cleaned him up. He cut his long hair and beard and his fingernails and toenails and gave him a bath and dressed him in regular clothes.  

St. Kevin hated it. He had been happy living with only the animals for company, but he knew that his discovery was a sign that he was meant to tell people about God. The story about how he was found by the cow gave him a reputation as a holy man, and people came from all over Ireland and from other countries to be near him and listen to him preach.

This was good news for the monster that lived in the Upper Lake because it meant he didn't have to go far from home to find his dinner. He never tried to eat St. Kevin, because St. Kevin was so kind to animals, but he ate the people who came to be near St. Kevin. This probably didn't bother St. Kevin, because it made Glendalough less crowded, but it annoyed the people who were eaten, and the people who weren't eaten yet wanted to kill the monster. Because St. Kevin loved animals and didn't want him to be killed, he asked the monster to please move over to the smaller lake, Loch Péist (which the tourist authority prefers to call the Lower Lake), and he gave the monster something useful to do.  

The farmers drove their cattle through the Upper Lake to cleanse them of sickness, and the water washed down into the Lower Lake, where the monster ate the sicknesses. They say the monster no longer lives in Loch Péist -- at least I've never seen him there -- and it's probably safe now for people to swim in it, but there is a lake on top of the hill on the north side of Glendalough called Loch nah Onchon. I've never gone there, because I know that "onchon" is another word for "monster", and I think the monster of Loch Péist may have moved to Loch nah Onchon.

By the end of the 6th century, a monastery and a university had been built, and 6,000 people eventually lived in and around Glendalough. It was considered such a holy place that two (some say seven) pilgrimages to Glendalough were equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome, and it was the site for popular religious festivals. The festivals eventually degenerated into commercialism, drunkenness and faction fighting, and the Church was forced to ban them in 1862.

A major trade route from the east coast over the Wicklow Hills to the wealthy and fertile plains of West Wicklow and Kildare passed the mouth of the glen, and Glendalough became a commercial trading centre. This is one reason why the monastery was among the wealthiest in Ireland. One of the best surviving round towers from the Viking Age (AD 800-1000), built as a refuge from viking raids, is in the monastery grounds. Another source of wealth was Rí Fearta, the Cemetery of the Kings. Through a special arrangement St. Kevin had with God, the soul of any king buried in his cemetery would go straight to heaven. The local and regional kings made sure that they stayed on the good side of St. Kevin and his successors.

A local king, Colmán Mór son of Coirpre, divorced his wife, Dassan, and married a younger woman. Dassan was a witch, and she used her magic arts to kill the first two children Colmán had by his second wife. When their third child, a boy named Fáelán, was born, Colmán sent him to live with St. Kevin as his foster son. One day, Dassan appeared on the top of Derrybawn, the hill that forms the south side of Glendalough, and directed magic spells against St. Kevin and Fáelán down below. St. Kevin countered with his power, and they fought a duel. Dassan moved around the rim of the glen until she was on Camaderry, on the north side of the glen. St. Kevin aimed a bolt of power which killed her, and she tumbled down the far side of Camaderry into the next glen to the north, which is now called Glendassan.

One time there was a shortage of milk in Glendalough, and to make sure Fáelán had enough, St. Kevin found a doe with a fawn. He commanded the doe to leave half of the milk she produced in a bowl-like hollow in a bullán stone that you can see just across the bridge from the little church known as "St Kevin's Kitchen". The bridge is called Droichet na h-Eillte -- Bridge of the Doe.

Fáelán became king of Leinster (d. 666) and from two of his descendants, Leinster kings Bran   (d. 838) and Tuathal (d. 854) are descended the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles of Wicklow. Fáelán's brother (or more likely half-brother), Rónán mac Colmán (d. 624), may be the historical king on whom the story Fingal Rónáin is based.

An annual feast honoring St. Kevin is held on June 4th. 

It is one of the truly mystical places on earth.
(Personal Experience of Jack Devaney)