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All About St Kevin

A SAINT for the WEEK June 4th.

Saint Kevin of Glendalough


KEVIN, aka Coemgenus, aka Caoimhghin, aka Coemgen.

b. about 498, the date being very obscure; d. 3 June, 618; son of Coemlog and Coemell.

Profile: Student of Saint Petroc of Cornwall. Founder and Saint abbott of Glendalough, Ireland.

Patronage: Dublin, Ireland. Representation: blackbirds.

Founder of the Abbey of Glendalough in County Wicklow. Traditionally he was from a noble Leinster family, was educated by monks and took to the hermit life at a site known as "St. Kevin's Bed" within the area where the buildings of Olendalough would rise. There are all sorts of attractive stories told about his relationship with animals, and even if these are not strictly true they still represent an aspect of that real closeness to nature which is such an appealing feature of Celtic Christianity.

So we are told that for some time Kevin's community were fed on salmon brought to him by friendly otters, and also that a bird hatched its eggs in the palm of his hand as he held them gravely extended in the prayer position.

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 Valley of the Two Lakes), the parent of several other monastic foundations. 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 Kevin is often pictured with a bird in his hand, as in this drawing from Giraldus Cambrensis' 13th-century History and Topography of Ireland.

Before Kevin's time, Saint Patrick took a tour around Ireland with Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhail, to hear the stories of how places got their names. When they arrived at Glendalough and Oisin told Patrick about Loch Peist, Patrick asked why Fionn hadn't killed the monster, as he had so many others. Oisin said it was because Fionn knew that Kevin would come along in a few centuries to sort out the problem.

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 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 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.

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 who 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 Kevin, because Kevin was so kind to animals, but he ate the people who came to be near Kevin. This probably didn't bother 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 Kevin loved animals and didn't want him to be killed, he asked the monster to please move over to the smaller lake, Loch Peist (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 Peist -- 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 na hOnchon. I've never gone there, because I know that "onchon" is another word for "monster", and I think the monster of Loch Peist may have moved to Loch na hOnchon.

By the end of the 6th century, a monastery and a university had been built, and 6000 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 Ri Fearta, the Cemetery of the Kings. Through a special arrangement 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 Kevin and his successors.

A local king, Colman Mor 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 Colman had by his second wife. When their third child, a boy named Faelan, was born, Colman sent him to live with 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 Kevin and Faelan down below. 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. 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 Faelan had enough 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 bullan 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.

Faelan 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. Faelan's brother (or more likely half-brother), Ronan mac Colman (d. 624), may be the historical king on whom the story Fingal Ronain is based.

Kevin became a religious superstar, and from time to time to get away from the crowds he would walk 12 miles west over the hills via the Wicklow Gap to a village now called Hollywood, where he stayed by himself in a cave.

(If you stand at the entrance of the cave and look down into the valley, you can see the location used for the ambush scene in the film Michael Collins. The ambush happened in County Cork, but the topography here fits the actual 1922 site perfectly, with the addition of a road built especially for the film. The white statue at the top of the hill that you see briefly in the film scene is a statue of St Kevin erected in 1950, and just under it is the cave. A hermit who lived in the cave about 30 years ago told the children he was St Kevin, and they believed him.)

Kevin probably discovered this cave when he went to that area to start a new church. That time, he was carried in a litter by servants. When they reached the village then called Cnoc Rua ("Red Hill"), they found their way blocked by a woods, and they stopped.

"Why did you stop?" said Kevin.
"There are trees in the way," they said.
"Don't worry," Kevin told them. "Just keep walking."

They walked toward the woods, and the trees fell down in front of them to make a road. Kevin blessed the wood and promised "hell and a short life to any one who should burn either green wood or dry from this wood till doom". That is how the village got its name, Holy Wood ("Sanctum Nemus" in medieval records), which by the 16th century became Hollywood. It is also called "Cillin Chaoibhin" in Irish, which means "Kevin's Chapel".

That road became the pilgrimage road from the interior to Glendalough. Portions and traces of the medieval road, which the modern road more or less follows, can be seen along the route. A labyrinth-inscribed stone found near the road is in the National Museum. Cross-inscribed medieval roadside stones are still to be seen in the area.

When Kevin was staying in Glendalough, he lived in a cave in the face of a cliff high above the Upper Lake. He had to climb up and down on a rope ladder. A woman named Cathleen had a crush on Kevin, and she used to annoy him by asking him if she could clean his cave, cook his dinner, warm his bed for him. Now, if there was anything Kevin hated worse than people, it was women, because if you're a man you can't become a saint if you have anything to do with women. At least, that's what Kevin thought.

One time he took a bunch of stinging nettles and beat Cathleen with them to drive her away. He probably thought she got the message, but the next day, when he went back to his cave to sleep, he found her there waiting for him. He was so angry that he pushed her out of the cave, and she fell into the lake and drowned.

But he was very kind to animals.


Here is a ballad, probably from the 19th century, about the incident. This version is sung by Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners.

The Glendalough Saint
In Glendalough lived an auld saint
Renowned for his learning and piety.
His manners was curious and quaint,
And he looked upon girls with disparity.

Fol-la-de-la-la-de-la-lay, fol-la-de-la-la-de-la-laddy
Fol-la-de-la-la-de-la-laaay ... fol-la-de-la-la-de-la-laddy

He was fond of reading a book
When he could get one to his wishes.
He was fond of casting his hook
In among all the young fishes.

Fol-la, etc.

Well one evening he landed a trout,
He landed a fine big trout, sir,
When Cathleen from over the way
Came to see what the auld monk was about, sir.

Fol-la, etc.

"Well, get out of me way," said the saint,
"For I am a man of great piety,
And me good manners I wouldn't taint
Not by mixing with female society."

Fol-la, etc.

Ah, but Kitty she wouldn't give in,
And when he got home to his rockery,
He found she was seated therein
A-polishing up his auld crockery.

Fol-la, etc.

Well, he gave the poor craythur a shake,
And I wish that a garda had caught him,
For he threw her right into the lake,
And she sank right down to the bottom.

Fol-la, etc.


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