A 6th-century solution for Ireland's stressed-out execs

A Catholic priest is refurbishing ancient hermit 'cells' for those seeking spiritual side to modern life.

Glendalough, in Ireland's County Wicklow, is a place that stands out in a country renowned for scenic greenery.

The county has long been known as "the garden of Ireland."

And according to legend, Glendalough, surrounded by mountains and twin lakes, was chosen by the 6th-century Saint Kevin and his followers as the site for a monastic settlement due to its almost palpable sense of peace and tranquillity.

The name comes from the Gaelic Gleann Da Locha, and translates as, "valley of the two lakes."

Historians estimate that 1,000 monks and 3,000 students were based at this rural location, one of the oldest monastic sites in Europe.

The monks left about 500 years ago, but the remains of the settlement - a cathedral, decorated stone crosses, and a 100-foot round tower - still recall their presence and capture the imaginations of visitors.

More than 1 million people came to Glendalough last year, according to the local tourist board. The Rev. Sean O'Toole, a local Catholic priest, hopes to attract even more guests by re-creating the hermit-like existence of the monks of ancient times.

To mark the millennium, Glendalough received $300,000 from the Irish government's Y2K committee to create a meditation garden.

Fr. O'Toole is spending some of the money reviving the living conditions of the monks. Work on the first five one-room hermitages has just started. Around 50 should be ready by next year.

O'Toole is hoping to tap into the stresses and strains of life in the so-called "Celtic Tiger."

"People need to get away from it all," he says.

Once one of the poor nations of Europe, Ireland has enjoyed annual double-digit growth and full employment over the past five years.

And while inflation surged above 6 percent in July, that didn't keep the International Monetary Fund from giving a high rating to Ireland's performance in an assessment two weeks ago.

Mary Harney, the deputy prime minister, recently declared, "the country is awash with cash."

Consumer spending hit $48 billion last year - a 50 percent increase from 1990. And so far, car sales are up 50 percent over last year.

But Ireland's strong growth has not come without a cost.

Sheila O'Flanagan, an investment banker and novelist, sees signs of the pressure. "Now, when people go on holiday, they usually leave their mobile number with someone in the office. It's disconcerting to be sitting by the pool and listening to someone freaking out on the mobile because the consignment from Stockholm didn't arrive when it was supposed to. But I witnessed it last year."

With people looking for ways to soothe the stresses of contemporary living, O'Toole wants Glendalough to regain its position as a place of retreat, where people can pursue quiet and contemplative thought.

The hermit cells offer none of the benefits of the fast-paced nearby Dublin. On the banned list: televisions, radios, and mobile phones.

The Internet and e-mail also will be left behind.

"People can book into the hermitages, they get a key and the place becomes theirs. They can pray, read, and sleep," O'Toole says. "The cells will be fairly austere."

Visitors of all faiths - and none - are welcome, he adds, and may set their own routine. There will be no call to formal prayer or other features of an organized monastic existence.

Spirituality, rather than religion, is being stressed.

"It won't be regimented like in the time of the monks," O'Toole says.

While the cells are being modeled on the originals of 1,500 years ago, there are some concessions to modern times. The cells will be heated, for instance, and shower and bathroom facilities will be available.

It won't be a substitute for a holiday in the sun, O'Toole concedes, but the hope is that Glendalough will become a place where men and women can take a short-term break from modern life.

If demand takes off, O'Toole and his parish colleagues plan to build more hermitages next year to ease the strains of what are called, "the cubs of the Celtic Tiger."

Booking calls are already coming in. A local newspaper speculated that "the location, less than an hour's drive from Dublin, makes it ideal for young executives seeking solitude."

Liam Kelly, a public relations executive in the capital, says he "would like to experience a weekend there."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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