Self-Beauty in Glendalough

This year, I managed to sneak a quick visit to one of my favourite sites back in Ireland, the beautiful valley of Gleann Dá Loch (Valley of Two lakes), anglicized as Glendalough.

The valley’s always been inhabited although, given the spiel at the local visitor centres and tourist offices, you’d be forgiven for thinking life didn’t exist there until the sixth century when a Christian monastic-style settlement was founded by St. Kevin. Following a particular Christian belief system based around strict reflection and meditation, St. Kevin chose Gleann Dá Loch not only for it’s beauty but for its isolated location. The site would almost certainly have had some tribal importance as well but its isolation certainly made it perfect for the monks to live a quiet life of spiritual reflection.

Over a hundred years later, St Kevin must have been spinning in his grave for by the middle of the seventh century, Glendalough was an enormous and very wealthy monastery. By the eight century, the monastery is believed to have employed almost 1000 laypeople.

In some ways, Glendalough success was also its undoing. As a rich site, it was ripe for plundering and between 775 and 1095 it was raided numerous times, not only by Vikings but by local tribes. Generally each time it was raided, the buildings were set alight which is why you won’t find anything there today that dates from before the 10th century. By the time, English forces left it in ruins (1398), the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin had also been united which meant that from that point onwards, its political and ecclesiastical status were also substantially eroded. By the 18th and 19th century, the site was a religious backwater, famous only for the raucous celebrations held on the 3rd of June (St Kevin’s Day) and otherwise ignored.

I was a bit blown away when I got to Gleann Dá Loch. It had probably been at least twelve years or more since I’d last visited (and even then the place was heaving) but I was genuinely gobsmacked by the sheer volume of buses dumping people off to be flushed through the visitor centre, the monastery, the lakes and of course the tourist shops. The tourism turnover at Glendalough is clearly a well-oiled machine.

Having seen the ruins and the visitor centre years ago, I bypassed all of that, making a dash to escape two busloads of westerners in orange, Oriental style ‘monk’ suits (I was tempted but I didn’t ask!). I was hoping to get to the lake ahead of them and have a minute or two by myself but instead I found it was already occupied by several Asian couples. That didn’t particularly bother me but I was struck by the huge number of them taking selfies with the lake as a backdrop.

It was only as I was walking around the Wicklow hills later that day that I began to understand the significance of what I’d seen. Gleann Dá Loch, like all beautiful scenic spots has always attracted seasonal tourists. That’s no biggie. It’s a simple fact of life and you can always enjoy it’s beauty more selfishly outside the tourist period.

No, I think what had really startled me was the selfies. One hundred years ago, fifty years ago and even twenty years ago, when tourists went to see a famous site of immense beauty they tried to capture that beauty by taking photographs so that they could look on it and enjoy it in years to come. Nowadays, when tourists go to a beauty spot, photographic memories are cheap and instantly downloadable online. As a result, they take photographs of themselves at the tourist spot.

It’s an interesting variant but I’m still not entirely sure what it means or even what it says about us as a species.