A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece about my visit to Fore, an ancient monastic site with a long and varied history stretching right back into the seventh century AD. I’m not normally a fan of Christian sites; I am usually drawn to earlier, older places, but I feel there is something special about Fore, even though there are far grander monastic sites in much better states of repair around Ireland.
On the day I visited, the sun was shining, and as I drove along the valley, breaks in the hedge allowed intriguing glimpses of the the building I was heading for. A raised walkway leads from the car park across the boggy valley floor to the Priory. Across the road lies St Feichin’s Church, and beyond, a short steep climb brings you to the sixteenth-century Anchorite’s Tower, and the nineteenth-century mausoleum of the Nugent family.
Fore also has two holy wells, complete with fairy trees; a columbarium, or dove cote; a mill; a motte and bailey, and two gatehouses which once provided access to the old medieval town. behind the priory, a 3km loop trail has been created, which curves around the rear of the existing village. There is also a small cafe and information centre in the village.
Today, Fore is a bit of a sleepy hollow, but once it was a vibrant and bustling community; over three hundred monks lived at the site, supporting a further two thousand students. By the time the priory was dissolved in 1539, the community had dwindled to only one prior and two monks.
The monastery was originally founded some time in the seventh century by St Feíchin. Several ancient Irish manuscripts mention him, including the annals, and two ‘Lifes’ were written about him. He was born to Lassair, a Munster princess, and studied first with St Nath Í of Achonry, before moving on to Clonmacnoise. His name is thought to mean ‘little raven’ from the Old Irish fiach (raven). As well as Fore, he is credited with founding monastic settlements on Omey Island and Ardgoilén Island in Galway, and is associated with many others, including several in Scotland, too.
There is an interesting legend concerning his death. He died in 665 AD from the plague, but the story goes that the rulers of Ireland at that time, joint high-kings Diarmait Ruanaid and Blathmac, had put out a request to all saints asking them to pray for a plague to afflict the lower classes and so reduce their number. St Feíchin was one of the few who obliged, and as a result, he too was struck down by the plague he had helped create. What goes around comes around…
The name Fore derives from the Irish fobhar, meaning ‘spring’ (as in water, not season). According to legend, when St Feichin chose his site there was no water source in the valley. He struck his staff into the gound, and immediately water began to bubble up and flow through the valley. This was one of the Seven Wonders of Fore, and where the saint built his mill.
the seven wonders of fore
The Monastery Built upon the Bog
The thirteenth century Benedictine Priory is founded on the boggy valley floor, which shouldn’t have been able to support such a structure.
The Mill Without a Race
St Féichín built his mill on a site without flowing water. When he struck his staff into the ground, water began to bubble up and operate the mill.
The Water that Flows Uphill
Apparently, an optical illusion makes the stream brought forth by the saint’s staff appear to flow uphill.
The Tree that Won’t Burn
This was said of an ancient ash tree which stood beside one of the holy wells. Many visitors over the years had hammered coins into its trunk, which is probably responsible for poisoning the tree, sadly long since gone.
The Water that Doesn’t Boil
There are two holy wells at the site. The water has curative properties, and curiously, is reputed to be impossible to boil. Bad fortune comes to he who tries.
The Anchorite In a Stone
Above the church on the hill of Carrick Balor is a fifteenth century tower which covers the anchorite’s cell. The anchorite was a hermit who never left his cell but spent his days in religious devotion. The last hermit to live there was Patrick Beglin, who fell and broke his neck when he tried to leave his cell.
The Lintel Stone Raised by St. Féichin’s Prayers
St Feíchin’s Church is the oldest extant building on the site, dating to the 900s. It’s a simple little building, with a huge lintel above the west doorway, weighing about seven tons, which is decorated with a Greek cross. Legend has it that St Féichín raised it into its position purely by the strength of his prayers.
The remains which we see today are what’s left of the French Benedictine Priory established by Hugh de Lacy, Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath, some time after 1180 AD. During its turbulent history, the site suffered many attacks, caught between the clans of the Gaelic revival and the English on the fringes of the Pale. As Masterson states in his ‘Medieval Fore, County Westmeath’, ‘To the Irish, it [Fore] was English, but to the English, it was French.’ Stuck between a rock, and a hard place, really… It was certainly savaged many, many times, by both sides.
While I was there, I found out from chatting to a local man who was out walking his delightful young puppy, that I could get the key to the mausoleum from a local landlady, which I promptly did. This contains the Nugent family memorial, who were a very powerful Anglo-Irish family in that area. Remember The Black Baron of Ross Castle in Oldcastle, and his poor love-struck daughter, Sabine? Yep, the very same! Also, you can see there the memorial to the last Anchorite, Patrick Beglin, who died in 1616. (An anchorite is a hermit.)
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