Calm lakes and midges await the First Lady
A trip to Glendalough is next for Michelle Obama and her daughters
US First Lady Michelle Obama with her daughters Sasha and Malia: having visited Trinity College’s Long Room to view the Book of Kells yesterday, they go to see Glendalough today. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
One caller to the Visitor Centre in the Co Wicklow national park was far from serene yesterday. “It took me 20 minutes to get from the Westbury to Dawson Street,” she complained, irked by security detours surrounding the visit of the US First Lady and her daughters, Malia and Sasha. “It’s ridiculous!”
Eyes of the world
“Well,” said the slightly weary young man who helps run the centre for Heritage Ireland, part of the Office of Public Works, “they do need security and do you not think the country benefits from it, like when the queen came? All the world’s seeing us.”
“No, I don’t,” said the grumpy lady.
And security being, well, security, they were neither confirming nor denying yesterday that a VIP and entourage was going to drop by this morning. “The embassy asked us to say nothing,” said the young man.
Kevin came to Glendalough in the sixth century, looking for peace and quiet. He found it but was soon joined by others, losing his solitude but earning a sainthood for a life lived simply, devoted to God and to learning.
The community he founded helped keep alive knowledge – the scriptures, history, philosophy, mathematics and grammar – by copying on to vellum texts from other centres of Christian learning in England, Scotland and central Europe. The monks endured in Glendalough until the 12th century when, having survived maulings by the Vikings, their community succumbed to a combination of church bureaucracy (Dublin was elevated as one of the country’s four main archbishoprics, swallowing Glendalough in the process) and Anglo-Norman invasion.
Glendalough’s U-shaped, glacier-sculpted valley is as majestic today as when Kevin arrived a millennium and a half ago. But the remoteness is long gone. Kevin’s legacy includes what the OPW calls the Monastic City – the cluster of churches and houses, with their 30m-tall belltower and still-in-use graveyard.
A later legacy includes the ruins of 18th- and 19th-century mining buildings at the head of the valley, beyond the Upper Lake. Here the lucky found galena and garnets in the seam where 400 million years ago, rising molten granite turned shale into schist, and made brassy, yellow pyrites make fools of some.
Today, the valley is a prime tourist destination as well as a place of walking recreation. A lady from Kent wandered in wonderment through the monastic ruins yesterday. “It’s our last day,” she said unhappily, “I’d like to stay longer.”
Irish officials were yesterday fretting about the midges and whether whoever might be visiting today would get eaten alive. There were none apparent at noon yesterday, and Michelle Obama won’t have a real feel for what drew Kevin – and others – to Glendalough if she doesn’t walk at least a little of the valley and feel its grandeur for herself.