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11
St. Kevin's Bed

After the cross-country travesty of the day before, we decided that the first thing we would do was to find our Bed and Breakfast. After that we could spend a relaxing day at Glendalough, walking around the lakes.

We found the B&B easily enough, and it was the best of all. Unfortunately, we forgot to take the name and telephone number of the place and the people, so I can only tell you how to drive there:

Turn off the main road (R755) at Laragh. There is a sign for Glendalough and a pub or restaurant called The Silver Tassie at the intersection. Go straight, past the right turn for St. Kevin's Parish Church. Go straight, past the Headless Chef's Restaurant, which you will know by the larger-than-life effigy of a chef without a head. The restaurant used to be known as The Red-Headed Chef's until some hooligans stole the head and hands. The second right turn, which you take, is marked Blessington. A farmhouse will appear right away on your left, and handmade signs identify it as a B&B. This is the place. The rooms are nice, everything is very clean and comfortable, the people are kind and attentive to just the right degree, and there is a very peaceful and healthy atmosphere.

"Glendalough" means glen of the two (da) lakes (loughs), and so, of course, you find two lakes there. The smaller, or lower, lake is pleasant enough, but the real attraction is the upper lake, which is very large. The valley can only be entered from one direction, since the other end, beyond the upper lake, is closed by mountains. Glendalough is famous because it is so beautiful and tranquil, but also because St. Kevin founded a monastery and university city here in the sixth century. The ruins of several churches have been preserved, along with the even more interesting round tower. Glendalough has the best-preserved round tower in Ireland. They are found all over the country, because they were used as a sanctuary in case of invasion or attack.

The ruins are interesting enough, but the upper lake is even better. It's very quiet and tranquil, and you can have a nice walk along the north side of the lake, either on the road or along the water. The lake is one mile long, and a quarter-mile wide, so it is a good walk, down and back. There are no houses or any kind of development or signs or anything on the hills around you.

If you pay attention and watch the other side of the lake, you will see an outcropping of rock. It is the only one; the rest is shrubbery. When you get even with the rocks, you can see a tiny cave that is called St. Kevin's Bed. Look for a sloping rock that almost forms a triangle. You may see a large shadow above this slope, but it is not the cave. There is a much smaller, almost square cave below the slope. This is St. Kevin's Bed, 30 feet above the water.

He actually slept in this cave, but it is not easy to get into. Several people have died in the attempt, and each year a helicopter has to rescue those who've managed to climb in, but not out of the cave. We tried, but couldn't make it.

St. Kevin was a handsome man from a royal Irish family, and was fairly famous and popular, even after he became a monk. He detested his fame, and moved to Glendalough, where he lived in the cave. The cave is an artificial one, carved out of the cliff in prehistoric times as a tomb. Somewhat morbid, admittedly, but at least he had the sense to live in a beautiful place while he mortified his flesh.

People followed him, and he performed all sorts of miracles, and spoke with angels day and night. One person was a very persistent follower: a lovely girl named Kathleen, who was madly in love with him. He once threw nettles in her face, but that didn't stop her. The affair ended one night when St. Kevin was asleep in his cave, dreaming that Kathleen was standing between him and the gates of Heaven. He woke, and she was there, in the bed-like cave with him! He pushed her out, and she fell to her death.

I believe that he misunderstood the dream: what it really indicated was that God had sent her to him, and that he should have taken her into his arms. He had the chance to give Irish Christianity a turn in the right direction, but he didn't take it.

Seeing that his subtle approach had failed, God sent an angel to tell St. Kevin that he was not meant to be a hermit, but that he should move out of the cave and start a monastery. St. Kevin objected, but the angel insisted, and that is how the city of Glendalough began.

We went to Glendalough twice - once before we started our trip around the country, and once at the end. The second time we tried to get into St. Kevin's Bed. I will tell you what happened to us, but you must not take this as a guide, because it is not. I am not recommending that you try to climb into St. Kevin's Bed - in fact, I advise you not to, because it is quite dangerous. As I said before, people have died in the attempt, and every year a helicopter has to rescue those who have entered and been unable to leave the Bed. However, if you must try, you will find the following information useful. Keep in mind that if you go, you go at your own risk: I never told you to do it. I have to emphasize this, because someone is likely to go, try the climb, and - in the best American fashion - kill themselves and sue me for damages. Remember that whatever you do is your own silly idea, and if you break your neck it is your own fault.

When you stand at the bottom of the lake, you will see a small beach, where you are not supposed to swim, but many people do. To your right (to the north side of the lake) there are three stone piers, and a path and a road that run alongside the lake. This is usually where people walk, but we didn't go that way. We went to the left, keeping to the shore, following a very clear path. A few people passed us going back, and a couple of sheep gambolled behind them. This well-walked path soon ends in a drop. Most people turn back here, but we jumped - and you must jump, you cannot drop, because the gap is three or four feet wide, and six feet down. There are no good places to put your feet on either side. After that jump, Mywatt said, "Now we have to go all the way around, because we can't go back that way." She was right, but at another time of year when the water wasn't so cold, it probably would have been best to swim around that point to get back. There may be (though I doubt it) another path back, higher up, but we didn't know at the time how hard it would be to circle the lake.

We followed the path, which was noticeably narrower, until we came to the outcropping of rock. "This is where the cave should be," I said, "but I don't see it." The cliff is very steep, and if you are not careful you will fall straight down. There is no room to move around, and if you are wearing a pack, or if you lean back too far, you will go over. This is exactly the spot on which people have bought the farm, as we say. Some kind soul hung a pair of ropes there, and saved many lives. The rocks are smooth, and you cannot always see where to put your feet.

We sat for a few moments in the the spot that appears as a big shadow on the other side. "This is the slope, the triangular part, that we're sitting on," I said. "The cave has to be somewhere beneath us." But neither of us wanted to dangle from the rope without any idea of where we were going. I decided to swim out and have a look. First, though, I looked around to be sure I wasn't giving anyone a free anatomy lesson.

But the water was cold! I swam out, and caught sight of a shadow on the cliff, but before I could be sure of anything, the cold hit me hard, and I had to get out of the water. So I swam back in a hurry, and quickly dried off and dressed.

We missed it, but at least we'd tried. However, missing it was not anticlimatic. We realized very well how hard it was for St. Kevin, and how hard it was for anyone who tried to follow. "It's so steep," Mywatt said, "he could easily have knocked that woman in by mistake."

Now we thought we would have a pleasant walk along the lake, then return by the road on the north side. But it turned out that our difficulties had only begun.

First we pushed through a rhododendron forest, and unexpected came on a clear area with two old buildings. These are just barely visible from the north side, because they are exactly perpendicular to the line of sight, and are built of the same stone as the mountain behind them. One was the last house and chapel of St. Kevin, where he spent the last seven years of his life, as a hermit once again. There is a stone pier, and a set of stone steps that connect the pier to the buildings, but the pier is completely overgrown, and thus invisible.

After that, the "path" becomes a joke. We realized that it was a path made by sheep, and it was too small for us. The slope of the hill is too steep, and the grass on it was too slick. Each of us fell and almost fell so many times that we made our way with some difficulty down to the water's edge, to walk on the rocks. But this was not much of an improvement, because the rocks are slick, too. At a few points the trail just stops, and you have to climb, and drop a few feet, swing on a tree limb, and trust your life to a big, floppy root.

At one point I dropped to a lower path, and my feet flew out from under me. I fell so heavily I thought my back or arm must have been broken, and believe me, I was astonished that I wasn't hurt!

It never looked as if we had far to go, and we kept congratulating ourselves on being near the end, but it was much further off than it seemed. There is a second sand beach at the far end of the lake, and when we finally reached it, after four hours of walking, we were so glad to be through.

But of course we weren't through. A marsh stood between us and the road, and there was nothing to do but wade through it.

Our clothes, especially our tennis shoes, were muddied and grass-stained. We stopped at the stone piers to wash our feet and shoes, which were really mucky. From there we went to the bar and had a drink. A few people stared at our outfits, but I didn't care. I was feeling pretty strong after that workout, although it was an illusion that didn't last very long. I was sore for the next three days.


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