We spent several weeks in Ireland this summer, and while there, made a special visit to Glendalough, an early Christian monastic site in the Wicklow mountains, about an hour south of Dublin.  Simon Chadwick, my teacher, had alerted me to the significance of the site to harpers and musical history.

Steep, wooded hills enclose the site.

St. Kevin's Church.

The round tower at Glendalough.

Righ Fearta, or burial place of the kings

Apparently, according to the lore, and as described in some Welsh manuscripts, a meeting of Welsh and Irish musicians may have taken place at Glendalough in about 1100 C.E., with the express purpose of establishing “a set of rules to assist the composition, memorization, performance and classification of cerdd dant and to create the 24 musical measures.” (from Harper, Instrumental Music in Medieval Wales.  North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 4:1, 2004).  So what is cerdd dant?  It translates as ‘the art of string,’ meaning it is a set of defined rules.

In any case, whether the gathering actually took place, or whether it was a lovely fiction intended to establish the credentials of cerdd dant, Glendalough is a lush, dramatically situated place to visit.  There are two round towers, one of which is quite low, and is attached to the small St. Kevin’s church.  The other was used, our elderly guide told us, as a lookout and a landmark for signalling to arriving pilgrims coming through the glen.  Situated as it is in a deep cleft in the rugged mountains, I could imagine the relief a visitor would feel to see a glimmer of light shining from a high tower through the murk and mist when arriving after a long journey.

Coming soon:  the marvelous O’Ffogarty harp in Thurles, Co. Tipperary.


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