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Ancient Celtic Center — St. Kevin Finds God in the Glendalough Valley

Ancient Celtic Centers — St. Kevin Finds God in the Glendalough Valley

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher takes us on a visit to Glendalough in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

Walk through Glendalough valley in the Wicklow Mountains of southeastern Ireland and you will feel the presence of God in the trees, the lakes, and the hills. It’s a place of serenity, beauty, and isolation. Perhaps that’s what drew Kevin, later called a saint, to the place.

Glendalough, Well Worth the Visit

Glendalough means “valley of two lakes” and is well worth visiting. My wife and I drove there the same day we flew into Dublin from Minneapolis—a bad idea after an overseas flight. Still, Glendalough was a pleasant surprise. Alas, all my pictures of Glendalough were lost with my camera somewhere on the Ring of Kerry.

Keeping to the vein of my series on ancient Celtic centers, let us read another long-forgotten and recently discovered missive from a visitor to that ancient place at the very time St. Kevin was alive…

In the Month of June, in the Year of Our Lord Five Hundred and Ninety Two

To the Most Honored Ninean mac Neas, Abbot of Aill Farraige Monastery

Day One.
Travel through the drumlins has left me somewhat ill-used and pining for my bed back at the monastery. For two days, our chariot bounced like a baby on its mother’s knees over the wooden bog roads. Still, I arrived safely in Glendalough, valley of the two lakes, weathered, shaken, but alive.

Glendalough Lake

Day Three.
I am struck by the serenity of this place. Each morning I walk beside the quiet waters of lakes nestled between silent blue and green mountains. A light mist often hovers over far banks, where green pines march down to meet the shore’s edge. No wonder Kevin chose this valley for himself. Of the great man himself, I have seen or heard nothing.

Day Four.
In the valley, a small community of aspiring holy men has sprung up. Newcomers live in one of two large communal roundhouses, and this is where I make my bed. Some longer-term residents have built for themselves beehive huts of stone, big enough for only one person. These are in imitation of the cell Kevin created for himself, piling stone upon stone. Their goal is isolation, meditation, and closeness to God. I begin to feel a sense of peace come over me.

Day Five.
I have learned why we haven’t seen the great man. They tell me he often spends time alone somewhere on the mountain. At night, he sleeps in a cave cut in the cliffs above one of the lakes. I’ve heard it’s an austere room, big enough only for one person to lie down. During the day, he sits alone somewhere on the mountaintop, praying and meditating, preferring to commune with God, rather than with his fellow man. They tell me that for seven years this was how he lived before the arrival of all these other supplicants. Now he occasionally returns to such a hermitage. Did you know that he was born of noble parents in Western Wicklow?

Day Six.
Another man arrived today, joining a growing community of men. All seek closeness with God and retreat from the world. They come because of Kevin, of whom we have seen nothing.

Day Nine.
Today, I had my first sight of Kevin. His time of seclusion is apparently finished. He came walking slowly through the holy settlement nodding and bowing as each man approached. Barefoot, wearing only a deerskin tunic, his hair a wild mass of uncut locks, he reminded me of an illustration of John the Baptist in one of our newly copied manuscripts. I write this by candlelight, after sitting all evening in a wide circle around this most holy of men. He spoke to us at length of the greatness of our Lord, how God made the valleys, the animals, the trees, and the lakes. His love for all things wild and untouched shines through. I could listen to him all day and not tire. Every so often, he stops to read from an enormous Bible, either a Psalm or the gospel of John.

Day Ten.
Kevin walked among us today, talking with each man individually. He encouraged us, told us of the love of Christ for all men, and bowed to each of us. My heart fills with joy at the teaching he has given us.

Day Twelve.
I regret to inform your lordship that I will not be returning to serve again as your aide. Such a peace and sense of calm have pervaded my soul that I have decided to remain here in Glendalough. I know this report is shorter than you wished, but I must end it and hand it to a traveler leaving tomorrow for Galway. He promises to divert his path to our monastery over the western cliffs. I hope I can trust in his word and that you will receive it. Forgive me, but this is the life I have chosen.

From Muireach mac Flannagan, Now a Humble Servant to Kevin of Glendalough

Keywords: Glendalough, St. Kevin, Celtic center, Celtic Ireland

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and the Glendalough Hermitage Centre.

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Ancient Celtic Centers — The Clonmacnoise Monastery

Ancient Celtic Centers — The Clonmacnoise Monastery

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the ancient Celtic monastery of Clonmacnoise. Join us as we discover a letter from a visitor to that distant time and place.

Clonmacnoise, 9th Century Stone Buildings

In 544, St. Ciarán founded Clonmacnoise, one of the most famous of the early Christian monasteries. Today, its tenth century ruins stand ready for visitors to see, but the original wooden structures are all gone.

Fortunate it is, dear reader, that your author has in his possession a manuscript, written from a visitor to that site. 🙂 So, with some imagination and a bit of history, let us go back in time and see what it was like to enter a sixth century monastery in the years after St. Patrick departed this life…



The Abbey Clonmacnoise

In the Year of Our Lord Five Hundred and Ninety Six,
To My Lord Fiachnae mac Báetáin, Rí Cóicid of Ulster,
From Your Emissary to the Monastery at Clonmacnoise,

I arrived at the abbey weary and ill-used from the journey. Chariot wheels and bog roads do not make for smooth travel, especially when carrying a passenger as unaccustomed to the road as your humble servant. Fortunately, we encountered no bandits or vagabonds. May they all repent and turn to the Lord.

Artist’s Conception of a Celtic Monastery

When St. Ciarán chose to place his abbey on the banks of the River Shannon, he chose well. Green fields, grazing sheep, and slow moving waters all make for a restful, contemplative retreat.

A high wall of wooden stakes surrounds and protects the cloister. Sufficient enough, I suppose, for the occasional marauding clan, those despicable tuatha who do not bow to any authority. Outside the wall are a limekiln, a mill on the river, and farm buildings. Within the enclosure, the buildings are all wooden with thatched roofs. But there is stone aplenty should they decide to make permanent structures.

Inside the walls, my quarters, like everyone else’s, are in a small roundhouse, big enough for three individuals. I share quarters with one large-bellied monk named Onchu who snores. Once a freeman from Galway, he joined the monastery to atone for some sin he will not disclose. His beard is red and his voice rough and coarse. But his heart seems true and dedicated to Christ.

The Church

The church is well-built of oak, enough to accommodate thirty monks. A carved stone altar occupies the front. Upon it lies a golden cup for the wine of the holy Eucharist, a marvelously carved and ornate vessel festooned with jade and rubies. The monks have outdone themselves in its construction. They’ve also made large brass plates to hold the bread and handbells to ring that summon the assembly for prayer. We sit at long benches for daily Mass.

The Refectory

Meals we take in the refectory at a long table. They serve pottage, bread, milk, eggs, fish, and occasionally, beef. How I long for a good, long draught of ale or a flagon of mead! But such is not permitted here. Adjoining the main room is the kitchen, with its open fire, cauldrons, and brass cooking utensils hanging from the walls. When all are seated, someone prays, and then, much to my surprise, the monks participate in jovial conversation. The abbey folk are a merry lot.

The Scriptorium

As instructed, I have closely inspected the scriptorium and attendant library. I know how much you desire your copy of the New Testament and the Psalms. Within the scriptorium, hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts already hang from the walls and ceiling in their leather satchels. The gifted monks inside bend over long wooden tables. My heart lifts with joy to see so many well-skilled men, young and old, working their styluses over vellum parchment, dipping pens into inkhorns, tending to their work with eager concentration. The smell of ink and leather still tickles my nose. The scratching of quills on calfskin still fills my ears with music. And the smiles of the monks as they work still lift my heart with joy.

Illustrated Manuscripts

And my lord, how they experiment with their illustrations! With inks of many colors, they craft brilliant, complicated pictures showing the Fall of Adam, with a tree so alive and green, and a snake so writhing and evil, it nearly jumps off the page! Likewise have they depicted The Tower of Babel and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. I met the man who attends to your Bible, my lord, and I am sure you will be well-pleased with his work. Once a fisherman from Áth Cliath, he is young, thin to the point of consumption, and retires early each night after a long day in the scriptorium. He is conscientious, studious, and dedicated to the work. We could not have found a better, nor more pious man for the task.

Tomorrow is a fast day.  These monks fast twice a week, and though they fested me on my arrival, I now join them in their traditions. I am unused to being parted from the dinner trencher, even for one night. I especially miss my nightly draught of ale. My lord, on my return please remember this sacrifice I do in your service. I leave for home in a month.

Your humble servant in Christ,
Iùrnan mac Laise

Keywords: Clonmacnoise, Celtic monastery, St. Ciarán, scriptorium, refectory

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click the link above.

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.

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The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

The Celtic Monks That Saved Civilization, Part III

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at how the Celtic Monks of Ireland saved civilization, with Part III.

Last time, we saw what a typical monastery might have looked like and what a Celtic monk might have done all day. The four words that describe his existence were: Pray. Fast. Study. Work.


Church and Tower at Glendalough Monastic Settlement, Ireland

Irish Monastic Discipline

One can see how, while living such an austere lifestyle, it might be easy, occasionally, to slip. The rules of Columbanus show us the penalties the monasteries imposed on those who strayed from the expected norm. For small infractions, the least penalty was the recitation of three psalms. After that, the penalties increased in severity, with six to a hundred lashes given on the hand using a leather strap. One could also be sentenced to long periods of fasting or silence. The worst offenses might require exile or banishment. The penalty for murder was ten years in exile, during which the offender might have to exist for a time on bread and water. Yet, despite the austere lifestyle and the penalties for straying, the monasteries grew.

The Celtic Monasteries Welcomed and Grew

Previously, we saw how the Irish monasteries grew in size and number. Some newcomers came from Ireland. Others were priests and scholars fleeing the chaos and disorder on the continent. Surprisingly, only a few individuals in a monastery were priests. Most were simple laymen. But because of the influx from all over, the monasteries grew and spread across the Emerald Isle. And when the continental refugees arrived, they brought with them the great works of Western civilization. Not just biblical works, but Plato, Socrates, Euclid, and Homer.


Page from the Book of Kells

The Celtic Monks Copied Books

One of the most important duties of a Celtic monk, for those with the aptitude, was the copying of manuscripts. And the Irish monks and their students copied everything they received—not only the Bible, but also Greek and Latin literature. They copied pagan works, mind you. The Celtic monks even recorded their own ancestral tales, such as The Tale of the Tain. Churchmen outside of Ireland disapproved of this welcoming view of non-Christian writings. But the Irish monks’ ready acceptance of all literature, no matter its religious worldview, helped to preserve the great works of western civilization.

But think what it meant to copy a book back then. Gutenberg and his printing press were hundreds of years away. Every document had to be painstakingly written by hand, dipping the quill in the ink pot several times to finish even one sentence. The copying took place one letter, one page, one book at a time. Such long, tedious work was perfect for the monk who wanted to sacrifice his life for Christ. But also good for saving literature that otherwise might be forgotten, burned by advancing barbarians, or hidden in a cache somewhere, never to be found again.

The monks copied Bibles, of course, and they did so on long-lasting vellum paper, usually made from calfskin. We note that it might have taken as many as 170 calves to provide enough vellum for one Bible. And we have qualms today about eating a single serving of veal parmigiana!

They Illuminated Books in Glorious Color

It was in Ireland where they began the custom of illuminating books with rich, colorful covers and illustrations depicting biblical events. The Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College Dublin, was created around AD 800 and includes all four Gospels in Latin. I’ve been there and seen it. It’s a remarkable work.

Thus we see how western civilization was saved. The monks began with a desire to cloister themselves from the world. They progressed to building communities of like-minded scholars. And they ended with an environment that welcomed the collection, copying, and preservation of the great works of the human mind.

Sources for this post were The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.