The Irish are known for being gregarious people, friendly and welcoming. We’re known as story tellers, and of course stories need an audience. Even in an impersonal modern world, this is a close-knit society made of communities, where neighbors have known each other for generations. The draw of the local pub isn’t the pints, but the company. Pubs are social hubs. It’s where we gather with friends without putting the burden on anyone to host.
The requirement to stay home and keep distant in light of the Covid 19 pandemic is painful and difficult, however obvious the necessity of it, for most Irish people. Most, that is. But throughout our history, there has always been a strand of society who seek out social distance.
Ireland’s early Christian hermits haven’t received the same attention as other aspects of Celtic Christianity, such as St. Patrick or Celtic Crosses. While ruined monasteries and abbeys draw tourists (in normal times!), the crowds visiting Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains are less aware of its significance as a hermitage. While it was not the only hermitage in Ireland by any means, it is undoubtably the most visited and most popular. Known for its stunning setting and round tower, Glendalough was also the home of St. Kevin during his years as a religious hermit.
St. Kevin, the Hermit of Glendalough
Kevin was born in 498, according to one account, into a noble family in County Wicklow. One of the few surviving stories of his childhood is that a mysterious white cow arrived daily to provide milk for him. He became a priest, and then he felt called to seek God in nature and solitude. That calling inspired him to go to Glendalough and live in solitude in what had been a Bronze Age tomb at the lakeside. In this little cave, he prayed and lived the most simple and minimalist life imaginable. He became known for standing motionless for extended periods of time, so long that birds built nests on his hands and hatched their eggs without him stirring.
For seven years Kevin lived in his tiny cave above the lake. While he appears to have spent most of his time praying and observing nature, he did also begin to attract visitors, spiritual seekers who wanted to learn from him. During Kevin’s time, religious hermits tended to live in very small communities, each monk in his own small cell aside from shared meals and chores. Small communities sprung up around Kevin, and Glendalough became a major spiritual center for a century.
Ireland’s religious hermits were pushed to live more solitary lives not by a dislike of people but by a plague. The Plague of 664 killed many throughout Ireland and Britain. It is unclear exactly what the disease was, perhaps yellow fever or smallpox. But over the 20 to 25 years it came and went in this islands, one of the many effects was to push hermits to become even more reclusive and solitary. In time, of course, it ended. And a new normal came to be, one in which people resumed socializing, gathered together to eat, drink and enjoy music without fear of an invisible disease striking them down.