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‘Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage’ opens at the National Museum of Ireland

For immediate release: 16 September 2020: The history of one of Ireland’s best-known medieval monastic sites is explored in a new exhibition which opens at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology today.

‘Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage’ features 24 objects, spanning a period of 1,200 years – all of which are being exhibited for the first time. 

Since it was founded by St Kevin in the late 6th century, Glendalough has been a place where people have retreated to seek isolation and healing, making the timing of this as the first new exhibition to open at the National Museum of Ireland since Covid-19 arrived – causing widespread acts of self-isolation on a global level – particularly pertinent.

The iconic relics, forests, mountains and valleys at Glendalough are home to a rich history, and considered to be a place of healing; pilgrimage was one of the few reasons that medieval Irish would have travelled any great distance from home and Glendalough was comparable to visiting Rome for the forgiveness of sins. It was also a stronghold of Gaelic Irish families which made it the scene of a massive political struggle, akin to ‘Game of Thrones’.

Many of the objects on display were discovered as part of UCD-led research archaeological excavations undertaken at Glendalough since the 1950s, and others through discoveries by members of the public or by donation. Collectively, they come together to tell the story of the area down through the ages. 

A bronze coated iron hand-bell, dated to the 8th / 9th century AD, found at a site near Glendalough and recently donated to the National Museum of Ireland by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland Diarmuid Martin on behalf of the diocese, is just one object on display illustrative of the significance placed on particular objects by worshipping pilgrims and clerics. Ironworking evidence from Glendalough suggests that this bell may well have been made at the monastery. Ireland is home to the largest number of handbells in the world, and while hand bells were used to mark regular times for work and prayer, historical sources tell us they were used for banishing evil and cursing people

Exotic objects from distant places reveal the lure of Glendalough, including a tiny cross made of jet originating in north-eastern England discovered in 2017 and thought to have been worn by a pilgrim as a mark of private devotion, which is considered a rare find in an Irish medieval context; and a  fragment of a porphyry tile, a stone quarried in the eastern Mediterranean, which was recovered during the excavation of one of the most remote sites in the Glendalough valley in 1958 and is thought to have been taken from a building in Rome or from a Roman building in Europe and carried back to Glendalough by a cleric and used as a mark of authority.  A late 10th / early 11th century bell, the earliest in Ireland, which was suspended for rope-ringing in a belfry at St Kevin’s Church, is thought to have been imported from England or north-western Europe.

The exhibition also features items such as a shoe from the 10th century which belonged to a pilgrim and which was lost in a bog until it was found by a passer-by and reported to the National Museum of Ireland over a thousand years later; silver coins found as part of a hoard in the 1980s; decorated cloak pins and pottery; and also early railway travel posters and souvenir ceramics from when it became an important tourism destination.

Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin T.D. said; “I am delighted to be at the National Museum of Ireland today to open its first new exhibition since its reopening in July. Our national cultural institutions have and continue to be such a source of solace and inspiration for us all during the last couple of months, in various ways, and it’s wonderful for visitors to the Museum to now have a new exhibition to visit, and of such precious and never before exhibited objects.”

Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral reform, Malcom Noonan T.D. said The monastic site of Glendalough is one of our finest national monuments in the care of the State. Through the work of our Department and our colleagues in the Office of Public Works, the majesty of Glendalough is made accessible to hundreds of thousands of visitors and pilgrims who make their way each year to this place of great solace and beauty. We congratulate our colleagues in the National Museum of Ireland on this wonderful exhibition which will bring the splendour of early medieval Ireland to an even wider audience at a challenging time when heritage has so much to offer to our well-being.’

Chair of the National Museum of Ireland Catherine Heaney said, “So many themes in this exhibition resonate with the times we are living through – isolation, reflection, faith, and the healing qualities of the countryside. Collectively we can take comfort from the endurance of these objects, and of our resilience as a nation through difficult times, past and present.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland Diarmuid Martin said, “Glendalough holds a special place in Irish history and in the history of Christianity. I am delighted that the iron bell we have donated to the National Museum is on display for the first time in this important exhibition, helping to tell the story of Glendalough as a centre of spirituality for centuries.”

Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Lynn Scarff said; “We look forward to welcoming visitors to the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology to see ‘Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage’. This exhibition demonstrates so clearly the connections between our material, natural and cultural heritage and how all these elements are intertwined. One of the few positives of the COVID 19 lockdown period was that people got to explore their immediate environment within 2k of their home and the heritage – be it built or natural on their doorstep. We hope this exhibition shines a light on a very special place in Ireland. We have put a range of measures in place in all our four sites to ensure that people can enjoy a safe and comfortable visit, and the feedback from visitors has been very positive.”

The curator of ‘Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage’ is Matthew Seaver. He is also the Assistant Keeper at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology and, in the past, worked on the UCD-led archaeological excavation of Glendalough. He said; “Local historical and archaeological groups, Wicklow County Council, the National Museum of Ireland, The National Monuments Service, The National Parks and Wildlife Service, The OPW, UCD and The Discovery Programme have collaborated successfully down through the years on the interpretation of the heritage resources at Glendalough. It is through their collective efforts that this exhibition has been made possible and we are grateful to them all for their commitment to conserving the history of this special place.”

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