St Kevin’s life is not well documented, as no contemporaneous material exists. His Latin vita maintains that he was descended from a royal line and was related to the Dál Messin Corb. He was given the name Cóemgen, which means “gentle one”, was baptised by Cronan, and educated by St Petroc during that saint’s sojourn in Ireland. He lived in solitude at Disert-Cóemgen for seven years, sleeping on a dolmen (now known as “Saint Kevin’s Bed” – from which he reputedly hurled a seductive maiden into the lake below in a determined effort to preserve his chastity) perched on a perilous precipice, that an angel had led him to, and later established a church for his own community at Glendalough. This monastery was to become the parent of several others. Eventually, Glendalough, with its seven churches, became one of the chief pilgrimage destinations in Ireland. His legend says that he lived to the age of 120.
There is a legend which claims that St Laurence O’Toole used the “Saint Kevin’s Bed” as he frequently made penitential visits to Glendalough, especially during the season of Lent. Michael Dwyer, the famous Wicklow rebel, is reputed to have taken shelter in the “bed” while he was on the run from British soldiers. The story goes that he escaped capture one morning by diving into the lake and swimming to the opposite side.
St. Kevin is said to have first lived in Kilnamanagh (church of the monks) in what is modern-day Tallaght, Dublin 24, but moved on to Glendalough in order to avoid the company of his followers, a group of monks who founded a monastery on the site. Locals say that it was his monastery that was demolished by developers in the 1970s when building the housing estate that is there today. St. Kevin’s well is all that remains today as the plot was unsuitable for building. It is now surrounded by a garden kept by locals in the saint’s honour. St. Kevin is today the patron saint of the Kilnamanagh parish.
One of the most widely known poems of the Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney, “St Kevin and the Blackbird”, relates the story of Kevin holding out his hand with trance-like stillness while a blackbird builds a nest in it, lays eggs, the eggs hatch and the chicks fledge.
Photo: Reefert Church Ruins, Glendalough, Co Wicklow