Reefert Ruins and Cemetery, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

DSCN5126With the approach of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m feeling inspired to share some Ireland-related content from my old blog (and more specifically from my trip to Ireland the summer before last). Enjoy this post about the ruins of Reefert Church, located in the ancient monastic site of Glendalough in Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

First, a brief history of Glendalough! This particular area is a glacial valley in the Wicklow mountains. The mountainous geography is interspersed with calm lakes, small streams and sheep-filled pastures. It is also referred to as the ‘valley of two lakes.’ The site of Glendalough is one of the earliest examples of a Christian monastic community, founded by St. Kevin (Saint Cóemgen) in the 6th century. This was not simply a small cloister of monks isolated in the mountains, but rather a whole community of people (including ecclesiastics) who maintained a subsistence-based lifestyle in this mountainous location. St. Kevin (who, interesting fact, was the first person named Kevin, as the name was created specifically for him), built the first church on this land, and established the community that sprung up around it. 

Several other parishes followed. One of the first sights to come across in Glendalough is St. Kevin’s Church, sometimes referred to as “St. Kevin’s Kitchen.” This particular structure is dated to the 12th century, and is a simple nave-and-chancel design, with a later-constructed belfry.

A website on name etymology states that:

“Anglicized form of the Irish name Caoimhín, derived from the older Irish Cóemgein, composed of the Old Irish elements cóem “kind, gentle, handsome” and gein “birth”. Saint Caoimhín established a monastery in Glendalough, Ireland in the 6th century and is the patron saint of Dublin. It became popular in the English-speaking world outside of Ireland in the 20th century.”

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You can read a bit more about Glendalough here, on my old blog. Now onto Reefert!

Dating back to approximately 1100 CE, the ruins of Reefert Church (sometimes referred to as ‘Reefert’s Church’) is a simple nave and chancel plan, featuring the same sort of post-and-lintel architecture that is characteristic of the early 10th century monolithic architecture found elsewhere in Glendalough. The name “Reefert” refers to the Gaelic “Righ Fearta, ‘burial place of the kings.'” (source) All that remains of these ruins are the stone walls and arches (see image to the right) as the roofing would have originally been made of wood beams and thatch, and has since deteriorated in the incredibly wet Glendalough environment.

Reefert sits near the Upper Lake at Glendalough (which translates to “Valley of Two Lakes”). It is believed that there was a church prior to this one that was constructed in the time of St. Kevin, but this particular site has not been explored archaeologically as of yet.

DSCN5124“It is not known where the original settlement in the Glendalough Valley was located but was possibly in the same area as Reefert Church, on the south-eastern shore of the Upper Lake. Reefert was a sacred location as it was the burial place of kings and chiefs. Later still, the cathedral, churches and the round tower was constructed to the east of the lower lake. This gradual eastern progression of the settlement made it increasingly more accessible to would-be pilgrims and travelers.” (source)

There are several simple slab-style headstones adjacent to Reefert, (clearly heavily deteriorated). There is some evidence for the remains of a caiseal, a stone-wall like structure that would have originally surrounded the cemetery. However the only remnants of a structure such as this are depressions in the ground indicating its former presence. Some of the headstones at Reefert Cemetery are a bit more interesting than the simple slabs, for example this cross to the left. Although no decoration is visible, it is very likely that this cross was once decorated and has been eroded by the elements. (Like I said, Glendalough is QUITE wet, and that has a very negative effect on material remains).

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Below is another cross headstone at the cemetery, also quite eroded. In terms of who is buried in this cemetery, it is said to be “…the burial place of the O’Toole family, seven of whose princes are buried on the grounds.” (source) The O’Toole relatives buried at Glendalough are decendents of St. Laurence O’Toole, (Lorcán Ua Tuathail) who built St. Saviour’s Church on the site.  
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“The predominant stone in Glendalough is mica-schist, which is not particularly suited to carving. While it is clear that many of the slabstones at Reefert were originally adorned with carvings, almost all have been eroded. However, on close examination some carvings are still discernible. A finely carved intricate Celtic motif can be discerned on a stone cross, located near the southeast corner of the church. There is an eighteenth-century drawing of an inscribed slabstone at Reefert with the inscription “Ór do Carpre Mac Cathuill” , a prayer for Carpre the son of Cathail, an anchorite monk at Glendalough whose death is recorded in 1013 in the Annals of the Four Masters. Another stone from Reefert on which carving survives is the Breasal Slab, which was moved to the shelter of St Kevin’s Church in 1875. It has an incised cross carving and written on it are the words “Ór do Breasal” a prayer for Breasal, with the Greek letters alpha and omega and the Christ monogram IHS XRS.” (source)

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Walking through the ancient paths of Glendalough, you cross a small bridge over the River Poulanass to get to the Reefert ruins, and then climb up eight heavily eroded ancient steps to reach this location. Surrounded by greenery, mountains and the small rushing river, walking through this site is quite beautiful. One of my favorite things about touring ruins such as this in Ireland is that you can walk right into this 10th century church and touch the stones. This location is ancient, serene and powerful – you can’t miss it on a hike through Glendalough.

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Further Reading:
Glendalough Blog Post [on Imponderabilia]
Megalithic Ireland
Glendalough site 
“The Story of Glendalough”
St. Laurence O’Toole
Wicklow Mountains History

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