Location – Hidden from view in the trees on the south side of the Upper Lake at Glendalough. There is a path that leads to it.
OS: T 11011 96087
Description and History – It took me four visits to Glendalough to actually make it to Reefert Church. On all the other visits the priority was elsewhere, or we simply ran out of time. However, it was worth the wait as this is a lovely little spot and I had it all to myself. It is not far from the Upper Lake, which was absolutely packed out, but it is up a little path and hidden away in the trees and not visible from below, so it gets overlooked.
The name Reefert is unusual and comes from the Irish ríogh fheart, meaning ‘royal cemetery.’ However, this generally means a secular burial ground of pre-Christian origin. This would indicate that this site was long in use before the advent of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th century and the Christianisation of Glendalough by St. Kevin. Traditionally Reefert is believed to have been the burial ground of the chiefs of the O’Tooles who ruled in this area. This could well have been their burial ground before a church was built here. The early 12th century church that is located on the site now is the not the first to have been built here, and the doorway in the western wall reuses stone from this older foundation, and has a large lintel and inclining jambs, typical of earlier churches. The church is of a simple nave and chancel design and was one of the first of type to have been built in Ireland. It is constructed of granite, undecorated, and a little short of 9m long and just over 5m wide at its widest. Internally it was lit with small round-headed windows throughout. External brackets show where the roof was carried.
The graveyard is just as impressive as the church and contains many grave-markers from the 12th century and earlier. Several cross-slabs were found here which are now housed in the visitors’ centre. Several plain crosses remain in-situ, while one is decorated on its head with an interlace pattern. These plain crosses could have been stations for pilgrims. It has been speculated that the graveyard continued from its use as burial ground for chiefs, and was later used for important ecclesiastics. Part of the altar from Reefert survives, and is now located inside St. Kevin’s Church.
Difficulty – Once you know where it is, it is easy to find. You have to follow a gravel path for a short distance and ascend several steps to get into the graveyard.
Date of Visit – 27th July 2023.
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