Fore, County Westmeath is known for the remains of its mediaeval Benedictine abbey, originally founded much earlier by St Féichín, and the seven ancient ‘wonders’ associated with the site. On a slope high above these ruins can be found a former anchorite’s cell that was subsequently used as a mausoleum. In its earlier incarnation, the squat rectangular, two-storey tower dates from the 15th century, but most likely replaced an earlier building on the same spot. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the 17th century the cell was adapted as a resting place for members of the Nugent family, Earls of Westmeath. , In 1867 a descendant, Lady Rosa Greville, commissioned Pugin & Ashlin to design an extension to the building to create a small chancel, the work being executed by Sibthorpe & Son of Dublin.
The Irish saint Féichín is believed to have been born around 585 in County Sligo, descended from a line of chieftains. However he chose a more ascetic existence than his forebears and having studied under another saint, Náth Í of Achonry, he went on to found a succession of churches, including that which eventually became Ballysadare Abbey, County Sligo and Termon Féichín, County Louth. His most famous establishment was at Fore, County Westmeath. Here he built a church on a hill, its western doorway distinguished by a six-foot long, two and a half ton limestone lintel inscribed with a Greek cross. This stone is said to have been too heavy for workmen to lift into place but Féichín was single-handedly able to perform the task after engaging in prayer. The lintel-stone raised by the saint’s prayers is one of the seven Wonders of Fore, of which more anon. It is also said that Féichín attracted many followers so that the community at Fore eventually numbered some 300 monks and 2,000 students. According to the 17th century Annals of the Four Masters Féichín was one of a number of holy men who died after catching a plague raging in Ireland in the year 664.
A particular feature of the site at Fore is the presence of two rag trees. For readers unfamiliar with this phenomenon, rag trees are likely to be a remnant of some pre-Christian practice. They are often found next to a holy well and are Whitethorns. Pilgrims come to pray at the well and, having dipped a strip of cloth into the water, will tie it to the tree, the idea being that as the rag rots away, so the wish – be it relief from a medical condition or an improvement in personal circumstances – will come to pass. The rag trees at Fore are Ash. The first of them is beside a well known as Tobernacogany (from the Irish meaning ‘Well of the Kitchen’ and thus perhaps in some way associated with the adjacent former monastery) and the original tree had three branches growing over the water. The custom in this instance was for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark and hope their prayers would be answered. It appears that ultimately the plant suffered from metal poisoning and died, but one branch survived and this is now loaded with rags and bits of cloth. Two of the other Wonders of Fore were associated with this spot: it was claimed wood from the tree would not burn, and water from the well – traditionally drunk as a cure for head- and toothache – would not boil. The second rag tree is closer to the ruins of the abbey. Known as Doaghfeighin it stands within a box-like structure built of large stone (the name means Féichín’s vat or bath). The well is now dry but was believed to have marked the spot where the saint, in an act of mortification to the flesh, would kneel in prayer. Delicate children were dipped into the well while prayers were said to Féichín. Though the water has gone, the habit of attaching rags to the tree remains.
Three of Fore’s seven ancient wonders have already been mentioned. Of the four remaining, the first is called The Monastery Built upon the Bog, and refers to the medieval abbey which was located in a boggy valley created by water flowing from Lough Lene. Much of this land has since been drained so it is no longer possible to appreciate how the building must once have appeared. The second wonder was the Mill without a Stream. There used to be a mill here, even though no water ran through the site. Instead it was powered by a number of springs and wells that bubble up in the vicinity: the ancient legend was that Féichín, after founding his establishment, caused the water to appear by striking the ground with his staff. The mill continued to operate until the last quarter of the 19th century. The third wonder was the Water that Flows Uphill, an optical illusion occurring when the water supposedly summoned by Féichín turns back on itself and therefore appears to climb upward. Finally mention must be made of the remaining wonder, the Anchorite in a Stone. This refers to a 15th century tower once occupied by hermits but subsequently transformed into a mausoleum for the Earls of Westmeath. The last hermit to live here was the 17th century Patrick Beglin who having entered his cell never left, relying on food and water brought to him by locals. Beglin died after taking a tumble on the premises and so fulfilled his vow never to leave the cell alive.
The foundation established by Féichín was attacked and burnt no less than a dozen times between 771 and 1169, and the site underwent regular rebuilding. The monastic remains seen in the valley today are a Norman creation, established at the end of the 12th century by Hugh de Lacy who had seized this part of the country. He chose the site for a community of Benedictine monks associated with the Abbey of St Taurin in Evreux: thus it now became the Abbey of SS. Taurin and Féichín, endowed by Hugh de Lacy’s son Walter and completed around 1220. With its strong fortified towers, the monastery looks as much like a castle as a religious establishment. This is owing to the struggles between France and England during the Hundred Years War when Fore’s links with Evreux left it deemed ‘alien property’ and vulnerable to attack. Such remained the case even after the monastery broke its overseas ties, the native Irish now becoming the enemy. As a result, in the fifteenth century gates and walls were constructed around the town that had sprung up beside the abbey, and successive priors added two bulky battlemented towers to the complex. But they were to no avail in the following century when all monasteries were dissolved and their occupants scattered. The lands of Fore were granted to Sir Christopher Nugent, sixth Baron Delvin whose descendants would later turn the old anchorite’s cell into a mausoleum. Fore fell into ruin, until a programme of restoration begun in the early part of the last century.
On the northern side of the chancel arch in the ruins of St Fechin’s Church, County Westmeath can be found a carving of a seated monk, hands resting on his knees as he grins contentedly at the world. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes you will enjoy as much seasonal cheer as this little fellow.